Carol T. Christ, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Summer 2007
Just weeks ago, the 670 members of the class of 2007 set off to write the next chapter in the story of their lives. If past patterns hold, nearly 70 percent will head fairly directly to the workplace, pursuing careers in business, science and technology, and education—the leading fields among our students today—as well as in health care and human services, communications, law, arts, and government. Within five years, nearly 70 percent will enter graduate and professional programs, en route to leadership in their fields.
Smith graduates are strongly positioned for the typical measures of success. In addition to rigorous study in their majors, nearly 60 percent have had significant immersion in another country, often developing near-fluency in a second (or third) language and culture. Some 65 percent have gained career experience and mentoring connections, in the United States and abroad, through Smith's Praxis internship program.
Judging by the statistics, it's tempting to assume that the stage is fully set, the life put in motion, the results predictable. But that assumption would ignore a fundamental element of Smith's identity and mission. Smith is a women's college, and women today, particularly young women, are seeking to rewrite and expand conventional narratives of success.
I'm sure many of you read a front–page story this past spring in the New York Times that captured the anxieties of several high school seniors at the peak of their college-application process. Headlined "For Girls, It's Be Yourself and Be Perfect, Too," the story showcased young women of formidable achievement who were struggling to reconcile society's definitions of success with their own. While they understood that a rewarding life is defined by far more than class rank or SAT scores, salaries or degrees, they struggled to envision a true path for themselves. One girl asked, "How do you achieve and still be genuine?"
Many students arrive at college intellectually prepared, impressively credentialed, but with little sense of life's possibilities. A college education should not simply help a student succeed in a profession; it must also enable her to realize her own version of success. A rewarding life might or might not involve career, children, affluence, or public recognition. It might or might not involve spiritual reflection, creativity, or public service. But it is every young woman's story to write, and women's colleges are well positioned to foster the conversations and reflections to help her write it.
"Women's Narratives of Success," an ambitious project Smith launched this year, is doing just that. In workshop settings, on campus and beyond, Narratives encourages students to think deeply and systematically about their multiple life goals.
In the project's signature experience, a weeklong January workshop titled "Get a Life,” students explore themes of family and cultural expectations—and anxiety about living up to them—as well as risk taking, decision making, and reflective practices. Led by Dean of the College Maureen Mahoney and Dean of Religious Life Jennifer Walters, the project is also developing programs for alumnae.
The Narratives project originated in conversations with Nan-b O'Connell de Gaspé Beaubien '57, whose studies in educational psychology and longtime career in human resource management inspired her to support a program that would allow Smith women to reflect on their lives and careers. Over time, we envision the project as a new way in which Smith College will contribute to the national and international debates on women's lives.
Some will argue—rightly—that the "burden" of multiple choices is a luxury many women don't have, and that the pressure of earning a living in an increasingly complex economy often precludes meaningful considerations of balance or service, leisure or creativity. Women in all income brackets still work the "second shift" in their families, and their labor on behalf of children, older relatives, and the home remains hidden from our economic calculus. Family life, relationships, and time alone for self-reflection have become tasks we slot into our schedules, rather than the encompassing contexts of our lives.
Our students have encountered this reality. They have grown up in families with two parents full-time in the workforce or with a single parent as the sole support. They have gained access to an elite college education by combining advanced coursework with public service, leadership in extracurricular organizations, and after-school jobs. Because of this, they are primed to question conventional paradigms of success. One senior, writing in the inaugural Narratives workshop, put it this way: "I've been waiting for the opportunity to do what I truly think I want to do without penalty of guilt or shame. You know, that event that signifies that I am a passionate, intentional, reasonable person to be reckoned with; the time when life stops being a process and starts fulfilling the Big Plan."
Graduation is often taken to symbolize the "event," to which that senior refers, the signal of a Big Plan set in motion, a story unfolding. If Smith does its job, it will be a story of a rewarding, remarkable and intentional life, a narrative of success in the fullest sense.