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Welcome Panel for New Students & Families

Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College, August 28, 2013

President Kathleen McCartney addressed new students, their parents and families at a panel on campus August 28, 2013.

Good afternoon, and welcome!

I am Kathy McCartney, president of Smith College, and it’s my pleasure to welcome all of you, our newest students and families. As you may know, I, too, am very new. I started officially on July first. Truth be told, I still find myself getting lost on campus.

I want to tell you a bit about my own college experience, as a way of framing what I hope Smith will mean for you — today, tomorrow, and across the course of your life.

I was the first in my family to go to college. 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 college was an unknown territory for them. I went to Tufts University because it was in my hometown. In fact, I never lived on campus. I walked up the hill to class each day from home. Smith is my first residential college experience. I suspect I am as excited to live on campus as our first-year students are.

Being in college changed me, as it should. It broadened my ambitions. 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. And now I’m here, leading this illustrious institution.

I share my story because I want every woman of promise to experience the same kind of awakening I had as an undergraduate. Students, your path will be different from mine, as it should be — it will be yours, uniquely, and Smith will meet your ambitions, at every step, with opportunities. Opportunities through of your classes, your major, your minor or concentration. But also beyond the classroom. In the houses, on the sports fields, and through a rich array of extracurricular activities.

You have access to the Praxis internship program which provides funding from Smith, for a summer internship, after the junior year — you can work with nonprofits, government agencies, museums, hospitals and schools here and abroad, in countries from China to Nepal, from Spain to Pakistan. You learn can about entrepreneurship through unique opportunities like the Draper Business Plan Competition. Through partnerships with organizations like CARE and Oxfam America, you can work on issues related to human rights. And, of course, our study-abroad and study-away programs offer you the opportunity to experience life in a culture different from your own.

Farther along, we can support you in applying for fellowships for postgraduate study. A Fulbright Fellowship is one example. Smith set a new record with 23 Fulbright Fellows last year and a 55 percent applicant success rate.

You’ll hear about countless more opportunities waiting for you over your next four years. I encourage you to explore them — to take risks — and to find your own Smith path.

Now, I’d like to take a few moments to speak directly to the parents in the room. You already know how wonderful Smith is; you’ve had the dinner table conversations, seen the viewbook, visited our website. You know that this is the beginning of an incredible time in your daughters’ lives.

It wasn’t long ago that I dropped my two daughters off at college. I’d like to take a moment and talk to you not just as a college president, but also as a parent.

For many of you, today is bittersweet. You will miss having your daughter at home. After dropping off my older daughter, Kaitlin, at college, I wrote an op ed for the Boston Globe. A reflection piece. It began this way. When my daughter was 2, she threw her peas on the floor and screamed “NO!” At 7, she forgot to wave goodbye when she boarded the school bus. At 13, she asked me to drop her off at the movies. It was the first time she went with her friends instead of me.

When you come down to it, the stages of child development are all about pushing away. The stages of parenting are about letting go. I should know more about a child’s need for autonomy than the average parent — I’ve spent my academic career in the field of psychology, studying child development. Still, it was so hard to let go.

When this day arrived, the day I brought her to college, Kaitlin’s anxiety robbed me of my own. Instead of crying, I did what any good mother would do – I dried her eyes, took her to the college bookstore, and told her I loved her. I also told her that the next four years would not be the best of her life, as many say. The best years, I explained, are the ones you spend raising your children. The parents here know this.

During the next four years, your daughter will change in ways both imperceptible and monumental. This is an exciting moment for your daughters, and I know you share the excitement with them — even if your heart is breaking a little. Smith is a special place. A community of more than 40,000 alumnae. A global network of women leaders.

You are now part of that network as well — parents and daughters alike. So, one parent to another, here is something I learned. For family, college isn’t just about letting go. It’s about discovering something new. I know you will enjoy this adventure — these discoveries — as much as I did as a parent.

As Smith’s president, it’s my job to ensure that every available opportunity for your daughters to learn and lead is supported in the strongest way possible. A dedicated staff and a talented faculty will ensure this.

So, to all of you, enjoy this adventure. We’re all here to help you along the way.