New Wellness Series Celebrates Students' Identities

Life coach Hayley McKenzie had a novel question for the Smithies gathered in a Campus Center meeting room earlier this month: How can identifying as an entrepreneur help women thrive?

“An entrepreneurial identity can give you freedom,” suggested McKenzie, who is a mother of three as well as a small business owner. “If you build something, it’s yours. Nobody can take that experience away.”

Heads nodded in agreement around the room.

The recent session was part of a new program offered this semester by Student Affairs and the Schacht Center for Health and Wellness. The “Engaging Identity” series offers workshops, panels and community dinners that help students celebrate their unique identities.

The program—funded by President Kathleen McCartney’s Innovation Challenge grants for advancing inclusion, diversity and equity on campus—provides space for personal conversations, as well as opportunities for promoting a sense of community among students, faculty and staff.

“People don’t often see the link between wellness and diversity and inclusion,” says Kristina Mereigh, Smith’s associate director of wellness education. “Public health theory suggests that knowing who you are and where you belong is vital for mental and physical well-being.”

“This project has the goal of creating a campus where people feel less isolated,” Mereigh notes. “It offers a place where students can share authentic stories and open up outside of the classroom realm.”

The opportunity for such sharing is what drew Vivian Wang ’19 to become involved in planning for the series.

“As students, we are often so caught up in academics and extracurriculars that we forget to note the importance of our identities,” says Wang, who is interning with Mereigh’s office this semester. “Having a series to bring attention to those issues has allowed everyone to regroup.”

Kelsey Parks Smith ’17, a member of the Engaging Identity organizing board, says the program “encourages Smith community members to think more deeply about who they are and what role they play on campus and in society.”

“Many of us hold privileges that we don’t think about having, and many of us have never had conversations about identity,” she says. “ I hope that creating inviting and safe spaces to have these discussions will help us continue to work toward being a more open, informed and engaged community.”

The program’s twice-weekly workshops—ongoing through April 22—have focused on issues that shape a sense of self, including mental health, race, gender and Smith’s unique culture as a women’s college.

The series also includes three community dinners where students, faculty and staff can come together in an informal setting and share lived experiences. The next dinner will be held at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, March 24, in Campus Center 205. To join, RSVP via email to engagingidentity@gmail.com.

At the recent entrepreneurship workshop, McKenzie led an exercise in which students gave one-sentence descriptions of their goals and aspirations—their personal why.

She also offered practical tips on how students can become more entrepreneurial, including using their friendship networks and making sure they have more than one income stream when launching a startup.

Most important of all, McKenzie said, is identifying something you are passionate about—“things you like to do even if nobody is paying you.”

“And keep pushing,” she added. “Be sure to have some really strong women around you.”

Students nodded in agreement once more.