Learning by Helping

Sunny Zeng '14 (second from right) presents her group's research on entrepreneurship programming at the WFI. Also pictured (left to right): Elizabeth Frost '15, Mingjia Chen '15, Ellen Pizzuto '14 and Wendy Ramirez '16.

One of the best ways to prepare students for life after college is by providing them with mentorship, training and hands-on experience.

That mission is at the core of two Smith programs, the Phoebe Reese Lewis Leadership Program and the Center for Women and Financial Independence (WFI), which recently collaborated to evaluate strategies for increasing student participation.

“The WFI is a natural fit for us,” says Nancy Whittier, professor of sociology and director of the Lewis Leadership Program, “because there is some overlap in the kinds of work that WFI does and the kind of work we do in the leadership program in terms of helping students bridge what they’re learning in the classroom and what they’re going to do after they leave Smith.”

The two-year Lewis Leadership Program, which was launched in 1993, offers four weeks of training during two successive two-week sessions in January. Students in the first January session take up a Smith-related policy question while participants in the second year collaborate with nonprofit organizations and programs—such as the WFI, and local organizations like the Literacy Project and the Interfaith Cot Shelter—to analyze operating structures and prepare recommendations for improvement.

This year’s second-year Lewis Program participants worked with the WFI on finding ways for the center to broaden its connections with students and alumnae.

Launched as a program in 2001, the WFI became a permanent center at Smith in 2011, with the aim “to enable Smith students to manage their own financial well-being, as well as to contribute to that of their families and communities,” according to the center’s website.

Ellie Frost ’15, a Lewis Program participant this January, worked with a group focused on financial literacy. “Our big question is how do we appeal and connect to young college students who might not yet realize the necessity of general financial literacy in the real world,” she says.

According to Elizabeth Roberts, assistant director of the WFI, the center’s programming has grown during the past two years. “Student outreach is key to the success of all of our events and programming,” she says. “We are particularly interested in the Lewis Leadership Program students’ evaluation of our current marketing and messaging in addition to their ideas and insights for how to expand our efforts to reach more students.”

Lewis Program students work in three teams, each led by a Smith staff member with relevant expertise, to propose answers and meet with organization members, as well as others with useful experience or perspectives. The students then formulate their recommendations and make a final presentation.

“What has been most interesting to me has been exploring the marketing and development of [the WFI] programs,” Frost says. “Our recommendations range from developing marketing and publicity strategies to implementing feedback surveys and examining each program’s curriculum and potential expansion.”

According to Whittier, the decision to work with a Smith program, rather than an off-campus organization, arose directly from students’ success last year.

“Last year they worked with the Global Studies Center [now the Lewis Global Studies Center] and it was such a great experience for both the center and the students,” Whittier says. “The students had the background knowledge already about Smith and so they were able to offer very useful material to the GSC, and many of their recommendations were implemented.”

Last year’s program was so successful, in fact, that students were invited back to the GSC several months later to make a presentation to a group of alumnae and other members of the Smith community.

When Whittier proposed a collaboration with the WFI, the Center was immediately interested, she says. The challenge was figuring out what to focus on.

“When we work with organizations that are struggling,” Whittier says, “it’s easier to figure out the scope of the project. It’s clear they need to figure out better ways of organizing and managing volunteers, or they really need a funding stream, or they have no social media presence. But the WFI works really well. It’s a very functional organization, it’s pretty well resourced, so figuring out the questions was a little more complicated. We had a couple of meetings to brainstorm, and really developed the questions out of that.”

“Core to both LLP and WFI missions,” Roberts says, “are to teach students practical life skills applicable to their work and business careers.”

Judging from students’ responses, the approach is working. According to Ellen Pizzuto ‘14, “The program basically gives you the tools, and then it helps you to use them effectively in your own way, how you want to… to make a difference in the world. ”