Letter to the editor

Reggie Smith


Reggie Smith grew up in the segregated south during the 50s. She is a founding committee board member for the Manchester Child Care Center, the Institute for Peace and Justice, and the Center for Service Learning. She has served on the University of San Diego President’s Advisory Council and is the parent of a USD law school graduate.  

In this piece, Smith shares a message for first-year students in honor of Homecoming weekend.

Here’s her message to new USD students and parents: Your First Rite of Passage.

While you may think of yourself as an adult, until now you have had the security and accountability of your parents as a convenient resource.  That is now gone, and for the first time in your life you are on your own.

Every high school graduate looks forward to leaving home, making their own decisions, controlling their life, and being independent.  While this may sound like the good life, your new freedom requires focused goals, wise decisions, and the maturity to think and act independently of others.

This brings me to my first challenge for you. Know yourself. I am going to ask you to take this time in college to determine who you are. I am not talking about your reputation, that’s what people think you are. I’m talking about your character: what are you passionate about? What are your bottomline fundamental values that you will never compromise? These will likely be tested during your time at USD.

Determining one’s true self takes discipline and introspective thinking. It requires turning off your electronic equipment and sitting quietly for a few moments each day and thinking about yourself. Some take a class in meditation, and some learn to do this on their own. This is a difficult challenge, but an important one.

I was about your age when I began sorting out the kind of person I wanted to be. Growing up in a small, segregated town in Kentucky, I was able to experience early in life that we are not all thought of as equal. One of my earliest memories, about the age of four or five, was going on my routine trip to town with my dad. It was our Saturday morning ritual. We would always stop at the big glass candy counter at the dime store to buy lemon drops. We would walk around town, and my dad would talk politics while I ate lemon drops. One Saturday, while we were in the dime store, I ask my dad if I could have a drink of water. We walked to the back of the store where the drinking fountains were located. There were two, with a sign over each one. I figured it was like the bathrooms, one for ladies, one for men. I asked my daddy which one said “ladies.” He answered, “Neither, one says ‘white,’” the other says ‘colored.’” Although I was white, the labels meant nothing to me. I asked if I could have a drink from the one that said “colored.” He said, “Sure, it’s that one.”

I pulled out the little stool underneath and climbed to get a drink. A clerk in the store ran over but my dad motioned her away. I turned on the water and had a drink. I still remember standing on that little stool and starting to cry. My dad came over thinking I had hit my lip on the fountain and asked what was wrong. I looked up at him with tears in my eyes and said, “Daddy, the water wasn’t colored.”

To this day I cannot tolerate bigotry. I am passionate about human rights and am an outspoken advocate about the rights of children who can’t speak for themselves. It is my core belief that we must care about each other as human beings.

During your time in college your social life will change. You will be busy making new friends, joining new groups, exploring new surroundings, and attending lots of events. Time flies quickly. Before you realize it, your first year will be over, and you will wonder what happened to the time. As you are enjoying your new life, a very different dynamic may be taking place at home.

My second challenge is to remember your family. Note, I said family, not just parents.

Once, I spoke to a father who had just dropped off his daughter at college. He had tears in his eyes. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” he said. “I have pains in my chest, I can’t eat, my heart is broken, I’m not able to walk in my daughter’s room without sobbing.” I could easily relate to his feelings. I felt the same way when my son left for college. Many of your parents felt the same way about you.

I don’t expect you to understand this emotion. The love of a parent for their child is so deep and so powerful there is nothing else to compare it with.

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the famous pediatrician, gave parents one sentence when they asked his advice on raising children: “Love them, feed them, and leave them alone.” Not easy to do!

Don’t forget your brothers and sisters. My brother told me recently that when he thinks of standing at our living room window and watching me leave for college, he still gets that feeling of total loneliness and sadness. That was over 50 years ago!

Stay in touch with your grandparents. That is a unique kind of love. Your grandparents can still criticize their children, but you are perfect in their eyes. Few times in your life will you ever experience a love like that.

It was during an elective class in classic literature that I found the guidepost of my life. The quote was from the book of Micah. The prophet Micah was asked what is man and what is required of him. Micah answered, “Only to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly through life.” That’s how I have chosen to live my life. Live yours fully.

You are fortunate to be a student at the University of San Diego. It’s known for the beauty of its architecture, the elegance of its décor, and, most important, the compassion and dedication of its faculty and staff to provide you with the best educational experience possible. Use this opportunity to find your passion. Get to know yourself as an adult. Enjoy college life, and don’t forget to thank your parents for their years of love and guidance and for giving you the privilege of attending USD.