March 22, 2004

Mrs. Smith goes to class

By Eric Rangus

When Kim Smith took over last year as senior chair of the President's Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), her attitude was easy to describe, albeit slightly unorthodox.

"I was terrified," said Smith, executive administrative assistant in the School of Medicine. "I'm serious. I was very active in high school student government, but that is hardly a comparison."

Smith is unnecessarily modest. She first joined PCSW as an alternate in 1999. Prior to ascending to senior chair in 2003, she served a year as PCSW secretary and another as junior chair. She has been no stranger to leadership.

"She undersells herself," said Beth Seelig, professor of psychiatry and former PCSW chair. "Kim fosters a spirit of collaboration in the commission. She is a consensus builder."

"One of my goals was to make sure the faculty, staff and student concerns committees had all the tools necessary to complete the projects they were working on," Smith said. "The subcommittees are the meat and potatoes of the PCSW; I can't take a lot of credit. If there is a word that's better to describe them than 'phenomenal,' I don't know what it is."

Smith also wanted the commission to reach out to students as much as possible. "I want students to know they can be empowered by women in positions other than their own. And by 'positions,' I don't mean 'jobs.' I mean women with families, women who are high in academia, women who might have different perspectives than a student might."

Smith came to Emory in August 1993 as a temporary employee in Human Resources (HR). The Norfolk, Va., radio station where she worked had been sold, and the new owner cleaned house. At the time, the economics of the Smith household were already a bit dicey; Kim's husband, Lewis, had been laid off his contracting job 10 months earlier. So they made a new start.

"I came here to Atlanta and got the job at Emory after just two weeks," Smith said. "It was an incredible opportunity for me and my family."

Never having worked in academics before, Smith figured Emory would be a pit stop on the road to something else. It didn't happen that way. Soon enough, she was hired on full time and in October 1994 moved over to the School of Medicine. Smith once supported four medical school administrators, but now she solely assists Claudia Adkison, executive associate dean for administration and faculty affairs.

"It's a lot of work, but it's been a wonderful experience for me and I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," Smith said.

Emory has provided her not just with professional opportunities, but with academic ones as well. She attended both Norfolk State and Old Dominion universities but because of financial considerations did not graduate. In 1996, Smith began taking classes at Emory as a student in special standing. She applied as a full-time student, and while she wasn't accepted, that didn't deter her. She continued taking classes--one per semester, most falls and springs.

A French culture major in Virginia, Smith said she intends to declare women's studies as her major once she reapplies to Emory as a transfer student.

"I didn't know I was a feminist," said Smith, who took her first women's studies course a few years ago and hasn't gone outside the subject since. "But PCSW and women's studies courses helped the light bulb go on. I've always been an advocate of things like equal pay for equal work, and when you become a mother, things that weren't necessarily women's issues--that you didn't really think about--just jump right out.

"Child care, for instance," she continued. "My daughter having the same opportunities as my son. I didn't know I was a feminist, but I absolutely am. In PCSW, I've noticed that when the commission accomplishes something, it's better for everybody in the Emory community, not just its women."

This semester Smith is enrolled in one course, "(Re-)Conceiving Women: Reproduction and the Female Body." The junior-level class is taught by Tiffany Worboy, a doctoral student in women's studies and a dean's teaching fellow. Worboy first met Smith in 2000 when she was hired for a summer as a graduate worker in the School of Medicine.

"I loved working with her," Worboy said. "She does a lot but never asks for credit for anything." Worboy suggested Smith sign up for her class because they had a mutual interest in fertility issues.

"(Re-)Conceiving Women" is small, just six students, but that intimacy makes for an ideal environment for both instructor and student.

"She brings a lot of energy to class, and she is always positive," Worboy said. "I commend her for being a re-entry student. I know it must be difficult being in school now. It's really challenging, and she has a very difficult job. But she is an ideal student. She has experiences; she is a mother, and she can bring that perspective to class."

"Students never fail to surprise me," said Smith, a mother of two college-age children: Yasmin-Renee, 21, and Evandon, 19. Husband Lewis, while he does work as a contractor, is an artist by trade. "I shouldn't be surprised, but sometimes I forget what it's like to be 19 or 20 years old. The classroom brings it crashing down on me some days.

"I'm married, I have children, I've been in the workplace--things that students don't think of right now," she continued. "I often have the opportunity to bring that up. I'm never afraid to talk. The teacher asks a question and my classmates sit there not responding. I'll raise my hand, and I'm sure they're rolling their eyes and thinking, 'She's going to talk again.' But I don't care," she laughed.

"I think that's helped me with my voice," Smith said, becoming serious again. "The first time I did that, I was like, 'So, I'm not getting on your nerves raising my hand all the time?' That helped a lot. I thought I was being a blabbermouth."

The class ties in nicely with one of Smith's other areas of interest. She is a "doula," a traditional childbirth attendant. Not a health care provider or a midwife, but something more than a coach, doulas ideally begin their work with parents at conception. They help them with a birth plan, attend birthing classes, are present during delivery, and remain postpartum to offer new parents guidance and assistance. Doulas provide emotional and physical support to birthing women and their partners, as well as additional guidance in post-birth decisions.

Some doulas are full time, but Smith has to juggle those responsibilities within her workweek. She has a served as a doula for three mothers, attending about 10 childbirths all told.

"Seeing a baby come into the world is the most miraculous, incredible thing," Smith said. "Every time I see parents look at their child for the first time, I want to cry. When you hear that baby's first sound, you are never the same."