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An Amazing Year at Smith

June 29, 2018

Dear Members of the Smith College Community:

Certain moments throughout the year always stand out: announcing Mountain Day (and being witness to a pop-up wedding in my backyard), awarding Smith Medals to incredible alumnae during Rally Day, learning of a professor’s prestigious award, hearing a student share a story about how Smith changed her life, or presenting staff with Spotlight Awards for exceptional service.

During these times I like to pause and remind myself of what a privilege it is to be part of such a remarkable community. I expressed similar thoughts during Commencement and Reunion this year, when I told the graduating seniors and the thousands of alumnae gathered on campus that they are forever members of a community unlike any other, a community that will provide support and sustenance throughout their lives.

As we settle into the summer months, I want to reflect on some of what we have accomplished together and share my gratitude for all you do in supporting our mission to educate women of promise for lives of distinction and purpose.

The past year has been one of great momentum, a year marked by the launch of new programs and initiatives that underscore just how much our work, our creativity and our collective activism benefit the common good.

Once again, we broke records for the number of applications for admission, with 5,780 applications to the class of 2022. Overall, we’ve seen applications increase by 31 percent over the past five years. This speaks directly to Smith’s reputation for providing students with an education of unsurpassed quality.

At a time when access to college is more important than ever, we have taken great care to sustain our generous financial aid program, thereby keeping the doors to a Smith education open to the most qualified, ambitious students, regardless of their backgrounds. More than 65 percent of our students receive institutional aid. All totaled, we awarded close to $70 million in Smith scholarship support to students last year. In a letter to The New York Times, I reaffirmed the value of higher education for all students, regardless of need.

In October, we officially broke ground for what will be the largest capital project in our history—the renovation of Neilson Library. Maya Lin’s design—inside and out—is a work of art, combining elements of nature with cutting-edge technology to create a space that is beautiful, sustainable and responsive to the current and future needs of our students and scholars. The renovation is progressing on time, and alumnae and friends of the college have provided a wellspring of support—contributing more than $31 million toward construction and programming.

In and out of the classroom, we have embraced a culture of innovation and entrepreneurship, as more women are seeking opportunities to showcase their skills and talents as leaders in the worlds of business and finance. College magazine named Smith among its top three colleges for female entrepreneurs who want to change the world. The most visible sign of this movement on campus is the Jill Ker Conway Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center, which we dedicated last fall. Already, through the center’s financial education and business development programming, students are acquiring the skills they’ll need to change the landscape for women in business. They are learning how to pitch their entrepreneurial ventures to potential investors and are working with local mentors and organizations to bring their innovative ideas to life. This year’s Draper Competition was bigger and better than ever. Fifty-two teams, including 18 from Smith, participated in a daylong festival that included the traditional business pitch competition, along with new elements like virtual reality stations and a battle of the bands. I am proud that Smith is home to an event that showcases our students’ talents and entrepreneurial spirit.

Throughout the year, I was inspired by how often we came together to take a stand against some of the big issues affecting members of our community, especially anti-immigration policies, gun violence in schools and sexual harassment. When the administration vowed to rescind DACA, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, we reaffirmed our commitment to protecting all members of our community. Diana Umana ’19 bravely shared her story as a Dreamer to help raise awareness about the plight of undocumented people. “Activism helps keep me positive,” she said. “It makes me feel like I’m contributing to something good.” When high school students organized March for Our Lives, dozens of Smith students, faculty and staff gathered for a rally at the Campus Center to demand action against gun violence. A couple of days later, a busload of students joined thousands of others from around the state at the March for Our Lives in Boston to raise their voices in support of legislation to address gun violence in schools. And I am very proud that several of our alumnae were on the front lines of the #MeToo movement, adding power to a seismic shift in attitudes toward sexual harassment.

Across the curriculum, we celebrated innovations in what and how we teach. Associate Professor of Government Brent Durbin introduced students to what he calls “the big data revolution” and how it is affecting politics and social change. Jennifer Malkowski, assistant professor of film and media studies, is teaching students to examine representations of race, gender and sexuality in video games; she is also conducting pioneering research on the important topic of documenting death in the digital age. Courses in Design Thinking opened students’ minds to new, more human-centered, ways of exploring—and solving—problems. And Jack Loveless, associate professor of geosciences, brought Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology to the classroom, leading groups of students through the process of producing data-driven digital maps that illustrate ideas like the relationship between trees on campus and how Smith might enhance its composting program.

Creating a more inclusive campus remains at the core of everything we do. Last fall, for the second year in a row, we awarded Innovation Challenge grants to 16 proposals that improve diversity, inclusion and equity on campus and in our community. Our community is richer, more compassionate and welcoming because of new initiatives that trained students to act as Dreamer Supporters, assisted African and Caribbean students in accessing internships and mentors, and encouraged us to think about how good food can build community. In April, I had the pleasure of welcoming some 200 alumnae to campus for the Women of Color conference. The theme “Possibilities, Persistence and the Power of Our Voices,” was particularly resonant; it conveyed hope, strength and action—all of which the world needs right now.

The School for Social Work is in the midst of a grand centennial celebration. Lectures, performances and a new documentary all pay homage to its powerful legacy as the first school for social work in the country. To this day, the school, with its mission to empower change and stand against racism, serves as a model for other programs around the country.

There are many more moments, honors and distinctions to recognize as well. Professor Jill de Villiers was named a 2018 fellow to the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Abby Bergman ’18 became the sixth Smith alumna to successfully swim the English Channel. Gracie Hackenberg ’18 led a team of student engineers in building a race car and ultimately placed seventh in the national Grassroots Motorsports Challenge last fall. In the midst of the country’s immigration debate, we announced the creation of a new scholarship fund in support of refugee and undocumented students. Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges inspired us with a speech about the importance of dignity, grace and understanding at a time when our society seems so divided. The Smith Alumnae Quarterly magazine picked up two gold awards for creative excellence from the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE). And we announced an exciting new partnership with four other colleges in the New England College Renewable Partnership, allowing us to reduce costs and collectively offset about 46,000 megawatt hours of electricity. It is all part of our effort to develop sustainable, collaborative solutions that, over time, will significantly lessen Smith’s environmental impact.

Sadly, on June 1 we learned of the death of Jill Ker Conway, Smith’s seventh—and first woman—president. Jill’s impact and place within our history continues to be felt. She was a true champion of women’s education and fostered a campus culture that celebrated, as she once said, “women’s intellectual bravado.” Even after leaving Smith in 1985, she remained a close friend and mentor to students and alumnae around the world. To honor her memory, we’ve planned a campus memorial service for October 18 at Helen Hills Hills Chapel.   

Poet and Pulitzer Prize winner Rita Dove helped us close out the academic year with a moving meditation to the class of 2018 on the power of knowledge. She left us with what she called a simple path to wisdom: “Start with what you know; then, as you venture into the world...apply what you’ve learned along the way, never forgetting that the key to the kingdom of knowledge is linked to curiosity and appreciation.”  

In that spirit, please accept my thanks for all that you do to move this great college forward. We share membership in a community that cares deeply for one another. In everything we do, we have a greater purpose in mind—to prepare women for leadership, steward our resources in responsible, sustainable ways and imagine a more equitable, just world. I invite you to enjoy a video of images from the past year that capture the distinct energy, joy and passion that make Smith so special.

Enjoy your summer!

Sincerely,

Kathleen McCartney
President, Smith College