The Observer is a student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame, Saint Mary's & Holy Cross. Learn about us.



Following release of Zahm emails, Saint Mary’s community members strive to reclaim the term ‘smick’

| Friday, April 30, 2021

Facing an attentive crowd, senior Grace Maher thanked the Saint Mary’s community for attending the first-ever Smick Walk, a celebration and reclamation of the word “smick.” Students, faculty and administrators gathered on Le Mans Green Thursday afternoon to demonstrate their support.

“Even just showing up, you’re proving something, and that’s important,” Maher said. “I got asked if I think this is the solution — events like this — and I think it’s definitely a start. It’s a step forward. But I would encourage all of you to continue this discussion and this work.”

Maeve Filbin | The Observer
Senior Grace Maher addresses a crowd that gathered to reclaim the term “smick” for Saint Mary’s students after it was used in a derogatory manner in a series of emails between Zahm House members in the 2019-2020 academic year.

This walk and other efforts to reintroduce the term “smick” in a positive, empowering light are the result of a renewed conversation surrounding tri-campus relations, stereotypes and sexual assault. On April 12, The Observer released a string of screenshotted emails that had circulated Zahm House during the 2019-2020 academic year, sent to about 200 residents and alumni. These emails contained graphic, derogatory language and jokes regarding sex and sexual assault, some of which was directed at Saint Mary’s students.

Maher, the president of Feminists United, said she was inspired by the SlutWalk, a historical feminist movement calling for an end to rape culture, and organized the walk “to reclaim the power behind language and words used to demean [Saint Mary’s students].”

“The language our counterparts on other campuses use to describe us does not have to be the language we use to describe ourselves,” she said. “This is not just a Saint Mary’s issue. It’s not just a Notre Dame issue. This is something we’re going to have to fix together and something that all three campuses need to work on.”

The word itself originated as a shortened way to refer to Saint Mary’s College students, with the acronym S.M.C. often being pronounced as “smick.” In the Zahm House emails, the use of the word “smick” to refer to Saint Mary’s students in a hyper-sexualized, degrading way revealed deeper layers to a “troubling culture” within Zahm House, as well as a greater issue permeating the tri-campus.

Senior Susi Guerrero joined the walk with a handmade sign that read, “Smick: (a noun) a strong, smart, powerful, kind woman,” in red marker.

“I think it’s important that we take back what it really means to be a smick,” Guerrero said. “Unfortunately, it’s something that has been taken away from us, and I think with everything going on, especially this month, it’s important that we bring it back to what it really means to be a smick.”

The emails obtained by The Observer have started conversations with individuals outside the Saint Mary’s community, Guerrero added, with some of her peers from Notre Dame joining the discussion.

“Even some of my guy friends started to talk about what they had heard about what a smick means,” she said. “I think that starting this conversation is going to help to bring back the true meaning of a smick.”

First-year Bailey Siglow said she attended Thursday’s walk to show her support for all her fellow Saint Mary’s students. (Editor’s Note: Siglow previously worked for The Observer’s Video Unit).

“I think it’s important that we’ve reclaimed this word because obviously, looking at the emails that came out, it really kind of showed how ‘smick’ has been used as a really derogatory term towards us,” Siglow said. “To me, being a smick means to be very confident and very considerate of others, and just being a part of an amazing community.”

Siglow was joined by first-year Nadia Muniz, who said she associates the term “smick” with the larger Saint Mary’s community.

“It’s part of the sisterhood,” Muniz said. “And I feel like, as a freshman, maybe I haven’t experienced it as much, but I still feel like it can turn into a good and empowering word for everyone.”

Because the use of “smick” within the tri-campus has occasionally become derogatory, the word was banned from merchandise and signage by previous administrators. In the wake of the Zahm emails and the surge of support for Saint Mary’s students, four student leaders drew up a proposal to reintroduce the word on campus.

Senior Sarah Catherine Caldwell, president of Student Activities Board, said throughout her four years at Saint Mary’s, she has questioned why student clubs and organizations couldn’t produce “smick” merchandise. The previous administration explained to student leaders that because the word was not seen as empowering by the larger community, it would not be included in College or club spirit wear, Caldwell said.

“And when the Zahm emails were exposed through The Observer article … we knew that something needed to be said,” she said. “We knew that the community was hurting.”

Caldwell recalled the instances in which she has been demeaned as a smick — something she said she’s quick to shut down.

“We interact with Notre Dame guys more often at parties or at the bar, and so there’s alcohol involved,” Cadwell said. “You see us as party girls because that’s the only context you see us in. You don’t see us in the classroom; you don’t see us running campus events; you don’t see us going up to our administration, and dialoguing and making change happen. And that’s why, I think, we get pinned as ‘the party girls’ or ‘the sluts,’ to quote the emails. But we’re so much more than that.”

After several individuals within the Saint Mary’s administration released statements addressing the emails, including College president Katie Conboy and vice president for Student Affairs Gloria Jenkins, Caldwell said she received an email from a first-year student requesting “smick” merchandise. This ultimately led to the collaboration between Caldwell, Student Government Association president Giavanna Paradiso, Student Diversity Board president Carina Garza and Residence Hall Association president LeeAnn Beaty.

The proposal was received positively by residence life director Ariel Leary and hall director Nicole Hundt, Paradiso said, and was pushed forward into the higher levels of Saint Mary’s administration. Leary and Hundt were unavailable for comment.

Pending approval from other areas within the administration, Paradiso said, the production of smick merchandise will include a definition of the term.

“We need to document what it means and create a definition that we can use so that people feel comfortable then using ‘smick’ to refer to their friends and to refer to this campus,” she said. “That’s obviously not going to happen overnight because I don’t think this problem was created overnight. But I do think we’ve started the process.”

Paradiso said she decided to release her own statement on behalf of the Student Government Association after attending Take Back the Night, the annual event dedicated to ending sexual violence.

“The majority of the women that speak are wearing EMX sweatshirts, they’re wearing French cross rings and necklaces — I recognize them, they go to my school,” she said. “So, I just thought it was important to take an official stance against people using ‘smick’ in a derogatory way, but also its correlation to sexual assault and violence.”

Liz Coulston, coordinator of the Belles Against Violence Office, participated in Thursday’s Smick Walk and said it’s important for individuals who identify as smicks to be able to define that term for themselves.

“Anytime derogatory language is used is unacceptable,” she said. “And I think it’s really important that in ways like today, the students really show that it’s not OK and that they ask for more, they ask for better.”

The Smick Walk and merchandise proposal are efforts to not only make Saint Mary’s a better place for future students, Paradiso said, but to stand in solidarity with alumnae and current students.

“My little sister is going to be a first-year at Saint Mary’s next year, and I just want it to be even a millimeter better for her,” she said. “I don’t want anybody to say to my little sister, ‘Oh, you’re only here because you want to marry a boy from Notre Dame.’ For that reason, I obviously think about future Belles. And it is important to past Belles who have experienced any type of emotional damage, that they know that we’re here for them. We’re one community, and we’re just as important as anybody else.”

Tags: , , , , , ,

About Maeve Filbin

Maeve is a senior studying political science and economics at Saint Mary's, as well as Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame. She serves as an Assistant Managing Editor of The Observer, and thinks everyone should support student journalism.

Contact Maeve