Whittier College’s newly-appointed Vice President and Dean of Students, Bruce Smith, wants Whittier students to feel at home on campus. “I think education works when people feel like they belong,” said Smith. To this effect, Smith has been, and will continue meeting students, faculty, and staff one-on-one. “I think this year is about me getting to know people here, getting to know the institution a little bit better, hearing what people love about this place, [and] hearing what people would like to change about this place,” he said.
Smith was chosen from a pool of around 100 applicants by a search committee made up of students, staff, and faculty. “From a very strong pool of candidates, Dean Smith emerged as a leader truly dedicated to student success who has the skills to build a thriving Student Life program at Whittier, and he impressed us with his commitment to fostering a sense of belonging for all students,” wrote the committee in a statement to the Quaker Campus. “With innovative ideas and extensive experience in leading programs for college students, he knows how important everything that happens beyond the classroom is to enhance the student experience.”
Smith went to Brown University in Rhode Island where he majored in American Civilization, a field of study that combines English Literature and American History. Smith described it as a sort of ‘American Anthropology.’ He got his M.S. in Education from the University of Southern California and later his Ph.D. in education from the University of California Berkeley.
After receiving his undergraduate degree, Smith cut his teeth working as a high school English teacher before moving on to working in higher education. His first collegiate job was working as a Student Affairs Officer at the University of California Berkeley, acting as an academic advisor for student athletes.
Before coming to Whittier’s campus, Smith worked at Reed College in Portland, Oregon for nine years, moving from assistant dean to associate dean for student and campus life. “[Being Associate Dean] allowed me to supervise the student and campus life departments,” said Smith. “So, Residence Life, multicultural affairs, student engagement, our athletic’s fitness, and outdoor program as well as a couple other spaces.” He was then promoted to Dean of Students. Reed College has a similar structure to Whittier, in that the Dean of Students is usually the same person as the Vice President, but in the case of Smith, he and his boss split the role. His boss became the Vice President and he the Dean of Students.
Smith believes strongly in the importance of fostering relationships with his coworkers and students, a belief that has been bolstered by his experience work as a teacher and as an advisor. “I want to be able to build strong relationships with students around what they’re learning,” said Smith. “All of that work that I got to do one-on-one with students when I was working with athletes, in the classroom when I was teaching, that’s helped prepare me for that work here.”
Smith also believes that a college campus should be an inclusive place where students and faculty feel at home. This comes in part from Smith’s experience working in the field of Diversity and Inclusion. Smith acted as Director of the Black/African American Cultural Center and Director of African American Student Affairs at Colorado State University, and the University of Arizona, respectively. Smith describes the goals of these positions as aligning closely with those of Whittier’s Office of Equity and Inclusion, except, specifically, for Black students.
Smith said that he gave his students a warning, that “for many students of color, colleges can feel like not only foreign places, but places that don’t accept them.” However, he also offered the College’s support. “I told those students at the beginning of each academic year, ‘this campus belongs to you from one corner to the next, and you should feel free to interact with the campus in such a way,’” said Smith. “If they [find] places where they [don’t] feel like they belong, they should let someone in our office know and we [will] do some work to alleviate that problem.”
As for fostering a welcoming atmosphere at Whittier College, Smith does not have any easy answers, but he does have some ideas. “I hope students know that they can count on me to be available to talk,” he said. He also intends to help assemble a taskforce to assess the feasibility of creating a gender equity center on campus. “Hopefully by middle-to-late Spring semester, we’ll have a report with some recommendations about what we can do here at Whittier in terms of a gender equity center,” said Smith.
For his first year as Dean, Smith hopes to start nurturing relationships and getting to understand how the campus functions. He encourages students to approach him when they see him out on campus. “I want folks to know that I can’t do this work if I don’t know them, and what I want to encourage folks to do. If you see me [on] a pathway, walking across campus, stop and say hello. Introduce yourself to me . . . and come visit me here in my space.”