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Speeches & Media

Launching a New Generation of Leaders

Gen Zers are diverse, tech-savvy and career oriented. Smith is ready for them.

Kathleen McCartney, Smith Alumnae Quarterly, Spring 2019

In December, the board of trustees held the second of three annual retreats devoted to long-term planning. This year’s retreat took place on campus so that faculty leaders could join us. In preparation, we read a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The New Generation of Students: How Colleges Can Recruit, Teach and Serve Gen Z.” 

Generation Z is the name typically ascribed to young people born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s. These students came of age during the Great Recession, in a world where technology plays a ubiquitous role in their lives and where mass shootings in schools are a part of life. Perhaps this generation’s most defining characteristic is that they are the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in modern American history. 

Let us stipulate the limits of generalizing about any generation. Let us also acknowledge that students who choose women’s colleges may be less susceptible to generational labels than others because their bold, nontraditional college choice already sets them apart as individuals. Still, each of us is influenced by context, and Gen Z students have several qualities that distinguish them from those who came before them. 

How do the characteristics and needs of Gen Z students inform how we think about a Smith education? Like my fellow trustees, I believe Smith is ahead of the curve in meeting the needs of today’s—and tomorrow’s—students. Consider these five conclusions from the Chronicle report.

Gen Z is an extraordinarily diverse group and is particularly “attentive to inclusion across race, ethnicity, sexual orientation and identity.” Today’s students know that a sense of belonging, respect and full inclusion is fundamental to learning. At Smith, Gen Z students are, in many respects, leading the culture change we need on campus to ensure that at Smith every member of the community feels included and valued. For example, students have applied for innovation grants from my office to fund programs that support the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) immigration policy and undocumented students at Smith, enhance career development for international students, and foster inclusion and diversity in our athletics programs. Students will have an important presence—as teachers, presenters, performers and facilitators—in an April 10 campus day of learning, designed to deepen community members’ understandings of race, class, gender, disability and privilege. 

“Career services that are customized and integrated into the campus experience will have the most impact on Gen Z.” As we educate the next generation of women leaders, we are investing in programs that will meet the needs of students who expect to move freely among jobs and to have a more self-directed career path. Specifically, we are implementing a new approach to career preparation called By Design, to provide customized, iterative, pre-professional experiences. From day one, students will have access to their own Life Design Teams. Made up of mentors, deans, alumnae, coaches and faculty members, these teams will provide sustained advising about post-college opportunities—employment, graduate or professional school, fellowships—that meets students’ needs as their plans grow and change over time. 

“[Gen Z students] will look primarily for academic and co-curricular programs to develop their skills and prospects.” It is hardly surprising that students who came of age during the 2008–09 economic downturn view college through a somewhat more pragmatic lens. Fortunately, and presciently, Smith has long allied a powerful liberal arts curriculum with equally transformational co-curricular opportunities. Here are a few examples: Our Draper Competition for Collegiate Women Entrepreneurs, established in 2013 with the support of trustee Melissa Draper ’77 and her husband, Tim, gives Smith students—and young women from colleges across the Northeast—the resources to build a business plan, craft a pitch and test their start-up concepts with established entrepreneurs and investors. Last year, 18 Smith-led teams and 34 teams from other colleges and universities competed for more than $100,000 in start-up funding and scholarships. 

In Design Clinic, the capstone course of our Picker Engineering Program, teams of senior engineering students collaborate on design projects that offer solutions to a range of real-world challenges, including drought resilience, blood gas analysis, rail-trail design, storm-water treatment, renewable energy and manufacturing process design. 

Through our Praxis program, approximately 400 students every year receive stipends to work at unpaid summer internships in the United States and abroad. Because many students cannot afford to forgo summer earnings, the Praxis program assures that all students can pursue unpaid internship opportunities that expand their education and their postgraduate prospects. In recent years, Praxis has placed Smith interns at the U.S. Department of Treasury, Deutsche Bank, the rare book room of the American Academy in Rome, and refugee resettlement and immigration legal services organizations. 

“[Gen Z students] expect a high-tech educational and campus experience but don’t want to live entirely in the virtual world.” The renovation of Neilson Library is a good example of how Gen Z students want to study and learn in both face-to-face and virtual settings. When asked for their input into the new design, students specified that they want the new library to be a technology-infused hub with active learning areas. They want a balance of print and digital resources. They want ways to study “alone together”—that is, in a manner that is solo but not isolated—in flexible spaces that can accommodate individual projects as well as group work. Beyond the library, Smith is supporting faculty-led experiments in technology and learning while continuing to invest in its residential model and remarkable campus resources. 

“To Gen Z, failure is a catastrophe rather than an opportunity for learning and growth.” Gen Z’s struggles with failure can be doubly challenging for women, who have been shown in studies to be particularly vulnerable to viewing academic and career setbacks as personal failings. “Failing Well,” a yearlong program offered by our Wurtele Center for Women’s Leadership, aims to help students normalize struggle, develop resilience, manage achievement-related pressure and destigmatize failure. Phoebe Reese Lewis Leadership Program Director Rachel Simmons hosts workshops on curbing perfectionism and impostor syndrome and encourages students—high achievers unaccustomed to setbacks—to see failure as part of learning. 

The best institutions are those that embrace change. In my Smith inauguration address, I described the college as a continuous-learning organization, one that, to borrow a phrase from a Bob Dylan song, is “busy being born.” In founding the college that would bear her name, Sophia Smith set out the conditions for ongoing innovation, albeit in different words. She wrote in her will that Smith must offer “such studies as coming times may develop or demand.” I am proud that Smith is honoring her vision for the students of today and tomorrow.