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A History of Engagement: Smith Plays an Active Part on the World Stage

By Eric Goldscheider

Sidebar: From Combat Readiness to Combat Stress

Sidebar: Despair in War-Torn France Eased After Smith Women Arrived in 1917

Sidebar: Smith Influence Extends Worldwide

Whether it is shining a spotlight by using the Internet as a key tool to direct the world’s gaze to the genocide in Darfur, studying the horrors visited upon communities in Uganda resulting from the abduction and conscription of child soldiers, or attending to the mental health needs of disaster victims, Smith College faculty have a long tradition of engagement with the world’s conflict and crisis zones. Students too are deeply involved in global affairs in such ways as showing the connections between coffee production in Nicaragua and the legacy of landmines and educating themselves to bring enlightened leadership to their home countries.

Eric Reeves, professor of English language and literature, received substantial praise from New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof two years ago for sounding a clarion call to the world community to end the genocide in Western Sudan. In March, Smith recognized Reeves’ work on Darfur with an honorary degree. Photo by Jim Gipe.

New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof had good reason to devote the majority of an effusive column two years ago on the “Heroes of Darfur” to Smith College English professor C. Eric Reeves. It’s not only that the scholar of Renaissance literature has established himself as one of the most tenacious, eloquent and best-informed analysts of the horrific events in Western Sudan. It is that Reeves was the first person to call the crisis a “genocide” in a major publication (the Washington Post’s op-ed page) in describing what much of the world now recognizes as a determined effort to systematically slaughter an entire people.

Kristof’s praise of Reeves for delving headlong into a crisis -- one that, in the late 1990s, few had heard of -- cuts to an essential question of the human condition. All those who claim to be moral must at some point grapple with where they draw their personal lines when it comes to looking away from or alternatively confronting evil. Kristof’s column encapsulated Reeves’s commitment like this:

“Perhaps the most striking distinction in the history of genocide is not between those who murder and those who don’t, but between “bystanders” who avert their eyes and “upstanders” who speak out. Professor Reeves has been a full-time upstander on Sudan since 1999.”

Smith’s history and identity as a college of and for the world goes back to the 1930s when totalitarianism swept into Italy and Germany. As the murderous intentions of the Nazis came incrementally into focus, William Allan Neilson, the college’s third president, was among those who spoke up. According to a profile published several years ago by Peter Rose, Sophia Smith Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology, Neilson addressed a mass meeting in Northampton in the wake of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and shops were ransacked throughout Germany on November 9, 1938. “I will not stand by and be silent,” Neilson told the gathering “I cannot be contemporary with these events and have it said by my children that I lived through that and did nothing about it.”

Neilson’s actions going back to the early 1930s, when dissident intellectuals in central Europe began to be persecuted, matched his rhetoric. According to Rose, Neilson was instrumental in shaping the mission of the Emergency Rescue Committee, an organization credited with saving 2,000 artists and writers. He was also a founding member of the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German [later changed to Foreign] Scholars. He used his position as president to ease the way for several antifascists, some of whom became permanent faculty, to find physical as well as intellectual refuge at Smith.

During his presidency from 1917 to 1939, Neilson promoted an agenda that set the tone for an internationalist orientation at Smith. He supported women who set up a Smith College Relief Unit in the Chateau de Grécourt in France during the First World War where they provided help to the civilians of a battered community. In 1925 Neilson established the country’s second junior year abroad program, under which 32 students went to Paris.

Today, Smith not only sends nearly half of the junior class out into the world to study abroad but also brings women from around the world to Northampton, enrolling 203 students from 70 countries, accounting for 8 percent of the student body.

Keeping watch on world trouble spots

Our commitment is really significant and the word is out there” that Smith actively seeks out international students, says Karen Kristof ’87, senior associate director of admission and no relation to the columnist. The college not only recruits students abroad but is also on a directory of institutions that give financial aid to people from around the world; says Kristof, “we are always in a very prominent place on that list among liberal arts colleges.” Among her duties is to administer a scholarship at Smith made possible by the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation reserved for first-generation college students from developing countries who are committed to returning home after pursuing studies in engineering and the sciences at Smith.

Given the broad geographical distribution of international students, there are always some from parts of the world that are in turmoil. Karen Kristof recently received an e-mail from an applicant asking that her essay be held in strict confidence because of the political repercussions it could have for her. This year the Smith community has been especially sensitive to the emotional stress several Kenyan students on campus are feeling due to the upheaval in that East African country. One is sophomore class president Margaret Mongare ’10 whose single mother and younger brother live in Nairobi, the capital.

“I want to be somebody who can make a difference,” says Margaret Mongare ’10 of Nairobi, at right. Priscah Chemeli Cheruiyot ’10, from Kenya, is hoping to someday fill a need for actuarial scientists in her country’s insurance industry. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Mongare, a premed student who plans to enroll in an M.D.- Ph.D. program after graduating, exemplifies the talents and aspirations of many international students. “I want to be somebody who can make a difference,” says Mongare. “I feel personally obliged to learn as much as I can and inform myself and go back and really, really make a difference.” Noting that the colonial era in Africa ended only 40 years ago, Mongare says, “we are a very young community.” She wants to be a health care leader in Kenya some day, explaining, “by health care I don’t mean just giving people medicine, but to look for holistic approaches that get food and clean water” to those in dire need. It grieves Mongare that in parts of her country people have to walk as much as ten kilometers to get treated for malaria.

Recently Mongare received word that she was one of 16 students selected from 27 campuses across the United States to be a 2008 U.S. Goldman Sachs Global Leader through the New York-based Institute of International Education. The students were recognized for their achievements at a luncheon at Goldman Sachs in April.

Her experience in student government adds a significant dimension to Mongare’s education. “It has made me a confident leader,” she says. “Now I am looking for a new face of Africa and to be part of the team that will steer Africa ahead and lead us to reach our potential.”

Priscah Chemeli Cheruiyot ’10, a mathematics major who is also from Kenya, is looking forward to someday help fill the need for actuarial scientists in her country’s insurance industry. Cheruiyot is critical of how the current generation of politicians in Kenya has “practically divided the country,” prompting her to want to help develop institutions that address conflict by building cohesiveness.

When Aubrey Menard ’08 traveled to Nicaragua earlier this year, she was shocked by the suffering of those farmers who had lost limbs to landmines. This spring she organized an exhibit in Neilson Library of photographs of the Central American victims. Photo by Jim Gipe.

Americans like Aubrey Menard ’08, a transfer student who grew up in Western Massachusetts, also demonstrate the dedication within the campus community to confront rather than look away from strife in the world. A high school history teacher introduced her to the Polus Center, an organization that started sending prosthetics to Nicaragua in 1997 to aid victims who lost limbs to landmines. The program has expanded to include other coffee-producing countries, Menard explains, stemming from the inadequately understood ways in which combatants have used landmines to interfere with agricultural output and hurt economic production.

Menard, who was able to travel to Nicaragua for the first time earlier this year with support from Smith in the form of the Ruth Dietrich Tuttle Prize, was shocked not only by the suffering of those maimed by landmines but also by the pervasive discrimination against people with disabilities. This winter Menard, whose future plans include graduate study of democratic transitions in countries that composed the former Soviet Union, organized an exhibit of photos of Central American victims of landmines. The show, on display in the Book Arts Gallery in Neilson Library, was called “Step by Step: Photographs From Walking Unidos.”

Working in crisis zones

Several faculty members have focused their academic careers on the world’s crisis zones and in the process become personally committed to responding to the malevolence they encounter. Joanne Corbin, an associate professor in the School for Social Work, went to northern Uganda in 2005 to pursue an interest in how mental health is understood cross culturally. The pull was the phenomenon of armed rebels abducting children and forcibly training them to take up arms and often commit atrocities against their own people. As the fighting, which peaked in the mid 1990s, abated, Corbin wanted to know what was happening to the child soldiers once they returned to their communities.

Joanne Corbin, a faculty member in the School for Social Work, has made several trips to northern Uganda to train counselors there who work with children and families affected by the country’s 20-year civil war. Photo by Jim Gipe.

“I spent five or six weeks just walking,” says Corbin of that trip, “I did community assessments, walking up and down streets, talking to agency directors, gathering information from local and international NGOs and people working in the internally displaced persons camps, talking with children who had been abducted, just gathering information from anything and everywhere.”

Corbin returned to Uganda twice, the second time to present her findings. “The community was surprised to get a report back -- they had never actually had one,” Corbin recalled. “They said, ‘nobody has ever actually come back to tell us what they found.’” She is in Uganda again this spring conducting psychosocial training with practitioners operating in the affected communities. The five internally displaced persons camps, with populations ranging from 4,000 to close to 25,000, are disbanding and the central government is helping the inhabitants resettle in their home areas, according to Corbin.

Her work has led her to understand in a visceral way that the traumas of war aren’t easily healed. The pain extends beyond those directly afflicted, and the work of restoring psychic equanimity is bigger than treating individuals. The conflict in Uganda “broke down village and clan structures,” says Corbin. “It mixed villages and communities, thereby tearing apart traditional networks.”

As a teacher, Corbin also wants to share her insights. “I’m very interested in having students who want to learn about this work or be a part of the research,” she says.

Responding to the trauma of disasters

Joshua Miller, also a professor in the School for Social Work, accompanied Corbin on one of her trips to Uganda because of his interest and expertise in addressing the mental health issues of communities struggling to rebuild in the aftermath of violent disruption. Before going into academia, Miller was a family therapist and community organizer for two decades. Now he takes his skills to places like Sri Lanka, where he went in the wake of the cataclysmic tsunami at the end of 2004. He used a sabbatical leave to spend two months on the island to do psychosocial training under the auspices of a small nongovernmental organization called the Centre for Peacebuilding and Reconciliation. “What became clear when I was there,” he notes, “is that you couldn’t separate out the impact of the civil war that’s going on from the impact of the tsunami when you are trying to look at psycho-social needs.”

Joshua Miller. Photo by Jim Gipe.

In his international work Miller is very mindful that Eurocentric mental health and psychotherapeutic models may not always be appropriate. “We have to get into a dialogue with people about their own traditions and their own cultural practices,” says Miller, “because a disaster doesn’t just create trauma in individuals. It rips apart villages and societies and undermines entire cultures.” Among the tasks Sri Lankans asked Miller to engage in was to help find ways “to counsel people who lost children in the tsunami so they don’t kill themselves,” he says.

These kinds of challenges have taught Miller that he can’t rely solely on his Western training, he says. Americans need to think about “how people from our country, trained in disaster and mental health, can make any kind of contribution to international disasters without imposing a neo-colonial agenda.” He is working on a book that asks these types of questions. “There is a role for outsiders,” Miller maintains, “but there is a tension and balance between having outsiders come in who have skills and resources, while also not imposing their agenda on local people.”

Miller teaches a social work course each summer on mental health responses to disasters. “I always try to make sure that there is a real-world part of anything I do,” he says, “and that there is an academic part where I am teaching and that there is the scholarly part where I’m conceptualizing and writing about it.”

Answering a call to speak out

In addition to the individual commitments that students and faculty at Smith make to facing and engaging with the exigencies of crisis and conflict zones around the world, the college has a deeply ingrained tradition of providing institutional support to individuals who feel the call to stand up and speak out.

In March, Smith recognized Eric Reeves’ work on Darfur with an honorary degree in a ceremony presided over by Smith President Carol T. Christ and followed by a panel discussion of leading authorities, “Perspectives on the Darfur Genocide.”

Reeves, professor of English language and literature, who has been the subject of dozens of news stories and profiles, has been battling leukemia for the past five years in addition to sounding a clarion call to the world community to end the genocide in Western Sudan. As part of his advocacy, he has written dozens of articles and a book (A Long Day’s Dying: Critical Moments in the Darfur Genocide), testified before the United States Congress, given countless interviews, read every available document on the subject, built and nurtured a network of informants and maintained a Web site notable not only for the volume of its postings but for the passion with which he presents tightly reasoned and thoroughly sourced material.

Reeves recently began a 4,500-word post with an admonition that, “the international community seems unable to comprehend the overwhelming urgency of the security crisis for civilians and humanitarians north of el-Geneina in West Darfur.” He branded this summer’s games in Beijing the “genocide Olympics” because of China’s ongoing material and diplomatic support of the Sudanese government. Reeves also warned against any sense of complacency emanating from the increased attention the crisis in Darfur is now receiving. “[D]espite glib skepticism, genocide proceeds apace in Darfur,” he wrote, “if now with different patterns, the means are too often terrifyingly familiar.”

Commenting on his often lonely crusade and the toll it has taken on his personal and professional life, Reeves recently said, “The honorary degree really feels as if it is a moment for me to say to Smith as a community that I’ve missed you, it’s been difficult and I’m very glad to be here to tell you that this is a place that has meant an enormous amount to me. So this honoring is particularly meaningful. It’s Smith saying to me, ‘We know where you’ve been.’”

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