‘I would be lost without my smicks’: Saint Mary’s students reflect on Zahm emails, rally to reclaim term ‘smick’
Genevieve Coleman | Wednesday, May 12, 2021
Editor’s Note: This story contains discussions of sexual assault. A list of sexual assault reporting options and on-campus resources can be found on the Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s and Holy Cross websites.
After the release of an April 12 article from The Observer, the tri-campus community learned of the harmful language used against Saint Mary’s students in several emails written by residents of Zahm House in the 2019-2020 academic year.
Since the article’s publication, Saint Mary’s students have spoken out about the contents of these emails, as well as about the often-derogatory way in which the word “smick” is used to describe students in the campus community, in an attempt to reclaim the term.
On April 29, for example, students organized a Smick Walk to reintroduce the term “smick” in a positive, empowering light. On Tuesday, a Smick rally was held with a similar purpose — and a month after the article’s publication, Saint Mary’s students and community members continue to reflect and engage in conversation about tri-campus relations and sexual assault.
Student leaders respond to Zahm emails, seek to empower tri-campus community
Saint Mary’s senior and Feminists United president Grace Maher, a Smick Walk organizer, recalled her experience reading The Observer article.
“I remember first hearing about it from people who read it and it was pitched to me as ‘There’s another article out where Notre Dame students speak ill of Saint Mary’s students,’ and I wasn’t totally surprised,” Maher said. “I was familiar with sort of that culture that exists of almost a hierarchy where Notre Dame frequently places themselves above us, and so when I read the article, I remember being very shocked at the nature of the language that was used against us.”
Maher said she was shocked that violent language about women could be used in such a casual manner.
“I remember just being caught off guard at the audacity to have said those things over and over on an online platform, knowing sort of the permanence of the internet,” Maher said. “So, I think I sort of was just caught off guard that something so blatantly offensive, and meant to be degrading towards women, not just Saint Mary’s women, but that kind of language is degrading toward women in general.”
After reading the article, Maher noted her mission behind releasing a statement on Instagram on behalf of Feminists United.
“What was said about us was horrible [because of] the fact that people felt it could be said [and] the fact that people still felt so freely that they can say it,” Maher said. “It’s all horrible and it makes me all quite frustrated and upset. But I really wanted us to emphasize the point that that doesn’t have to be the language we use about ourselves. We don’t have to give in to that narrative that they want to push upon us. We can, in fact, claim to be something else and that’s where our power lies.”
Maher said she also submitted a Letter to the Editor to The Observer, ”To my fellow Smicks,” in order to spread her message to the tri-campus community.
“I could have said more — not only as president of Feminists United but as a student here on campus,” Maher said. “As an individual who goes to the school, that language is about me too. And so, I think I just felt as if I had more left to say that I owed not only to the Saint Mary’s students on this campus, but I also owe to the tri-campus community to show that there are groups on this campus who won’t just sit and take that.”
Emphasizing the importance of the tri-campus’ involvement, Maher said she believes the issue should remain a priority on all three campuses.
“This has to be a tri-campus effort because we can do everything to eradicate any kind of problems of any vein on this campus, and that doesn’t take them away from the other two,” she said. “So, I think it’s important to remember that this is a tri-campus issue.”
Maher noted she was encouraged by President Conboy’s statement on April 26, in which Conboy said she stood in solidarity with students and pledged to work to change the culture around sexual violence at the College.
“I think at the end of the day, I’m thrilled that she seems to have so far shown nothing but support for students who want to create change, because I know that that’s a complicated process to take on, especially in your first year at this institution,” Maher said. “But I think it’s going to come down to all three campuses wanting to do the same thing … We need Notre Dame and Holy Cross to follow suit.”
In response to the April 12 Observer article, Student Diversity Board (SDB) released statements on behalf of the executive board and president Carina Garza. Like Maher, Garza said she was not surprised by the language used against Saint Mary’s students.
“Unfortunately, I wasn’t shocked,” Garza said. “I wasn’t surprised … I think it was hurtful and it was very upsetting to read.”
Using the article to explain larger patterns of behavior, Garza illustrated how statements and stereotypes against Saint Mary’s students impact campus culture as a whole.
“We are constantly being degraded,” Garza said. “We are constantly being hurt. We’re being assaulted and we’re the ones who are the victims, but we’re also the ones that are being blamed for it.”
Student Diversity Board vice president Eliana Sanchez said the Board wanted to release a statement after some members attended Take Back the Night on April 15.
“We felt even more enraged over what has been happening,” Sanchez said. “We thought, essentially, the best thing that we could do was write this statement, but be more thoughtful in what we were trying to communicate to students for support, and what we would hope that the students would do in reaction to what had happened. So we kind of wanted our message to be, ‘We’re here for you.’”
In addition to a collaborative statement from the Board, Garza said she also hoped to share her individual opinions.
“For me, I always like having the entire executive board in on something, but I also realized that with my position as president, I’m not saying that it means a little bit more, but I could say I have a little bit of influence and there was things that I personally wanted to say as well,” Garza said. “And I think having the opportunity with my position, I was able to say what I wanted and I was also able to say what we as a board wanted.”
In response to President Conboy’s statement to the campus community, Garza said the College can always support students more.
“I think there can always be more,” Garza said. “I will always say that they can always add more, and they can always be a little bit more direct, but I appreciate that they took the time to say something and stating exactly what the article was about. I just wish that there was more, but I get something is always better than nothing.”
Senior Sarah Catherine Caldwell, president of the College’s Senior Activities Board (SAB), released a statement on behalf of the board. She said reading that type of language being used to refer to her peers was hard to accept.
“It was just heartbreaking,” Caldwell said. “And to know that sexual assault and Saint Mary’s students were being spoken about like that, in such a casual way in an email chain, and the University didn’t do anything about it — it was heartbreaking.”
Caldwell realized that as a student leader, she had a responsibility to reach out to students following the release of the article.
“I knew when I started seeing students speak out on social media that I needed to say something as a student leader, and not hearing anything from our administration — at the time, I don’t think that they knew that it was even something to talk about,” Caldwell said. “I knew that I needed to say something.”
Caldwell said she and the incoming SAB president are planning ways to continue conversations surrounding sexual violence into the next academic year.
“We’re talking about ways that we can include this conversation into next semester’s programming and how we want to change that,” she said. “Because our board, our events are all supposed to be fun, and it’s all light. And so how do you kind of transfer heavy information into a light talk-like event and make it kind of fun? And that’s something that we’re kind of working on for next year.“
Campus community rallies to reclaim ‘smick’ at first-ever Smick Rally on Tuesday
On Tuesday evening, the Student Diversity Board (SDB), Student Activities Board (SAB), Residence Hall Association (RHA) and Student Government Association (SGA) invited students to participate in a “Smick Rally,” which sought to empower students by reclaiming the word “smick.”
The event began with a speech from SGA president Giavanna Paradiso, who spoke about what being a smick means to her.
“I would like to share my definition of what a smick is,” Paradiso said. “My best friend is a smick, my older sister is a smick, my younger sister will be a smick in August, my teammates are smicks, the people I suffered through all-nighters with are smicks, the people who support me are smicks. I would be lost in this world without my smicks. Smick City has truly become my home.”
Following Paradiso, SDB president Carina Garza discussed how the definition of the term has shifted over time.
“The words ‘smick’ and ‘smick chick’ have been seen in a negative and positive light throughout time,“ Garza said. “Each person sees the word differently. Some have seen it as a term of endearment. Some have fallen in love with the word and use it all the time.”
Garza condemned the derogatory use of the word smick because, she said, it devalues the positive definition of the word.
“However, we have come to the point where the harmful use of smick has come to light and can no longer be swept under the rug,” Garza said. “We are talking about those who have stolen our identity and turned it into a term of shame, disgust and subjectivity … The negative use of the term smick leads to the suppression of the positive and beautiful meaning behind it.”
Encouraging the community to take back the positive meaning of the word, Garza spoke about efforts to reclaim the word in correct contexts.
“Alumnae and community members are working toward something that was once a fond and straightforward way to address Saint Mary’s students,“ she said. “There is value in having ownership over what we are called … Smick is about us, not about anyone else.”
RHA president and senior LeeAnn Beaty explained her journey of discovering the definition of the word smick. It was only until she spent time at the College that, she said, she was able to understand what the word truly meant.
“After some time at Saint Mary’s, I figured out what smick meant and realized it is something we should accept,” Beaty said. “A smick was in fact someone who goes to or went to Saint Mary’s … but it also means someone who is strong, empowered and intelligent.”
Beaty called the crowd to action in order to educate people who do not know the meaning of the word.
“There are people — students and alumnae — who don’t know what smick means, and it is time that we as a student body officially defined it,” Beaty said. “Why are we letting other people define who we are? Shouldn’t we as Saint Mary’s students — as smicks — tell and show people who we really are?”
Sarah Catherine Caldwell, SAB president, said the Saint Mary’s community is stronger for realizing the strength of those students who attend the College.
“We should not be surprised that smick has so many different connotations, because this place, Saint Mary’s College, means something different to each and every one of us,” Caldwell said. “Within our community, we see the multifaceted individuals that make our community what it is and having a loose, undocumented term works for us. We know what it needs to be.”
Caldwell referred to the negative use of the term by outsiders, as well as to the College administration’s ban of the use of the term in official merchandise.
“As mentioned before, the outside community turned smick into a derogatory term, and previous Saint Mary’s administration prohibited the use of the term smick as a way of protecting our community,” Caldwell said. “But now the time has come for us to use smick in order to reclaim our identity beyond the confines of the Saint Mary’s College campus.”
Then, Caldwell offered an official definition of the word smick.
“So in working on the reclaiming of the word smick, Giovanna, Carina, LeeAnn and I came up with this official definition: smick — a Saint Mary’s College student or alumna who is smart, empowered and cares for their community. [This] also can refer to the Saint Mary’s College campus,” Caldwell said. “Having a clear official definition eliminates any confusion from within and outside of our community. The four of us know how much the reclaiming of the word smick means and we hope that you can reclaim smick for your generation and future generations of Saint Mary’s College students.”
To conclude the rally, Belles Against Violence Office (BAVO) coordinator Liz Coulston reminded students of confidential College reporting resources — including herself, as well as the Health and Counseling Center and Campus Ministry staff. She also encouraged students to report issues of interpersonal violence to College officials, whether through mandatory reporters and the Title IX department or through confidential sources.
“But most importantly, if you want to report, just report,” Coulston said. “We will make sure that it gets to the right person. We will make sure that that process is as seamless for you as possible. The most important thing is if you want support, to reach out — the only people that need to know will know — and beyond that, the power is in your hands.”
Coulston also reminded students to keep fighting against societal norms of rape culture and sexual violence.
“What I’m going to leave you with is this: Interpersonal violence does not have to be tolerated,” Coulston said. “Rape culture and the resulting derogatory language is not a norm you have to accept. Don’t stop fighting. Make people listen. Embrace your voice.”