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Oct. 14 ­15 Silver Anniversary Gathering to Celebrate Program That Transformed Lives ­ And Transformed the College and Its Community in the Process

Editor's note: A number of Ada Comstock Scholars, past and present, are available for interviews. To arrange, contact Laurie Fenlason at (413) 585-2190 or

In 1975, when Smith College's Ada Comstock Scholars program opened its doors, Phyllis Paige was among the 33 women "beyond the typical college age," as the brochure described it, who enrolled.

"I had always wanted to finish my college education but hadn't been able to find the right way. I was 50, a professional musician, a mother of three and a grandmother ­ but having a degree was still very important to me. It was always one of my dreams."

Now 75, a retired writer, editor and volunteer, Paige is returning to Smith to honor the program that, a quarter century ago, believed in her promise. As much as her life has been changed, so will she find an institution challenged and enriched by the more than 1,400 Adas, as they are called, who have walked through its gates.

"When we started to talk about this event more than a year ago," recalled the program's founding director Eleanor Rothman, "I knew immediately that its central theme would be that of transformation.

"Originally, I thought of the Ada Comstock experience as transformative for students. It was only much later that I realized that the Ada Comstock Scholars Program, in turn, was transforming Smith."

Named for Ada Louise Comstock, who graduated from Smith College in 1897 and later served as dean of Smith and president of Radcliffe, the Ada program enrolls a remarkable and diverse group of women. They range in age from their 20s to their mid-80s; some are single, some are married. They have come to Smith from all parts of the United States, including Alaska and Hawaii, and some from as far as Asia, Africa and New Zealand.

A common theme unites them. Earlier in their lives, their education was interrupted. Some chose to travel, seeking adventure; others began raising children. Many decided that school seemed less important than getting a job and being on their own. And for all of them there came a time, often years later, when they sensed an undefined and unfulfilled potential in themselves and began to wish for a formal education.

Today, the program enrolls some 220 students, comprising 8 percent of the undergraduate student body. Thirty percent have children. Twenty-six percent are women of color. Fifty-seven percent are first-generation college students.
Adas live in campus houses with undergraduates, in college-owned apartments or in private apartments. They fulfill the same academic requirements as traditional-aged students, commonly graduating with honors. Ada alumnae work in fields ranging from education, medicine and banking to social services and the arts.

Faculty who have taught Adas over the years often express gratitude for the ways in which they improve learning in the classroom. Randall Bartlett, professor of economics, believes that Smith's traditional-aged students learn differently because of the presence of their older counterparts.

"It's partly that they've lived history," Bartlett explains. "The Vietnam War is not something from the distant past but a real event, in many cases something they've lived through." He also credits the older students with bringing a warmth and humanity to class discussions that takes issues "beyond book-learning."

"Adas aren't afraid to challenge a faculty member or to ask an embarrassing question. They don't worry about being 'uncool.' They are hungry to learn and, in their hunger, they challenge us all to go farther, press deeper."

The anniversary celebration, the largest-ever gathering of Ada alumnae, comes at a time when the college has mounted a concerted effort to solidify the program's finances. Rothman, who now directs fund-raising initiatives on behalf of the program, notes that many Adas face exceptional challenges in financing their education. Those who are single mothers confront additional difficulties in obtaining affordable housing and childcare.

To keep the program accessible to women from all economic backgrounds, the college, as part of a comprehensive campaign, is raising funds toward an Ada Comstock endowment. Income from the endowment will allow the college to augment students' allowances for living expenses, provide more realistic budgets for students who may have dependents and expand housing and childcare options.

Events of the silver anniversary celebration begin at 10 a.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, and conclude after lunch on Sunday, Oct. 15. Three elements associated with the conference are open to the public: a panel discussion about the legacy of the Ada Comstock Scholars program, featuring four faculty speakers, from 1:30 to 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 14, in Sage Hall; an exhibit of artworks by 20 Ada Comstock alumnae at Forbes Library, 20 West Street, Northampton, from Oct. 6 to 28; and an exhibit of photographs and other archival material about the early years of the program, from Oct. 14 to 19, Alumnae House, Elm St.

Smith College is consistently ranked among the nation's best liberal arts colleges. Enrolling 2,800 students from every state and 50 other countries, Smith is the largest undergraduate women's college in the United States.

Contact: Laurie Fenlson,

September 28, 2000


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