A Joyful Arrival: First Thoughts After a Few Days at Smith

July 5, 2023

Dear friends,

When my appointment as Smith’s 12th president was announced last September, I could only anticipate what it would be like to arrive on campus. What a delight it is to be here!

My husband, Jonathan, and I are settling into the President’s House, walking on campus, and exploring the region. Please introduce yourselves! (The only exception: If you’re walking your dog and we’re walking ours, we may choose an alternate path. It’s not you; it’s us! Ranger loves people but fears other pups.) I grew up outside of Boston, so western Massachusetts is new to me. I know that we’ll enjoy getting to know this beautiful area, and we look forward to opportunities to meet each of you.

To that end, I’m devoting this first year to a listening tour. Though I’ve already gleaned that this is an educational community ready to nurture a more inclusive, sustainable, and just world, I’m eager to learn from all of you—on campus and beyond—the many other things that most define the Smith experience.

As a sociologist, I’ve been a lifelong student of the circumstances under which people include and exclude each other, sustain the values and practices that give their lives meaning, and pursue justice. These days, the challenges we face as a country, a planet, and a species are in full evidence; sometimes their magnitude feels overwhelming. Then I pause, and I’m reminded of the creativity and scholarship, pedagogy and learning, volunteerism and leadership in which Smith faculty, students, alums, and staff are engaged. And just like that, the sense of overwhelm fades and I’m filled with hope and optimism for the work ahead.

The work before us will offer moments of heartache and satisfaction, frustration and joy. Indeed, on occasion, we will find that our values, goals, and aspirations do not align with the views of others beyond and even within the Smith community. But Smith has not shirked from the kind of constructive conversations that are the hallmark of American higher education and democratic living before, and we will not now.

Even with the challenges before us, then, what I’m feeling today is joy: joy in anticipation of meeting each of you who make up Smith College; joy reflected in the energy that hums across the buildings and grounds of this campus and its history; and joy that reflects my deeply held belief that by working together, we will heal some of the world’s wounds. Working together, we will continue to teach and to learn, increase belonging, and model what it means to remain in relationship to the earth and to each other—even those with whom we disagree.

I’m so pleased that this year’s selection for Smith Reads is poet Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. Gay offers an unexpected answer to the question, What is joy? It is, he writes, “when we help each other carry our sorrows, what we feel like when we … realize we’re practicing our entanglement, our belonging to one another.” “My hunch,” Gay writes elsewhere, “is that joy might draw us together.” That’s my hunch, too. I’m looking forward to the ever-increasing spirit of joy we will cultivate in this extraordinary scholarly community that is pushing the world forward.

Sarah Willie-LeBreton