While a number of women’s colleges have begun admitting men or become absorbed into coeducational universities, Smith College has grown into the largest independent women’s college in the country. In 1871, Sophia Smith founded the school to provide women with a liberal arts education as rigorous as the curricula of esteemed all-male institutions. In her will, she bequeathed her $400,000 inheritance so that women’s “power for good will be incalculably enlarged.” Today, Smith is one of the nation’s preeminent liberal arts colleges. Its roster of more than 60,000 alumnae are leaders in government, film, medicine, and academia, and the Northampton school counts First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush among its alumnae.
Smith sits on a 125-acre campus at the center of a town that enjoys a vibrant cultural scene. Though Northampton boasts a population of just 30,000, it offers many of the amenities of a major city like Boston, which is 90 miles to the east. Moroccan, Thai, Indian, Spanish, and Italian restaurants line Main Street, which bustles with activity, especially on warmer days and nights. Venues like the Pearl Street Night Club and the Calvin Theatre draw crowds from across the Commonwealth to sit in a cozy performance space and hear Bill Cosby’s stories, Ani DiFranco’s candidness, or Ray Lamontagne’s soul-influenced sound.
Follow Main Street uphill, past the various clothing stores, salons, bookstores, and jew- elry shops, and you’ll come across the Grecourt Gates, erected in 1924 as a memorial to the Smith College Relief Unit who rebuilt ruined villages in France during World War I. The women refused to leave the war-torn country until they completed their mission. Similarly, the gates symbolize the responsibility of being a Smith College alumna, armed with the breadth of a liberal education and prepared to throw one’s energies into world progress.
But the gates at the top of the hill invite the community to experience Smith, too. The scenic New England campus changes character with each season. Every fall, when New England bursts with sharp reds, yellows, and greens, students may hear a bell ringing at the Helen Hills Chapel signaling one day off from classes to enjoy the peak foliage by apple picking, picnicking, or hiking with housemates. On a cooler day in November, the administration dismisses afternoon classes to honor Otelia Cromwell, Smith’s first known African-American graduate. Musical events, films, and workshops commemorate the event, which intends to address racism in a diverse and multicultural environment. On Election Day 2004, Lani Guinier, the first female tenured professor at Harvard Law School, delivered the keynote address titled “Race, Exclusions, and Political Elections.” It was a timely lecture in which Professor Guinier’s explanation of the political process helped ground the audience with the weight of another close election.
Between the first and second semesters, students enjoy a six-week-long winter break— an opportunity to work part-time or try out a new discipline in the classroom, through an internship or as a volunteer. Students may return to campus during the break, called Interterm, to enroll in extracurricular courses such as savvy socializing or bhangra. Others will opt for stricter lessons in a foreign language and in topical areas like “Changing Native American Representations in Film” or “The Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.” With fewer students on campus, housemates often veg out and drink cider by the fireplaces in common areas.
When students return to campus in January, layers of snow blanket the ground, and the once Ivy covered buildings are coated in white. Sledding becomes a predominant sport, as does skating on Paradise Pond, a body of water in center campus surrounded by hiking trails and redwood trees. The shallow pond becomes a center of campus activity in the spring with canoes and boats floating on its cloudless waters and joggers circling the natural paths. Professors often eschew the nineteenth-century brick buildings to hold class on green grass outside.
By commencement, a new generation of Smith alumnae leaves the familiar campus cycle to apply their interdisciplinary skills to new neighborhoods and workplaces. All Smith students, who fondly call themselves “Smithies,” look forward to this momentous occasion when they can share Smith with their closest family and friends. Students work hard and cultivate strong friendships with their housemates, professors, and staff. Smith alumnae all share a bit of regret in having to leave what has been their second home.
A popular bumper sticker reads, “It’s not a girl’s school without men, it’s a women’s college without boys.” It resonates with students less because it’s catchy than because it fits.
The first time I saw Smith was as I was moving into my house, days before I would begin my first semester. Sitting in the backseat of my family’s minivan, I watched my father follow the signs to Smith College, driving down exit 18 off Interstate 91. We arrived at an antique shop, a car wash, and an abundance of trees. I thought I had made a huge mistake. But as we drove closer to campus, more and more cafes, bookstores, theatres, and restaurants appeared. Main Street bustled with activity, and I received my first glimpse of Northampton’s lively social scene. Soon, we were driving along the college campus, whose manicured lawns and aged brick buildings presented a weighty sense of history and import. This was a community that had much to offer, and I was excited to begin my career there.
It’s difficult to capture Smith through writing; it’s a place whose nuances, charms, and pleasures require first-hand experience. The close relationships with professors are only known through classroom interactions and office hour visits where confusing passages or mathematical formulas are explained. Smith is a place where a particular grade still has meaning, and students work hard to become successful leaders in their academic and extracurricular lives. But one’s personal life is cared for too. Not many people can say they practiced the piano in their house living room on weekends, or sipped tea with their housemates in front of the fireplace. At Smith, the entire person is nurtured, challenged, and encouraged to
Every year, the U.S. Department of State gives out the Fulbright award, a scholarship that supports student projects and academic endeavors in foreign countries. Smith has consistently ranked among the top liberal arts schools in the country to turn out Fulbright Scholars. In 2005–2006, Smith boasted the best success ratio in the country and topped the nation’s list of bachelor’s institutions producing students for the esteemed international exchange program. Seventeen of Smith’s thirty-eight applicants taught English in South Korea, Germany, and France, while others engaged in academic research in countries including Italy, Nepal, and Bolivia.