"An Intergenerational Community of Friends": An Oral History of the Page and Eloise Smith Scholastic Society/Smith Renaissance Society with Bill Dickinson and Gary Miles

177 pages, 2021, Interviewed and Edited by Sarah Rabkin


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This oral history documents the Page and Eloise Smith Society, which offers support, advocacy, and fellowship to UC Santa Cruz undergraduates who come to the university with little or no family backing: former foster children; orphans; former juvenile delinquents; homeless and runaways. The society is the brainchild of alumnus Bill Dickinson, a member of the pioneer class who transferred to the campus in 1965 after having lived on his own since the age of sixteen. At a class reunion in 1999, Dickinson appealed to fellow pioneer alumni to help him build a scholarship fund for former foster children. Out of that initiative grew a volunteer-driven organization—the first of its kind in the US—that has, in the ensuing two decades, served hundreds of students, setting them up with mentoring, financial help, and a collegial community that many have come to think of as a surrogate family. 


In founding the society, Dickinson aimed to carry on the spirit of its namesakes, Page and Eloise (Pickard) Smith, who cultivated a vibrant community at Cowell College, where Page was founding provost. That community provided Dickinson with a cultural and intellectual home when he was a young man, he says, and launched him into happy adulthood. He cites Page Smith, a historian with an interest in educational philosophy, as an important mentor. He continues to espouse the pedagogical ideals he shared with Smith, who insisted that loving students is central to the art of teaching them well, and that a small, intimate community of students and teachers provides the best college education. “True learning is clearly incompatible with immensity,” Smith wrote in a passage that Dickinson has been known to quote. “Formalism, lifeless routines, bureaucratic obtuseness, coldness of heart, impoverishment of spirit are the inevitable consequences of excessive size.”


For this oral history, we were also able to bring in one of Bill Dickinson’s core colleagues, Gary Miles—an emeritus professor of history and classics who created and ran the Smith Society’s mentoring program, beginning shortly after he retired from his faculty position. A beloved teacher, Miles shares Dickinson’s enthusiasm for undergraduates; his decision to retire arose partly, as he notes in the oral history, from disaffection with UCSC’s growing class sizes, which had begun to impede his ability to interact meaningfully with individual students. Working with literature professor John Jordan, Miles built a highly successful program in which every one of Smith’s Collegiate Fellows who requested an adult mentor has been matched with one. Like Dickinson, Miles emphasizes the close mentor-student relationships that have been at the center of the Smith Society’s extraordinary success. In 2018, when various newly restrictive policies threatened to undermine the society’s spirit and mission to an unacceptable degree, the society partially severed its affiliation with STARS (Services to Transfer and Re-entry Students), which had long served as its administrative home. With the enthusiastic encouragement of Cowell College provost Alan Christy, the mentoring program and other Smith components found a new home under Cowell’s aegis, with STARS retaining some important Smith functions. 


While this arrangement seems to be working well at present, both narrators express uncertainty about the society’s future, given that they and others who have long been central to its success are aging out of their roles. In the final portion of the interview, Dickinson and Miles speculate about whether and how the Smith Society might evolve in years to come, and about how its cost-effective, volunteer-driven model might inspire other efforts to serve the needs of UCSC undergraduates—particularly the growing cohort of students who are the first in their families to attend college.