Student Profile: Paula Smith

Paula Smith was 33 years old the first time she encountered a female minister. That minister was the Rev. Janet Cooper Nelson, Chaplain of Brown University, who happens to be an alumna of Harvard Divinity School. The two became friends after Smith attended a service at the Newport Congregational Church, where Cooper-Nelson, a minister in the United Church of Christ, was standing in for a vacationing pastor. And the friendship served to fuel Smith's own burgeoning desire to pursue a ministerial vocation. 

Michael Dwinnell, an Episcopal priest and theologian, had long been an important influence on Smith. She had attended several of Dwinnell's seminars and retreats, and knew that he, too, is a graduate of HDS. "Michael Dwinnell had an intimacy with God that was beautiful and contagious," she said. "He taught me to surround each day with prayer, and through his mentoring, I became captivated by the idea of studying theology." Dwinnell's seminars set in motion Smith's commitment to faith, self-liberation, and theological examination.

"Janet Cooper Nelson was the second person I'd known in ministry who had attended HDS," Smith explained recently. "As I realized I loved and admired what both their ministries had come to, HDS started to fascinate me. I was already contemplating going to seminary, so the idea was planted, 'Maybe someday I could go to Harvard, myself.' "

This notion was soon followed by doubts. "I was dismissed from college due to poor academic performance when I was 20, so I wondered if I could do the work and questioned if I was smart enough," she said. Because Smith did not yet have a bachelor's degree, she knew it was going to be a "long, arduous struggle" to get to any seminary, never mind Harvard. But she was accustomed to struggling.

During her teens and twenties, substance abuse "greatly contributed to my academic problems," she said. Her leaving college was followed by a series of unsatisfying jobs including a stint in the military. Smith's problems spiraled to the point where she was spending everything she made on alcohol, and she even found herself homeless for a spell.

Smith found a solution only when one of her employers, a person in recovery, showed compassion for her by telling her that she needed help and where she could find it. In 1987, Smith became involved in a self-help program and has been sober ever since. During that time, Smith was working as a financial manager. "I was trying to transition from the corporate world because when I became sober, sober life changed everything—my personal goals, my beliefs, and my priorities," she said. "I wanted to be part of the solution and not the problem. I wanted to be more of service."

Volunteer work allowed Smith to network. She started a job at the Urban League in Providence, working as a case manager for pregnant and parenting teens. Then she heard about a position teaching literacy to pregnant and parenting teen-age mothers. She applied and got the job. "I really loved that job," she said. "The teens were such a energetic and intelligent group of young women, and the problems holding them back were so clear." The "systemic problems" the teen-age mothers faced included "poverty, abuse, domestic violence, and assuming subservient roles," which led to their "getting gratification through having children, both as a cultural phenomenon and for their own personal need to survive and be loved."

Substance-abuse problems were common among the young women and their families, Smith said: "Alcohol is the 'monster' in many cases, propelling other issues of abuse and violence, all of which are underlying causes of illiteracy and low basic skills. If people are being battered and molested daily, they're not going to go to school and they are not motivated to create a sufficient life for themselves." Because of her own history as someone born to a 15-year-old mother, Smith said, "I connected with them and related to their stories."

Smith worked with the teen-age mothers for two years, then she fell in love. Her new relationship took her to Los Angeles, where she returned to school and eventually completed her bachelor's degree at Antioch University. She majored in psychology. "Antioch did not offer a major in religious studies," she said, "but I believed that psychology would be an important element to integrate with my study of theology; particularly in terms of ministering to people and having some understanding of human behavior."

While at Antioch, Smith's sense of mission and entrepreneurial talents led her to establish a literacy program in Los Angeles. The program, which she named the Lorde-Baldwin Adult Education Project, helped adults earn high school diplomas while undergoing drug and alcohol rehabilitation. As founder and leader of the organization, Smith provided the many practical skills needed to run a business, including facilitating the training program for volunteers and sharing motivational skills.

Through her leadership role, Smith grew aware of her emerging strengths: "compassion, consistency, intellect, and the ability to see beyond the symptom of a problem and create a broader solution." Perhaps most important, Smith said, she brought her own personal faith and spiritual vision to the role. The program has continued despite Smith's relocation to attend Harvard as a Master of Divinity student.

Smith's excellent academic standing and her demonstrated commitment to social and economic justice led to her selection as class speaker at her June 2002 graduation from Antioch University. Smith had at that point achieved both a college degree and an acceptance to pursue a graduate education at Harvard Divinity School. "I applied to Harvard and Berkeley, but Harvard gave me a better financial package, and I definitely wanted to attend Divinity School here," Smith said.

During the summer after graduation, Smith was confirmed as an Episcopalian, and she is currently in the process of ordination in the Episcopal Church through the Diocese of Los Angeles. In early fall 2002, Smith drove from Los Angeles to Cambridge and took up residence at an HDS dorm. Her first year of study has consisted of courses at Episcopal Divinity School, including "Liturgics and Classical Anglican Theology," and "Pastoral Vocations in the Christian Traditions," "Old Testament," and "Hindu Ethics" at HDS.

Smith soon decided that "studying merely to prepare for ordination felt too limiting, in terms of what I can obtain here at Harvard," so she started looking into courses in ethics and religion and policymaking to support her interest in "affecting change on a institutional level." To that end, she has taken the course "Religion, Politics and Public Policy in the U.S." at the Kennedy School of Government.

She frankly admits something that first-year Divinity School students often feel but don't always voice: It has been a confusing year. "I came to Divinity School absolutely sure about who I was, where I was going, how I was going to affect change in the world, but now I have many more questions than answers," she said. "I'm way out of my comfort zone being so challenged. Sometimes I also feel like I'm in a holding pattern, standing still and waiting for what the next step is going to be."

Despite that feeling, Smith is an active contributor to the Diversity Committee, for which she was a student speaker. She also moderated a panel discussion at the Religion and Culture Conference this spring.

As disorienting as the first year can be, Smith abides by certain guiding principles. Regardless of her ultimate choices, most important to her is maintaining her integrity, being true to her desires and a vision of her call to serve. "I have in no way questioned that I'm called to serve, but I am learning that I need to seek opportunities that will allow me to develop into my utmost potential," she explained. The questions she finds herself asking these days, which she says evolved during a "Introduction to Theological Education in Ministry" course in the fall semester, include "How am I going to align my skills with the needs of the world?" and "What is my vision of ministry?"

Thankfully, Smith has two more years to address those important questions. As she explores field-work possibilities for next year and discovers the many directions she could pursue academically, Smith is discovering that her arrival at HDS might have concluded one journey, but it also marks the beginning of a new one. And, whatever she decides her next step will be, she will continue to enrich the HDS community with a strong sense of mission born out of overcoming struggles.