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Meet the 2024 Smith Medalists
A groundbreaking attorney, a renowned psychologist who studies the consequences of objectification, a leading climate scientist, and a change-making human rights advocate will all receive the prestigious Smith College Medal at next year’s Rally Day ceremony.
Professor of law Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75, scientist Brenda Ekwurzel ’85, psychology professor Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85, and human rights advocate Sarah Balal ’01 were chosen as medal recipients for forging new paths, making change, and improving the world through their work.
Medalists will be celebrated during Rally Day festivities on Thursday, February 22, 2024, in John M. Greene Hall. Afternoon classes are canceled for Rally Day, which marks the first time seniors publicly wear their graduation gowns—along with inventive hats—in keeping with the day’s spirit of Smith pride.
The Smith Medal was established in 1962 to recognize alums who exemplify in their lives and work “the true purpose” of a liberal arts education. More than 200 outstanding alums have received the award in recognition of their professional achievements and outstanding service.
Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75
Attorney, professor of law
For more than 50 years, Cheryl Brown Wattley ’75 has been a leader in the fight for civil rights, criminal justice, and social justice. She began her legal career as an assistant United States attorney in the District of Connecticut, where she participated in litigation that led to a sweeping overhaul of the system for serving people with mental disabilities in Connecticut. Transferring to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Texas, she served as chief of the economic crime unit, prosecuting white-collar crimes. Later, in addition to starting her own private practice, Wattley worked to secure the exoneration of four wrongfully convicted and incarcerated individuals. She joined the inaugural faculty at the University of North Texas at Dallas College of Law, where she currently teaches criminal law and serves as director of experiential education. She created the college’s first Community Engagement Program, which connects UNT Dallas law students with volunteer opportunities in the community. A prolific writer, she is the prize-winning author of A Step Toward Brown v. Board of Education: Ada Lois Sipuel Fischer and Her Fight to End Segregation, published in 2014. Throughout her long career, Wattley has received numerous awards, including the 2021 Outstanding Trial Lawyer Award from the Dallas Bar Association, the 1994 Martin Luther King Jr. Award, the President’s Award from the Dallas chapter of the NAACP, as well as numerous commendations from the U.S. Department of Justice. Wattley graduated from Smith cum laude with high honors in sociology. She received her law degree from Boston University College of Law.
Brenda Ekwurzel ’85
Brenda Ekwurzel ’85 is considered one of the country’s foremost experts on climate change. Currently a senior climate scientist and director of climate science for the Climate & Energy Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Ekwurzel uses data, research, and science to make change happen. Her passion for science began at Smith College, where she studied geology and began paying deeper attention to the consequences of a changing climate. After graduating from Smith and receiving her Ph.D. from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, she worked with communities to protect groundwater and then spent several years on the faculty in the hydrology and water resources department at the University of Arizona. She has studied climate variability across the globe, from the Arctic to the desert Southwest. Realizing she could make a bigger impact as a public voice for the health of the planet, Ekwurzel left academia and joined the Union of Concerned Scientists. In this role, she is an oft-quoted expert on myriad issues related to climate change and U.S. climate policy, having appeared on CNN, ABC News, Good Morning America, NPR, and The Colbert Report. In 2019, she testified before Congress about the climate crisis. She is a co-author of the Fourth National Climate Assessment as well as the UCS guide Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living.
Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85
Professor of psychology, author
As a scholar and author, Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85 has led the effort to address the consequences of the objectification of women and girls. Her 1997 paper, “Objectification theory: Toward understanding women’s lived experiences and mental health risks,” remains one of the most-cited sources on the topic. It has spurred hundreds of other articles examining the culture of objectification and its negative effects on well-being. From 2005 to 2009, Roberts served as a member of the highly influential American Psychological Association’s Presidential Task Force on the Sexualization of Girls. From 2017 to 2019, she was president of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research. Currently a professor of psychology at Colorado College, Roberts teaches classes on emotion, personality, gender, morality and aesthetics. Her research focuses on the social psychology of emotion, perceptions of the body, the psychological components of women’s reproductive health, and the psychology of enjoyment, awe, and wonder. She has been covered in numerous media sources about how her experience being sexually harassed by Harvey Weinstein while a student at Smith motivated her work on sexual objectification. She leverages feminist psychological science as a consultant for reproductive health related product brands and as an expert witness in legal cases involving objectification and sexualization as forms of gender discrimination. Roberts majored in psychology at Smith and received her Ph.D. in psychology from Stanford University.
Sarah Belal ’01
Human rights advocate
As founder and executive director of Justice Project Pakistan, Sarah Belal ’01 makes it her mission to advocate for the most vulnerable prisoners in Pakistan’s criminal justice system. A history major at Smith, Belal went on to study law at Oxford University, receiving her degree in 2006. Two years later, she received her license to practice law in Pakistan. Ever since then, Balal has been at the forefront of the fight for human rights and justice system reform. Under her leadership, Justice Project Pakistan secured the release of more than 40 Pakistani detainees from Bagram in Afghanistan in 2014 as well as stays of execution of several death row prisoners in Pakistan. As a result of Balal’s efforts through the justice project, the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2021 issued a landmark judgment prohibiting the execution of severely mentally ill prisoners and providing a framework for diagnosing mental illness in prisons and providing mental health care for prisoners. For her work, Balal has received numerous awards, including the National Human Rights Prize from the president of Pakistan, the Franco-German Human Rights Prize, and the prestigious Echoing Green Global Fellowship, which is given to emerging leaders bringing about positive social change.