During her first few days at Smith in 2009, Glendean Hamilton ’13 remembers feeling anxious about a number of things.
“Would I able able to find my classes?” Hamilton recalls wondering. “Would the work be too hard? And where would I get my hair done?”
That last worry sparked laughter from an audience of first-year students Hamilton spoke with on August 23 as part of this year’s Bridge Pre-Orientation Program for students of color.
In a packed classroom at Ford Hall, Hamilton—now a research associate at an education foundation—offered advice and reflections about her time at Smith to 60 students participating in the weeklong program hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
The Bridge Program, launched in 1970 as a support network for African-American students entering Smith, has since expanded to include students of all racial backgrounds who are interested in multicultural leadership and finding mentors, friends and resources. Through academic seminars with faculty and student-led workshops and activities, the program helps welcome new students to the larger Smith community.
Hamilton, a Bronx native and the first in her family to graduate from college, signed up for Bridge when she entered Smith—a decision she’s still grateful for today. It wasn’t just the seminars on college life that made a difference, Hamilton said, it was the friendships the program made possible from the start.
“It really set me up for success,” Hamilton told her rapt audience at Ford. “When I met my Bridge class I realized: I am not alone in my fears.”
“Not everyone in Bridge is my best friend,” she added. “But they’re all my Bridge sisters.”
In a brief slideshow of her years at Smith, Hamilton offered glimpses of house life on the Quad, all-night study sessions, dressing in college colors for Ivy Day and celebrating at Commencement.
She also talked about her experiences switching majors from biology to government and education, setting up an off-campus teaching internship and becoming a leader in the Black Students Alliance.
Although starting college can be daunting, Hamilton said new students can find the support they need at Smith.
“That girl, what she struggled to overcome is what I still walk with today,” Hamilton said, pointing to the onscreen image of her younger self. “I defied the odds in being here and in graduating. You can too.”
Questions from the audience came thick and fast: How did Hamilton arrange her internship? How did she know when it was right to switch majors? What clubs and organizations did she join? Did she date during her time at Smith?
Answering a query about coursework, Hamilton described a paper she wrote early on that netted a grade of C-minus. After swallowing her pride and talking with her professor, she rewrote the paper and earned an A—as she did for all of her subsequent papers for that class.
“Smith is hard, but it’s a good hard,” Hamilton said. “People want more of you because they know there’s more in you.”
“As women and as women of color, you’re going to have to reach a bit farther sometimes,” she added. “Build great relationships with your major and minor advisers. My major adviser is like my life adviser!”
Since graduating, Hamilton said she has continued to rely on her Smith networks—evoking laughter when she described the college career center’s contacts as “binders full of women.”
After a stint as a sixth grade teacher in Lawrence, Mass., with Teach for America, Hamilton recently began a new job as a research and evaluation associate at the Nellie Mae Education Foundation in Quincy, Mass. She is also an education policy and field fellow with the Steve Grossman for Governor campaign and a board member of the Smith College Club of Cambridge.
Hamilton urged first-year students to stay open to possibilities during their time at Smith.
“Don’t feel boxed in,” she said. “Ask yourself what really interests you. Sample and experience. Remember, networking is critical.”
Bridge participant Nicole De La Torre, who hails from San Ysidro, Calif., said she found Hamilton’s advice reassuring.
“More than anything, I felt a sense of, things will be OK,” De La Torre said. “I resonated with what she said about being from the Bronx. I’m also the only girl from my community ever to come to Smith. If she can do it, I can do it.”
Ava Busto Schiff, a first year from Brooklyn, responded to Hamilton’s message this way: “Listening to you makes me want to have you as part of my network,” Schiff said at the end of the session. “How do we get in touch with you?”
“Yay!” Hamilton said, clapping her hands in approval before writing her contact information on the board. “I’m going to share this with everyone.”