SMITH COLLEGE (visited 10/15/12)
The buildings at Smith are about as eclectic as the students. The campus seems very haphazardly put up but somehow it kind of works. Instead of all new buildings needing to fit in with the buildings already up, they need to correspond with the style of the times. It was very cool. The atmosphere was vibrant; people were everywhere, even on a dreary, drizzly day. People seemed genuinely happy and comfortable on campus, and students were interacting with each other.
During our admissions presentation, the Director of Admissions talked about 5 ways Smith is different:
- Open Curriculum (Smith, Amherst, Brown, Grinnell all have this) meaning that there is no core. This comes with a lot of responsibility. Many students don’t know what they want to do, or they change their minds once they get there. It’s about learning how to use the open curriculum that’s open and thoughtful and deliberate. What does it mean to be liberally educated? The Liberal Arts advisors help students negotiate this process so the students pick classes, internships, study away opportunities and other educational components that complement each other. It changes the dynamic in the classroom because students want to be there and are engaged in the process.
- One-third of the students major in the sciences. This is the only women’s college with an established engineering major. They see this as important since only 15% of engineers are women: “What’s up with that? It’s 2012.” Women at women’s colleges do research at a higher rate than women at coed college. They’re a member of AEMES (Achieving excellence in math, engineering, and science) and they attract a lot of women of color and first gen students. They were among the best in the country for women going on into careers in the sciences.
- Praxis (Practical Education) guarantees an internship for every Smith student. Smithies are going to Columbia Records, the Smithsonian, ABC in London, Museum of Modern Art, Dutch Parliament, hospital in Mexico, Max Plank (sciences) and other big-name places for their internships.
They have 35 Houses, not dorms. These are places to live, not just a place to sleep; students often stay with a house for multiple years and they even graduate with their house during Commencement ceremonies. Since Smith is a little on the large side for a small college (about 2800 students, the House system helps make it smaller. The expectation for students is involvement, and that attitude starts in the Houses. They’re an “incubator for leadership” – grooming them for bigger opps off campus. Leadership comes in many forms. It’s about a sense of engagement. Along with so many houses, students have free access to all of the 15 dining rooms on campus; because they can swipe in as many times as they want, they can get the main course at one place, a desert at another, a snack at a third.
- They’re working to change the rhetoric of Women’s Colleges. Face it – it’s as much the “Real World” as any other place. All colleges are bubbles in some regard). Many of the students like not have men around 24/7. “Let’s face it: 18-20 year old men . . . not your shining moment! When you want the men, they’re there. When you don’t, they’re not. The bathrooms are clean. What else do you want?” Women’s Colleges are challenging, empowering, encouraging, and fun. Students learn to work as part of a team; develop self-confidence, initiative, and leadership; and learn to think and write critically. They stress the idea of community which is open and accepting. The college enrolls a very diverse community, including one of the highest percentages of low-income and first gen students in the country. They meet full demonstrated need by they aren’t need blind; they need to make sure they have the right funding available. (By the way, most of the counselors applauded the Director of Admissions for saying the following: she’s offended by the “what about the lesbians?” question. People would never allow people to say “what about all the black students?”).
- I was surprised at the classroom environment; you always hear how much people are encouraged to speak up and I found that it really was the case. I was always in classes I chose to be in.
- How at home I felt and the houses were a community. People were interested in making me feel comfortable.
- How much help you could get with academics. People want to help each other succeed.
- How smart people are. It’s overwhelming to be in a class with brilliant women all the time.
- Public Policy. The professor is engaging and there are hilarious PowerPoint presentations. He gets very excited about the technology. He’s extremely accessible, and students who aren’t even taking his class can wander into office to talk.
- The Inklings about Lewis, Tolkien, and ?? in which they looked at the texts through religious, social, and other contexts.
- Chemistry: she hated it in high school, but had to take it as a requirement for engineering. The prof was great, though, and now she’s a chem tutor.
- Class in Costa Rica meeting with activists, community leaders, etc because it was so inspiring.
The students were asked about favorite traditions:
- Ivy Day: everyone wears white and carries roses. The alum comes back and every class plants its own ivy. When you first come to Smith, you get little pots of ivy from previous classes.
- Illuminations: the whole campus gets covered in paper lanterns and the class year gets written in lights on the pond.
- Diploma Circle: when you walk up for graduation, you walk up in Houses, alphabetical within house. You don’t get your own diploma, so you stand in a circle and exchange until you get yours.
- Mountain Day: the President declares a day off in the fall. Students go apple picking, hiking, having bbqs, etc. It’s a day to relax.
- Tea: Friday or Sunday afternoon, they bring baked goods from the dining hall to the house and people just come down and chill. Alumni House also does it once a semester. STRIDE (students doing research as their work-study job) will tet together for tea once a month. The prof will bake for that.
- The Smith Network: The alumnae are a cult. They’ll do Kick-Off barbecues to send new first-years on their way and do a lot during the year (and watch out for each other after graduation).
- Big Sib/Little Sib. All first year students get assigned an upperclassman who will leave them little presents throughout the week – candy, notes, etc. At tea at the end of the week, there’s a reveal.
- Winter and Spring Weekends. On Spring Weekend, current seniors have underclassmen write prophecies for them, and seniors will leave things to underclassmen.
A counselor asked, “How do you sell a women’s college to high school girls who are done with the drama?” Resoundingly, the answer was: Take guys out of the equation and a lot of the drama goes away! However, this isn’t a convent. A couple of the students said that they forget that they’re at a women’s college because of the Consortium, and there are often men in their classes and in clubs or at parties. One student said that she got off campus a lot; Northampton has a lot going on and is one of the best aspects of Smith (this was echoed by students at other colleges, as well, who would purposefully head there on the weekends when they wanted to get off campus and spend time in a vibrant college town). One said that she chose Smith over MHC because MHC is in a much smaller town, does not have the open curriculum, doesn’t have the House system, and the campus didn’t seem as lively.
Another question revolved around how engineering works with the open curriculum. There is more of a set path in this major: students can directly go on the path of required classes, but they can explore some other classes and still get out in 4 years. The major is technically Engineering Science; students will often go on to grad school in order to specialize, but can get employed directly after Smith, as well. One of the panelists is minoring in architecture because she wants to end up doing civil engineering.
Students at Smith seemed to take full advantage of the Consortium. One student took an intensive Spanish class during J-term at Hampshire; another was currently taking a class at Amherst. They also see the Consortium as a social resource. They go to parties, speakers, concerts, and even the circus where they learned to juggle. The busses run particularly late on the weekends so they can take advantage of late-night events.
If money were no issue, the students would want: New profs for interdisciplinary programs (just in EnviSci or Urban Studies, for example), a new pool, more dining halls (sometimes it gets crowded) and more dining hours because there aren’t many late dining options.