I am a journalist. When I sit down to work, whether I’m pitching an idea to a new magazine or writing an article for a favorite editor, I feel that familiar fog of inadequacy settle in. Then, my mind travels back to my senior year, and I see my English professor Patricia Skarda stare me down from behind her desk in Seelye Hall (the line of students outside her door finally gone on a late midwinter afternoon), and I hear her ask: “Lindsey, what do you think?”
Miss Skarda, as she preferred to be called, was advising my honors thesis on the British author Thomas Hardy, and we were stuck—mainly because I kept coming back to her with ideas by other scholars. I kept trying to provide the right answer, but Professor Skarda wanted me to try out a new answer. As she pressed this question, with the twilight hours pushing pink and purple across the sky behind her corner office, I was perfectly speechless.
Over 10 years of writing since, I’ve found that one of the most important tools I need is a backbone soft enough to listen to criticism, and strong enough to keep on going. I need to be able to face the daily rejection of editors who don’t like my story ideas or copy editors who cut my favorite words. More important than my laptop or cellphone is my belief that I have something worth saying. This is the kind of lasting gift that the best of professors can give. Pat gave it to me tied with a ribbon.
As her student, I strove to prove myself worthy of her already high estimation of me. I left my declared, half-done biology major to keep taking classes from her and from the other “great minds” she pointed me to. After I presented my senior thesis, she presented me with chilled Champagne at her house next to campus. A couple of years later, I moved across the country to take a shot at writing for a national publication; I ultimately became the assistant managing editor for Architect magazine and then the monthly shopping columnist for The Washington Post. She taught me how to network.
She celebrated every internship and job and article I shared with her. She always knew I could do it, even when I didn’t.
Our relationship grew beyond the academic and aspirational because Pat let me into her life, and I let her into mine. My friends will never forget when she came to my 21st birthday at Packards Bar wearing a feather boa—her wit, our entertainment. In 2006, after I moved back home to Seattle, she attended a fellow Smithie’s wedding nearby and stayed with my family.
During that visit, my grandfather fell ill for the last time and she came with us to hold his hand. At the assisted-living facility, she looked into my mom’s eyes, just like she had looked into mine, and told her she needed to say goodbye.
When I attended Pat’s memorial at Smith two years ago, I was surprised by how many students stood up to testify to how Pat changed their careers and lives, too. She saw the talent and the heart of students who didn’t believe in themselves. I still grieve her loss—I didn’t get to say goodbye—but it cheers me to know that a group of us still hear her many priceless quips in our heads.
At Smith, many relationships between professors and students become like ours, those of mentor and mentee. Some mentors become colleagues, and even friends. Read on for five stories of the life-changing connections, forged at Smith, between professor and student.