Smith College President Kathleen McCartney advises fellow ‘first-generation’ students

Last modified: Wednesday, September 11, 2013

NORTHAMPTON — When Smith College President Kathleen McCartney entered college in the late 1970s, she said it took time to feel she belonged.

“The hardest part was the first month or so,” said McCartney, who earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Tufts University before going on to earn her master’s and doctoral degrees at Yale. “I was so anxious. I wasn’t sleeping or eating the way I should.”

As the first person in her family to attend college, McCartney said she wasn’t sure how to navigate the curriculum or find a place in the campus social scene.

“But I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and I started having little successes,” she said. “By Thanksgiving, I knew I could do it.”

McCartney shared her story Sunday with a special group of Smith College students: 24 members of this year’s entering class who are “first-generation” college students. Their parents did not attend four-year colleges.

The students, who hail from towns from California to Maine, had all signed up for a First Generation Orientation program offered as part of a weekend of welcoming events for new students.

McCartney’s part in the program was a surprise to participants, who gathered in a small meeting room at 8 College Lane above Paradise Pond. When the president’s name was announced, many gasped and applauded.

As McCartney recounted her experiences at Tufts, Yale — and living on a college campus for the first time as president of Smith — students snapped their fingers to show agreement and support.

“I can relate to what you’re saying,” said Doris Juarez, 17, of Portland, Maine. “It hasn’t resonated with me yet that this is where I’m supposed to be.”

The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 30 percent of entering freshman in the U.S. are first-generation students. In response, a growing number of colleges and universities offer orientation sessions and support services to ease their transition.

At Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, two sessions at this year’s orientation helped first-generation students and their families, said Mary Jo Curtis, the college’s director of media relations. Approximately 18 percent of the members of the incoming class are from families where parents did not attend four-year colleges, she said.

Amherst College reported 18 percent of its incoming class of 466 students are also first-generation students.

This is the third year Smith has offered an orientation for first-generation students, said Maureen Mahoney, dean of the college and vice president for campus life. The idea was proposed by Marge Litchford, a campus residence life coordinator who was a first-generation student.

Mahoney said 11 percent of this year’s freshman class at Smith and 17 percent of the overall student population are the first in their families to attend college. “We want to have these students speak out about who they are and where they come from,” she said. “We want these students to feel entitled.”

President’s story

During her conversation Sunday with students, McCartney described growing up in a working class family of five in Medford outside of Boston. Her dad worked as a machinist and her mom was a homemaker.

Her parents supported her choice to attend college, McCartney said, but because they lacked experience with higher education, “they didn’t really know how to help me.”

Fingers snapped in agreement.

Instead, McCartney said she relied on support from fellow students and faculty members — one of whom allowed her to help with research in the psychology lab and encouraged her to pursue a graduate degree.

“That was a real turning point,” McCartney said. “She saw something in me that I hadn’t seen in myself.”

Fingers again snapped in support.

McCartney urged students to take advantage of similar resources at Smith. “The most important thing is not to hold yourselves back,” she said. “Don’t be shy about trying out for a sports team or a play. Find the people that can support you.

“And don’t forget I have office hours,” McCartney added. “You can always come talk to me.”

Several students then shared their experiences with McCartney. Audrey Govea of Pomona, Calif., talked about growing up in a close-knit Mexican-American family. “My parents are still opposed to my being here,” she said. “They said, ‘Massachusetts? Are you crazy?’”

Angelica Vargas of Pasadena, Calif., said she was able to convince her parents to let her attend Smith after they met an alumna at a recruitment meeting. “Sometimes I feel different and like I can’t connect,” Vargas said. “But I keep reminding myself I’m supposed to be here.”

Afterwards, as participants posed for pictures with McCartney, Kayla Benjamin, an entering Smith student from Hadley, said gathering with other first-generation students was reassuring. “When I first got here, I felt really out of place,” she said. “But hearing everyone else’s stories, I’m a lot more comfortable.”

Benjamin, who hopes to study sociology, said it was especially reassuring to hear from McCartney. “I’m glad the president is also first-generation,” she said. “We’re all adjusting.”


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