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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Campus Life February 14, 2020

What’s New at the Wurtele Center

Erin Cohn against a out-of-focus white board covered with writing in bright marker
Wurtele Center for Leadership director Erin Park Cohn '00 in front of a mural by Sophie Willard Van Sistine '22J. Photograph by Sarah Hampton
For Erin Park Cohn ’00, the director of Smith’s Wurtele Center for Leadership, developing leadership skills isn’t solely about inner reflection, but also about outward impact.

“As a leadership center, we want to be a place where you can learn how to work with other people,” says Cohn. “It’s not so much about the label of being a leader, but about helping students step into their power to make positive change.”

Since she became center director last July, Cohn has overseen a strategic planning process aimed at engaging the Smith community. Inspired by principles of human-centered design, the process has involved reaching out to students, faculty, staff and alumnae to help shape the center’s mission, programs and partnerships.

Founded with a visionary $10-million gift from Margaret Wurtele ’67 and her late husband, the leadership center is now home to the Phoebe Reese Lewis Leadership program, and the source of workshops, talks and support for leadership development work in classrooms and other campus centers.

A trained historian and K-12 educator, Cohn also brings her experience as a Smith alum (including as a former Smiffenpoof) to her work at the center. Here’s what she had to say about what’s new at Wurtele.

What inspired you to want to lead the Wurtele Center?

“When I got an email about the position at Smith, I was working as a consultant, helping to bring design thinking mindsets and models to K-12 leaders. That was a job I loved, but I’m a Smithie—and one thing about us alums is that we’re really connected to the college. Thinking about the intersections between leadership, design thinking and gender is something I’m very interested in. This job feels so personally mission driven to me. I was excited to answer the call!”

In addition to a new strategic plan, what other center initiatives can we look forward to in the near future?

“We’re offering speakers and workshops for students this spring on conflict management and failing well. Some of those are going to be specific to student organization leaders. We’re going to be partnering with the Office of Equity and Inclusion to train students to facilitate equity work at Smith. We also have a cohort of Lewis Leaders and Leaders for Equity-Centered Design students who meet regularly and engage in leadership projects aimed at having an impact on the campus community.

“One of the things that’s unique about the center is our partnerships. We work in partnership with many different organizations on campus—the Design Thinking Initiative, the Conway Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, the Narratives Project—as well as faculty. I’m excited about having a mission that puts collaboration at the center of our work.”

What have you heard from students about what they want to see in a leadership center?

“One of the biggest takeaways is that many students balk at calling themselves leaders, for lots of different reasons. But if you get them talking about how they make change—the what of leadership—they absolutely want to talk about that.  We hope to gain more visibility with students so that they know what the Wurtele Center has to offer. When we talk about leadership, it’s not just that you want to be president of the United States—although that’s a fine thing to want. It’s also about developing skills and thinking about how you can impact the world, whether it’s working on global climate change or the well-being of friends and family.”

What feedback have you gotten from alums about the center?

“Alums were the ones who most strongly emphasized to us the power of a women’s college. Sometimes, those dividends don’t show up until after graduation.”

What do you want Smith community members to know about the Wurtele Center?

“One of the things I love about using design thinking as a model for leadership is that it’s about giving students hands-on experiences with projects they feel really matter. That lights them up and makes them much more willing to lean in to the discomfort of figuring out who they are and how to work with other people. Smith’s mission is about creating women who can lead change. We help students ask the questions that can bring about changing conditions—and offer them the skills to get there.”