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Address to Alumnae

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, August 20, 2013

President Kathleen McCartney addressed local alumnae at a reception on campus August 20, 2013. 

Good afternoon, everyone!

Welcome back to Smith, a place I am proud to call home.  

I want to thank all of you for joining me here today. I continue to be overwhelmed by the warm reception that Bill and I have received since we arrived on campus.

It’s comforting to know that I can rely on this strong support network in the years ahead. Your good counsel will be invaluable to me not only now, as I take up my work, but across the course of my presidency.

This college has had the privilege of extraordinary leadership throughout its history. I am motivated by that legacy every day.

As we get to know each other, I would like to share with you some impressions from my first month and a half on campus. And I want to showcase the good work that is already taking place to create the women leaders of tomorrow.

One of the first things I have discovered is just how beautiful this campus is. In many ways, for many people, Smith is defined by a profound sense of place.

I never had the privilege of living on a college campus, so perhaps I am even more acutely appreciative of what makes this place so evocative. I feel it in the academic buildings. Even in summer, they echo with the heady intellectual buzz of smart women. Generations of smart women.   

I feel it in the houses, where it is immediately apparent to me why Smithies form friendships that last a lifetime.

I feel it walking to and from my office every day. The winding walkways and gardens pull me along to the next turn in the path.

I can see why prospective students fall so in love with this campus when they visit. It’s a privilege to inhabit a place of such intentional beauty and received history.

Most of you, I am sure, remember that feeling of arriving at Smith and thinking to yourself, “Finally, I am home.”

I felt that, too.

As you might imagine, I have seen and experienced many new things since starting work on July 1. Here’s an example: I toured Facilities Management—which some of you knew as Buildings and Grounds—and got a behind-the-scenes look at how our buildings come to life every day.

To be honest, I can’t say that I ever imagined that one day I’d be learning the intricacies of heating and cooling a 147-acre campus, but there I was on a Monday morning, in the chiller plant, listening to technician David Bishop explain how water flows in, is cooled, and is then sent back out into buildings.

It was fascinating.

Smith may look traditional, but we have made many wise investments in our infrastructure. As a result we’re a much more efficient, sustainable and environmentally friendly campus than we were five years ago.

Early in July, I had the privilege of picnicking with faculty and staff on Chapin Lawn. With the sun shining, and to an excellent soundtrack, we ate, laughed, and talked and got to know each other. Dining Services outdid themselves. As a faculty member, a former dean, and a parent of college graduates, I’ve eaten a lot of campus cuisine in my time. This was a different experience altogether. So delicious.

I met staff who have been here for 25, 30, 35 years. They have built their lives and careers around this campus. Their children have played in the gardens and along Paradise Pond. For some, their daughters have grown up to be students here. That longevity says something to me about the strong sense of community that exists here. It also speaks to the strength of our mission: educating women for the world.

When not immersing myself in the campus, I’ve been on the road for Smith. My conversations with alumnae have been inspiring. I’ve heard stories of transformation. I’ve heard stories of the value that comes from spending four years in an environment where women are told from day one that they are the future leaders the world needs …

… that they are worthy of the best education….

… that they are empowered to make a difference in the world.

The results speak for themselves. Smith women are a force for change. They rise readily into leadership positions, whether in business, government, education or the arts. And they put forth ideas that change society.

In all of this—my impressions of Smith, my hopes for women—I hope you can tell how blessed I feel to be in my dream job.

Smith holds great meaning for generations of students, faculty, staff, alumnae and families. I feel honored to be a part of this remarkable community.

Now the work begins.

The mission is clear.

Like all of you, I see the challenges that remain for women. I see the need for more women in leadership positions in this country and abroad. I see continued barriers to education, and I am ever more passionate for being at a place that drives the solutions.

Smith’s power lies in its purpose—the education of women. This purpose is more important than ever.

Governments around the world are increasingly recognizing that, in order for their countries to thrive, women’s voices and women’s ideas must be an integral part of their decision making.

Last month, Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl who was shot by the Taliban, spoke to the United Nations about the need—the right—for girls and women to be educated. She called on governments around the world to end wars and open schools to girls. She urged women to “empower themselves with knowledge” and use their voices for change, even in the face of fear.

“We cannot succeed,” Malala said, “when half of us are held back.”

I think of Malala’s words now, just a few weeks before 735 extraordinary women from nearly 40 countries arrive on campus to begin an experience that will change them forever.

Let me tell you a bit about these women.

This year, Smith received 4,404 applications for the class of 2017. That is the highest number in our history, and a clear indication that Smith remains a compelling option for young women from around the world who want a high-quality, global education.

The first-year class is made up of more international students than any class before it. Seventeen percent of students in the class come from communities outside the United States.

The talent of our incoming first-year class is impressive. Sixty-two percent of first-year students ranked in the top 10 percent of their high school class. Our admit rate was 43 percent—among the lowest percentages since the college began keeping records, back in 1969.

Behind these numbers are some incredible stories of women who have already accomplished and experienced so much in their lives.

Last May, I had the opportunity to meet Oprah Winfrey. She told me one of her daughters would be attending Smith College. She was referring to Morgan Mpungose, a graduate of the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy in South Africa.

We will also welcome Ann Grilli, an Ada Comstock Scholar from Massachusetts, and a musician who once toured the East Coast, Europe and Scandinavia. Ann is passionate about using her music to have an impact on education. So, she formed a group, Annie and the Natural Wonder Band, to teach children about ecology.

Then there is Aminata Ka, from Senegal. Growing up, she was told that education was unattainable for girls and women—until an uncle expressed a different opinion and helped her go to school. Despite significant challenges, she became the only woman in her family to receive a formal education and the first person in her family to go to college.

These students—and the thousands of others we are privileged to serve—have high expectations of us. They chose Smith because of its long and rich history as a college for women. It’s our responsibility to provide them with an education that matches their ambition. This is not a responsibility that I, or our faculty, take lightly.

Though I am still learning the nuances of Smith’s expansive curriculum, one thing I know for sure is that our faculty is dedicated to continuous innovation in the classroom.

One thing that has struck me is how strongly we encourage students to make connections among disciplines and to choose classes that provide a range of perspectives and ideas.

Our academic centers, which focus on global studies, community collaboration, work and life, and the environment, serve as the nexus for many of these connections. They reflect the critical role of intellectual agility for solving the fundamental problems of our time.

At Smith, we recognize the value that comes from putting classroom work to the test in the world. Our one-of-a-kind Praxis internship program connects nearly 400 students a year to businesses, nonprofits, government agencies, museums, hospitals and schools in countries from China to Nepal, from Spain to Pakistan.

Through our partnerships with organizations like CARE and Oxfam America, Smith students work on issues related to human rights.

They learn about business, the economy and personal finance through our Center for Women and Financial Independence.

They learn about entrepreneurship through unique opportunities like our Draper Business Plan Competition.

And, of course, through our study-away programs, students get to experience what life is like in a community different from their own.

I know many of you can tell me about your own Smith study abroad. You know that, after a year in another country, you come back changed. You come back a citizen of the world.

Collectively, these experiences enrich our students’ lives, making them the advocates and activists, the thinkers and doers that the world has come to expect from a Smith education. 

I am proud to support these programs and have little doubt that they have contributed to our students’ remarkable success, particularly in winning Fulbright Fellowships.

I want you to be among the first to know that this year Smith set a new campus record, with 23 Fulbright Fellows and a 55 percent applicant success rate. These are astonishing numbers. We will know officially within the next few months whether they reflect the highest success rate in the country among all top-producing institutions. Stay tuned for that news.

What I hope is clear is that the Smith of today—the Smith I inherit as its newest president—is strong. Its identity as the pre-eminent source for women leaders is clear.

That is not to say that our work is done or that we have all the answers. For any college or university to remain competitive, it must keep moving, questioning, innovating. Smith is known for its ability to respond to the needs of the times. We will remain nimble, and we will take calculated risks.

Throughout its history, this college has upended traditions and expectations, in part due to the dramatic changes we have seen in women’s lives. If there is a single truth with which I begin my presidency it is that we must be ready for what the years ahead will bring. Smith must move forward in ways that are meaningful, relevant and powerful for the students of the twenty-first century.

Our campaign, Women for the World, is essential to getting us there. Already, there has been great momentum. Across campus, plans are in motion to reimagine the liberal arts and make Smith the college of choice for smart, ambitious women from around the world.

We are devoting significant resources to building new globally focused programs so that all of our students, no matter where they come from, will develop the cultural fluency they need to contribute and act effectively on the global stage.

At the heart of the campaign is our initiative to increase Smith’s endowed financial aid funds by $200 million, providing an additional $10 million in secure annual funding for scholarships for our students.

The $200 million financial aid goal is the largest single portion—by far—of the overall $450 million campaign goal. That’s fitting. It is the most important thing.

As many of you may know, I am a first-generation college student, so the issue of educational access is personal for me.

I grew up with four younger siblings in a working-class neighborhood in Medford, Massachusetts. Both of my parents worked hard: my father was a machinist and my mother was a stay-at-home mom. They believed deeply in the importance of education and encouraged us to excel in school, but when it came time for college there was little money left over to pay for it. If it hadn’t been for financial aid, I would not have been able to attend Tufts University as an undergraduate—or any place like Tufts. This means I would have missed out on the opportunities that ultimately led to a career as a scholar.

Being in college changed me, as it should. It broadened my ambitions. The women I met in class, the mentors who identified a spark in me, pushed me to see beyond the limits society had implicitly placed on me. My professors saw things in me I didn’t yet see in myself.

After Tufts, I went on to Yale for graduate study and eventually became a tenured professor and dean at Harvard.

I share my story because I want every woman of promise to be able to experience the same kind of awakening I had as an undergraduate. I will work hard to increase access to Smith College for talented students.

Education is the civil rights issue of our time.

The education of women and girls is the human rights issue of our time.

Smith knows this. We know this.

Through our campaign, we have the chance to convince the rest of the world of what we already know to be true.

In the coming months, following my inauguration in October, I will take this message to other alumnae, parents and friends of Smith in communities around the world.

On campus, I will be meeting with faculty, staff and students to discuss our priorities. We need to have serious conversations about the ever-increasing cost of college, how we operate as an institution, and how we—along with our peer institutions—can meet President Obama’s call for sharing the responsibility in controlling rising costs of higher education.

We cannot—must not—price ourselves out of the market. There is no value in limiting education to only those who can pay for it.

We also need to consider new and innovative ways of delivering an education that meet our students’ needs, are right for our faculty, and support our mission as a residential liberal arts college.

I know I can count on you to be my partners in this work.

Together we can position Smith as the undeniable college of choice for women everywhere seeking the best possible education.

By sharing our individual stories, we can demonstrate that diversity benefits everyone, and that striving for a campus community that reflects the world at large is a noble goal.

And through our own successes we can show that there is still profound value in the liberal arts, that women lead more effectively when they are broadly educated and able to solve problems using the analytical and critical-thinking skills that we develop in all of our students here at Smith.

I look forward to beginning these discussions with Smith alumnae. I will count on your ideas and energy as, together, we carry forward Smith’s mission to educate women for the world.

I am honored to be here and humbled to join the line of presidents whose strong leadership has guided Smith and made it the exceptional college it is today.

Thank you.