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Smith Medalist Tomi-Ann Roberts: Valuing Our Attention

Alumnae News

Scholar and author Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85 will be celebrated on Rally Day.


Published February 9, 2024

For more than two decades, scholar and author Tomi-Ann Roberts ’85 has been a leading voice for ending the sexual objectification of women and girls.

A professor of psychology at Colorado College, Roberts is one of four remarkable alums who will be awarded the 2024 Smith College Medal at Rally Day on Thursday, Feb. 22, in John M. Greene Hall beginning at 1:30 p.m. EST. The event will be livestreamed on Smith College’s Facebook page. Members of the Smith community are also encouraged to participate in this year’s financial aid fundraising challenge. Specifically, throughout the month of February the board of trustees is matching dollar for dollar all gifts up to $500,000.

From her service as an expert witness in cases involving sexual objectification, to her research and teaching on emotion, reproductive health and morality, Roberts has helped deepen understanding of the harmful consequences of gender discrimination. She has been interviewed numerous times about her own experience being sexually harassed by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein while a student at Smith.

Here, Roberts shares her thoughts on lessons she learned at Smith, important issues she hopes the college community will take up, and her reactions to receiving the Smith Medal.

What would you say is your proudest accomplishment?
“What a hard question! It would not be right to call being a witness to my two daughters building their own incredible lives of meaningful work and love, my own proud accomplishment. So my answer is the Smith Medal.”

What Smith lesson continues to affect your life today?
“The Smith lesson that has stayed with me my whole life is something I might call ‘generative collaboration.’ I went to Smith from a large public high school, precisely because I imagined that a women’s college might be a place where the academic and social life emphasized collaboration over competition. And that’s exactly what I experienced. My friends and classmates and I rooted for one another, cared about one another’s unique strengths and passions, celebrated each other’s successes, and cried with each other over our failures and losses. To this day, I find the most rewarding projects are the collaborative ones, where the boundaries between each person’s contribution blur, and something gets created that no one individual could have created on their own.”

What advice do you have for Smithies who are graduating this year?
“Don’t pursue ‘a dream,’ don’t seek happiness and fulfillment. Instead, do what’s in front of you. And then do the next thing. No matter what it is. It will be in the investment of yourself in the work and the people right near you where you will find ‘flow.’ And then, in learning what kinds of experiences bring that amazing feeling for you, you will increasingly equip yourself to make the best choices among the opportunities that emerge along the way.”

Do you have any special memories of Rally Day at Smith?
“One time my entire house, Emerson, dressed, ridiculously, as glue bottles. We had a kooky slogan: ‘Emerson Glue: We stick together!’ I also have vivid, almost embodied memories of the shouting and stomping and rumbling in John M. Greene Hall, where it seemed the whole place might lift off and fly over Northampton. We would chant in unison, ‘Jill! Jill! Jill!’ for our president, Jill Ker Conway. In the early 1980s, to be in a raucous audience of women screaming in love and admiration of our woman president and the women being honored on Rally Day, was a revelation.”

What does being honored with the Smith Medal mean to you?
“I have tried to explain to my friends and colleagues that this honor is truly the highest one I can possibly imagine receiving. We all want to be seen. But to be seen by the place that made me who I am, for doing what I already love to do—feminist psychological science and advocacy—is an indescribable honor. If pride, gratitude, humility and awe were combined into one enormous feeling, that would be this feeling.”

What issues would you like to see Smithies tackling today?
“As a psychologist, my biggest concern for our world today is the cost to our wellbeing of relentless, increasingly non-optional, participation in the attention economy. Digital platforms are more and more capturing every waking moment of our focus, commodifying our gaze for financial gain. We see that young people’s mental health is suffering, our politics are being poisoned by misinformation, and on and on. Because our ability to care for ourselves, each other and our planet is inextricably tied to our capacity to choose where and how we direct our attention, I hope Smithies will bring all their expertise and propensity for collaboration to the fight for the right of all humans to our most precious resource: our attention.”

In conjunction with Rally Day, the Smith board of trustees is planning to collectively donate $500,000 in support of student scholarships. Why is it critical to support Smith philanthropically?
“I was a work-study student on financial aid at Smith. My father lost his job during my sophomore year, and my mother was a public school teacher, and for a couple of months in 1982 apparently there was a worry that they could not afford for me to stay enrolled. Although they kept me from the details of how this all happened, in the interest of not burdening me because I was so in love with my life of learning at Smith, the college provided more aid to me so I could stay. Later, in my junior year, my work-study job was in the psychology department, doing research for a professor. This experience was invaluable in instilling in me the confidence that I could pursue a graduate degree in psychological scientific research. In other words, I owe a debt of profound gratitude to those who donate to Smith for student scholarships and I try to pay that debt forward by donating myself.”