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From Law Classroom to General Counsel's Office: Cheryl Smith L'83

By Kenneth Stratton '19 MONDAY, JULY 29, 2019 - 12:00 PM WNE100

For Cheryl Smith L’83, there were many different “twists and turns” on her path of life, as she continued to learn and grow as a student and a professional. Ultimately, that path would lead her to Western New England University – not once, but twice.

A native of Fall River, Massachusetts, Smith grew up in a community that valued close knit relationships. Attending Wellesley College in 1968, she’d soon come to realize that she loved being in an academic environment. Her education didn’t stop there, as she moved right on to get her master’s degree in French at Wesleyan University in 1975. Her thesis on worker’s rights, depicted in Emile Zola’s Germinal, would pique her interest in employment issues.

Staying close to higher education, Smith accepted work at the Sterling Memorial Library and the Mellon Center for British Art at Yale University, as she pondered a degree in library science. Instead, she took a position at the State University of New York at Purchase (SUNY), while she completed a master’s degree in Student Personnel Administration at Teacher’s College, Columbia University.

“My life changed when I attended Columbia,” Smith recalled. “There was not a moment there I wasn’t happy,” she said.

At SUNY Purchase, Smith first worked closely with students facing complex psychological issues. She then began codirecting programs with the Career Development Office at SUNY Purchase, and in this role enjoyed helping students identify their skills and passions. Smith next joined the Career Counseling Office at Trinity College in Hartford, CT.

“Trinity was another life-transforming moment,” Smith recalled with fondness. As assistant director and later associate director, Smith excelled in her role in career counseling at Trinity. She brought back alumni, created résumé building workshops, and stressed the importance of how to dress professionally, and how to “crush” an interview.

But Smith would leave Trinity in 1981 to establish a career development program at Phoenix Home Life Insurance. This was an important function for the company, as she explained it, because many employees did not understand how to enter college as working adults, or where to find support as single parents - all important steps in advancing a career.

By that time, however, Smith was also a student of law at Western New England. Having always considered it, Smith felt like the time was right for law school, and knew immediately that the school was right for her.

“When I came here, they had me at hello,” Smith said, acknowledging how personable her first experience was, thanks to the warm welcome from Professor William Metzger and colleagues. “I knew immediately, this is where I want to be.”

Studying closely with the man who would become her husband, they both passed the bar in 1983. As the two began to establish a family, Smith left Phoenix. She’d spend the next several years at Otis Elevator, working as Director, Human Resources, North America.

By 1986, Smith had heard that Trinity was looking for a new in-house attorney. In Smith, the College found the perfect person to be their Director of Institutional Affairs. At the same time, the Smith family continued to expand: son David had been born in 1983, and was followed by brothers Jonathan and Ben in 1985 and 1987, respectively. After six years at Trinity, Smith’s path would take her into downtown Springfield, where she’d work for the next eight years as an attorney with Donahue & Cross.

“I found a niche in representing males over 40,” Smith recalled. She explained that at the time, it appeared that males over 40 were being phased out of large companies. In addition to the employment work she was passionate about, Smith gained experience in criminal law, trusts and estates, and post-divorce matters among other areas of the law.

As the 20th century came to a close, Smith crossed paths with a former colleague from her legal work in Connecticut. Nancy Thomas was leaving her position at Western New England, and suggested to Smith that she pursue the opening. She got the job in 2000, and has been at the University ever since.

“Dr. Caprio believes in treating people civilly,” Smith said, citing that as a big part of the reason why she’s stayed for nearly two decades. “If Dr. Caprio is greeting a trustee, a parent, a prospective student… everyone on this campus is treated as if what they have to say is as important as the next individual,” she added.

Smith believes Caprio’s attitude has really set the tone for how the University runs on a daily basis and informs how she does her work as General Counsel.

“That’s really my job – Dr. Caprio’s culture of treating people with respect – that governs my work here,” Smith explained. Treating people with respect is at the heart of what Smith does, especially in her work on cases of sexual assault, sexual violence, harassment, and discrimination.

Her path has been one full of “twists and turns,” leaving Smith with a lifetime of service and experience, including two separate experiences at Western New England, first as a law student, then as General Counsel.

“I’ve treasured my 19 years here, I treasured my law school experience here too. I do sound like our marketing materials, but I believe the individual matters here,” the General Counsel said. “I have loved, every day.”