Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Fall 2004
My favorite Smith tradition is Ivy Day. When I watch the parade of alumnae, from the oldest classes—this past year two members of the class of 1929 led the parade—to the seniors about to graduate the next day, I see before me the living history of the college. This past Ivy Day gave particular cause for celebration, for, along with honoring its Reunion classes, Smith was graduating its first class of engineers. In combining time-honored tradition and our newest academic innovation, the parade led me to reflect more generally on the relationship between tradition and change at Smith.
The most powerfully moving experiences at Smith arise from its traditions, for, like Ivy Day, they enable us to feel that we are members of a community across time. Like students in 1929, or 1939, or 1954, or 1994, we assemble for convocation, we celebrate Mountain Day, we gather for Friday afternoon tea, we celebrate Ivy Day, we watch the sophomores push the seniors off the steps of Neilson Library. Yet some traditions fall by the wayside, as the college adapts to the needs of today's students. We no longer assemble for chapel daily, or even weekly; we no longer have housemothers, parietal rules, or rope-climbing tests.
All colleges must remain faithful to the core of their identity and mission, while staying relevant to the needs of the current generation. Sophia Smith anticipated this balance in her will; to the list of subjects that she directed her college to teach, she added the phrase "such other studies as coming times may develop or demand for education of women and the progress of the race." Engineering is an excellent example of such a study; it is an innovation, to be sure, but it fulfills Smith's broader mission of enhancing women's ability to lead rewarding lives and to contribute to the world they enter upon graduation.
What is at the heart of a Smith education, in the broadest sense, should never change. The ideals that inspired Sophia Smith to found the college that bears her name are as relevant now as they were in 1870, when she wrote her will—the desire to furnish for her own sex means and facilities for the higher education of young women, equal to those afforded to young men, in order to increase their power for good. Smith's founders had the vision to develop distinctive features for the college that remain at the core of Smith today—among them, the house system, the museum as a basis for the study of art, the design of the landscape.
Yet the college also has a long history of innovation. Smith College students played the first women's basketball game; Smith offered the second education abroad program in the United States; the Ada Comstock Scholars Program was the first college program to offer older women the opportunity to resume their education. In recent years, Smith has created the Praxis internship program, founded the Center for Women and Financial Independence, and, of course, established the engineering program, the first ever at a women's college. To stay attractive to the best students, we must be willing to consider changes responsive to their needs, but this is also, paradoxically, the way to maintain our core mission. The heart of the college—the heart that connects the alumna of the class of 1929 to the young graduate of 2004—should never change, even while we build a Campus Center, or offer a vegan dining option at 7:30 in the evening, or consider the educational challenges of the twenty-first century.
Two remarkable archives on campus embody the relationship between tradition and change: the Sophia Smith Collection, documenting the history of women, and the College Archive, documenting the history of Smith. Since I arrived at Smith, I have become an enthusiastic scholar of its history, often visiting the archives to better understand how various traditions and characteristics of the college have evolved. That history is a precious resource, for it embodies the combination of fidelity to the past and innovation that marks a truly great institution.