Skip to main content

Shaping a Signature Smith Program

Alumnae News

Twenty years on, alums celebrate their experiences as Smith’s first engineering grads

Engineering alums (from left) Cloelle Danforth, Sarah Davis and Meghan Flanagan, all members of Smith’s first cohort of engineering grads in 2004, have fun with some classroom supplies in Ford Hall.


Published May 23, 2024

The alums gathered in the third-floor classroom in Ford Hall sit together at rectangular work tables, comparing notes on First Reunion Weekend and eagerly finishing each other’s sentences. Twenty years on and teamwork is still their hallmark.

Eight members of the class of 2004 were on campus May 16–19 celebrating their unique role in college history. Twenty years ago, they were among the first cohort of graduates from Smith’s Picker Engineering Program.

In 2004, 19 Smithies graduated with degrees in engineering—the first from a U.S. women’s college. This year, there were 40, and the number of program alums has surpassed 550.

Engineering alums pose in front of Ford Hall during Reunion

2004 alums who were on campus celebrating their 20th reunion and their role as the college’s first cohort of engineering graduates are (from left): Nikki Radford, Sarah Davis, Caitlyn Butler, Meghan Sheehy, Meghan Flanagan, Becky Silverstein, and Cloelle Danforth.

Photo by Jessica Scranton

“Being the first still pops up, but now, it’s more in the background,” says Sarah Davis ’04, who is manager and production technical lead in systems engineering at Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut. “It’s not such a big deal anymore when people say ‘engineering’ at Smith.”

“There are so many grads now!“ agrees Nikki Radford ’04, who works as an environmental scientist for the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Region 4 in the Southeast. “Smith is laying a really great foundation for women in the sciences. I’m so grateful that this opportunity was here.”

Davis, Radford, and two other classmates recently shared their experiences as Smithie firsts on an episode of “Design Clinic Download,” a podcast produced by Susannah Howe, founding director of the college’s engineering Design Clinic.

Read some excerpts from the podcast.

Available on Smith ScholarWorks, the podcast features alums sharing lessons learned in the two-semester capstone course, where students collaborate in teams on engineering design projects for clients in industry and government.

Howe, a senior lecturer in engineering, launched the podcast in honor of the Design Clinic’s 20th anniversary last year. “I thought a podcast would be fun because I could interview alums across different years,” she said. “It’s really about capturing those voices.”

Howe has also used the podcast in her classroom, focusing on themes of collaboration, professional preparation, and personal growth that her alum interviewees address. She is currently working on a research paper about “Design Clinic Download” for the International Journal of Engineering Education.

At the reception during First Reunion, the 2004 alums reminisced about the “green monster”—the temporary building where they took engineering classes in the years before the construction of Ford Hall—and the ups and downs (mostly ups) of being the program’s first graduates.

Below are excerpts from their podcast episode. Interviewees were Davis, Radford, Caitlyn Butler, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Meghan Sheehy, senior program manager for GE Vernova energy equipment manufacturer.

About their expectations coming into Design Clinic

Caitlyn Butler: “I learned not to have expectations. I don’t mean that in a bad way. But I mean we went through so many iterations. I think our curriculum changed three or four times…. So there was a letting go of expectations, but also an incredible trust in our faculty that you were going to get us to where we needed to go.”

Meghan Sheehy: “I was excited. It was like, here we go. This is real work. We’re going to be doing very important things…. And the reality was, it was really hard…. It was way more challenging, but I think that’s really what helped build our understanding of what it’s like to really be an engineer in the real world.”

Nikki Radford: “I just remember thinking, ‘Oh I’m going to work with a group of women for eight months on one project and we’re going to get really close and we might have some disagreements, but I think this is real-world team building…. So it will prepare me for whatever comes next after Smith.”

About skills they learned

Sarah Davis: “Adaptability. You make a plan and then the plans are going to get broken and you have to restart again. And that’s just the process of always trying to refocus on what is the end goal—and I use that every single day.”

Nikki Radford: “I would say I definitely gained project coordination skills, but I think also a lot of technical writing skills…. I can compare my writing skills to many other engineering programs and you guys did a great job.”

Caitlyn Butler: “It was the opportunity to bring all of those different pieces of working in a team together in a space where we had an actual project that we had some ownership on, which was really fantastic.”

About being part of the first cohort of Smith engineering graduates

Meghan Sheehy: “When we started, we had one professor and one class…. I think it made us a very tight-knit group because we felt like we needed to lean on each other.”

Nikki Radford: “I was completely undecided on my major coming in and then I saw that there’s an intro to engineering (class) and I was like, why not? … In my life I’ve been very adaptable and I’ve been very adaptable at work. I can improvise easily now and I think that part of that is my college career. I think this program has shaped a part of who I am, not only as a career but as a person.”

Caitlyn Butler: “I am very grateful for how open the faculty were to hearing our feedback and hearing our experience and adapting to that. So that’s something that has stuck with me throughout my career; that openness to getting student feedback in real time as part of the learning process.”

About how current students can make the most of their Smith experience

Caitlyn Butler: “I think Smith students have a particularly unique opportunity doing their engineering program in a liberal arts environment. And I think there is so much synergy between engineering and humanities and social sciences, and there is an incredible ability in the liberal arts space to access those things. And so my advice to students who are pursuing engineering at Smith is to take advantage of that.”

Sarah Davis: “Be adaptable; understand what the goal is and then be present in the moment. Share the experience and learn from all of the different pieces of experience, because you will continue to draw on them forever.”

Nikki Radford: “Go see a play, take a class you normally wouldn’t take. I took a bunch of dance classes just because I was like, well I’m using my brain too much and I need to do something physical…. For Design Clinic, just really cherish those relationships you are building within your team. Really try to keep in touch with all of your classmates or at least your teammates because the people actually make the place.”

Meghan Sheehy: “It’s not meant to be smooth, it’s not meant to be easy. And all of those difficulties really are kind of the purpose behind learning what it’s like to leave Smith and go to the real world…. And if I could tell myself back then I’d say, ‘This is normal; this is how it’s supposed to be and you’re going to do fine.”