Conversations with Sarah: ‘We’re So Grateful to Everyone’
President Sarah Willie-LeBreton gets right to work.
Smith’s 12th president, Sarah Willie-LeBreton, officially began her duties on July 1. Since then, she has, in her words, “hit the ground running,” immersing herself in campus life, meeting with faculty and staff, and traveling to introduce herself to alums—all while managing her own move into the President’s House. On September 1, she marked the start of the new academic year by greeting students and their families at central check-in. Here, Willie-LeBreton shares a few reflections about the early days of her presidency.
On Settling Into the President’s House
“We have steadily been unpacking boxes, and, happily, we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And we’ve been thrilled to work with the Smith College Museum of Art to show work that has not yet graced the walls of 8 Paradise Road. We’ve supplemented these pieces with a few from our own collection, and we look forward to welcoming members of the Smith community to the house that is rapidly becoming our home. We’re so grateful to everyone who is ensuring that the house is both safe and sustainable.”
On Getting To Know the Campus
“The campus is gorgeous, but what has truly made going to work each day so wonderful is the warm welcome everyone has shown me and my family. In some ways, the summer is quieter: There are fewer people on campus, and being outside was mostly delightful—though the rain and mosquitoes were challenging! One of the most meaningful private events was waking up to see a great blue heron on Paradise Pond my first day. One of the most meaningful public events was serving as the guest speaker for Commencement at the School for Social Work [SSW] in August. Dean Marianne Yoshioka, her team, and the faculty in the program are doing really extraordinary work. Participating in that milestone made me curious as to whether there are opportunities to more fully integrate the SSW with other programs. After all, we’re better together.”
On Defining Community
“I hesitate to use the idea of community too frequently when we talk about college campuses. We tend to mean different things by it, so using it too much can engender resentment that comes out of the simple reality of our different experiences. The spiritual educator and sociologist Parker Palmer has made a terrific observation that community is when the most annoying neighbor finally moves out and someone just as annoying moves in! In the humor of that recognition, we realize that community is not a fantasy of liking everyone in our midst; it’s the reality of caring for and about each other to the best of our abilities and then working on and through conflicts when they arise. This is especially important in an academic environment, since individuals you may actively dislike may very well hold the intellectual key to the things you most need to know. Even with all of these caveats, I am finding that the Smith community is one in which many, many people are trying to live lives that are conscious, caring, and accountable. Not everyone agrees on how to do this well, and nothing can keep us from stumbling. But if we do so with love and the openness to change, our motion will always be forward, and we will always be approaching a more beloved community.”
On Working With Her Presidential Peers in the Pioneer Valley
“I’m anticipating a terrific partnership. We’ve already had two Zoom meetings and a dinner together. UMass Chancellor Javier Reyes and Presidents Michael Elliott [from Amherst College], Ed Wingenbach [from Hampshire College], and Danielle Holley [from Mount Holyoke College] are incredibly thoughtful and astute about higher education in general and their own campuses in particular. We’re all interested in supporting higher education in western Massachusetts, and we realize that we can do so much more if we combine our efforts.”