“A liberal arts education,” says Sarah Flores Shannon ’17, “is about giving people the tools they need in order to make the best decisions for themselves—and for the world around them.”
The anthropology major from Falls Church, Va., looks at much of the world through that broad, interdisciplinary lens, both in and out of the classroom.
An anthropology major with a focus on reproductive justice in the U.S. and abroad, Flores Shannon is also the first Smith student to graduate with a Five College certificate in Reproductive Health, Rights and Justice. The certificate’s experiential requirement prompted Flores Shannon to spend her junior year in Havana—making her the first person in her family to travel to Cuba since her mother left the island nation nearly 60 years ago.
“It was a very out-of-this world experience,” she says—and one that offered an unparallelled opportunity to study population trends in a country with what she says a surprising commitment to reproductive rights.
Flores Shannon’s Cuba experience led to another great opportunity at home: She was invited to present a talk based on her Havana research at an academic conference at SUNY Geneseo.
“The experience was incredibly inspiring,” Flores Shannon says, “and I was overjoyed when a well-known Cuban scholar asked me to send her my report on the declining birth rate in Havana.”
Flores Shannon built on her interests outside of the classroom, too. As co-chair of Vox, she met one of her “dream heroes,” activist Loretta Ross , who attended several Vox meetings and also spoke at a dinner for Vox and Smith’s Black Students Alliance.
“I learned so much from talking with her,” says Flores Shannon. “She’s helped me think about coalition building, and about what kind of leadership different organizations need. And she also taught me that you can teach skills, but you can’t teach passion.”
What’s next? At some point: Graduate school in anthropology. And eventually, “I’d love to be able to go back to do something with reproductive justice in Cuba.”
Smith has given her so much, Flores Shannon notes, that she’s eager to pay it back. A student ambassador with the Alumnae Association, she once heard someone ask why people should give to the college when they could instead donate directly to local political parties, or to local or national social justice organizations.
“A staff member said that people could certainly donate directly to local and national organizations,” Flores Shannon says, “but that a gift to Smith would have more impact—because Smith graduates will one day go on to lead those political parties, and to be presidents of those social justice organizations.”
And that’s one thing Flores Shannon has in mind as she looks forward to her own graduation on Sunday—and beyond.
“We’re doing great organizing and great academic work here at Smith,” she says, “but it’s not going to end here. We’ve been given these skills, and we’ll carry those with us all of our lives.”