'A Warm Encounter': Sophomore Class and Ada Comstock Scholars Dean Says Success at Smith Goes Beyond Academics

Photo by Carmen Pullella '16

Calvin McFadden, who began work in July as dean of the sophomore class and Ada Comstock Scholars, considers his work at the college “a calling.”

In addition to his work at Smith, McFadden serves as senior pastor of the historic St. John’s Congregational Church in Springfield. He is also a member of the school committee in Springfield, where he lives with his wife and two children, 5 and 7.

“I consider both of my careers as a calling—ministry and education,” McFadden says. “I told the search committee when I interviewed at Smith not to worry about me preaching. But who I am as a pastor will show up in my work with students.”

McFadden came to Smith from Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass., where he served as dean of behavioral and social sciences. He earned an undergraduate degree in sociology from Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla.; a divinity degree from the Interdenominational Theological Center/Gammon Seminary in Atlanta, Ga.; and a Ph.D. in family and child sciences from Florida State University.

Here’s what he had to say about his work with the 78 full-time and 19 part-time students now enrolled in the Ada Comstock Scholars Program and with second-year students at Smith:

What drew you to the college?

McFadden: “I’ve always been intrigued by Smith. When the opportunity came up to work with students here, I knew it was an opportunity I wanted to try. A great deal of my work has been assisting the Ada Comstock Scholars. But I also work with the sophomores—young students with fresh, bright minds who are trying to determine their majors. So I get the best of both worlds.”

What advice do you give students who’ve followed non-traditional paths to Smith? 

McFadden: “I encourage them to take advantage of all the wonderful opportunities at the college—to come in with an open mind and heart. I met with a student yesterday who was trying to determine a major, and we talked about the importance of taking lots of different kinds of courses. You don’t want to choose a major in an area if it’s not something you get joy out of.

I also tell students that Smith is challenging. Some students come in thinking they can just breeze through. You really have to buckle down—but also try not to overdo it. I say, take your time and enjoy campus life. Get engaged in as much student life as you can, not just your classes. That makes for a richer experience.”

How do you work with students who may be having trouble with academics or fitting in on campus?

McFadden: “That’s the really wonderful part of my job. When students hear that they need to meet with their dean, they come in expecting me to be looking over wire-rimmed glasses at them. I try to be serious but also to give them a warm encounter. My message is, you might have had a bad semester, but we’re going to do all we can to get you back on track.”

Do students at community colleges view Smith as an option?

McFadden: “I really believe it’s a matter of access. There are so many students in Springfield who don’t know about the wonderful opportunities at Smith—or other colleges. When I heard about the post at Smith and mentioned it to my colleagues at the community college, they didn’t know about the Ada Comstock Scholars Program. Part of my role is to help in reaching out to community colleges and letting them know about our program and the supports we have.”

Can you talk more about those supports?

McFadden: I’ve been impressed with how much aid Smith gives to underprivileged students and students of color. There are other institutions that provide support to non-traditional students, but not many of them also provide housing. At Smith, it’s not just about tuition aid, but also about their lives. Instead of having to be commuter students, they can live on campus and take advantage of all that college life has to offer.”

What challenges do students of color in particular face at Smith?

McFadden: “What I’ve seen is that those students are pleased with the support that Smith offers them. But with me being here, they also say they are happy to see someone who looks like them on campus. The college has made wonderful strides, but there is also work to be done in this area. That’s not solely an issue at Smith. It’s something a lot of institutions face.”

You have a divinity degree and are also a church pastor. How does your faith training connect to your work at Smith? 

McFadden: “I deal with students who are facing challenges—family challenges, work challenges, health issues. The approach I’ve learned from being a pastor is, you may have challenges, but you can learn to move forward. Both of my parents are educators, and my wife is also an educator. My family has also always had a commitment to community service. My grandmother liked to share a quote, ‘The service we provide is the rent that we pay for the space we occupy on earth.’ I believe that.”