No one would describe Jennifer Smith as a traditional college student. The mother of three, who left school after ninth grade, worked as an assistant racehorse trainer for 14 years before finding her way back to academia. Now Smith, with majors in history and comparative history of ideas (CHID) and a minor in American Indian studies, has been named the Dean’s Medalist in the Humanities. The College of Arts & Sciences awards the Dean’s Medal to one exceptional graduating senior in each of its four divisions.
Smith transferred to the University of Washington from Green River Community College and discovered a passion for research while participating in the UW’s Summer Institute in the Arts and Humanities. Through her research, she has combined her interests in history, politics, Indigenous communities, and horses, with a sophistication that is “more like an advanced graduate student rather than an undergraduate one,” according to research mentor María Elena García, professor and director of CHID. Her passion for research led her to mentor other undergraduate students, working with the UW Undergraduate Research Program.
Smith has received numerous scholarships along the way, including two Mary Gates research scholarships, an Early Identification Program Presidential Scholarship, the History Department’s Faye Wilson Scholarship, a CHID Research Scholarship, and the Thomas Powers Paper Prize. “I cannot begin to express my gratitude for all of the scholarships and awards I have received during my time at the University of Washington” she wrote. “It is truly an honor, and for a woman who never graduated high school and was out of school for two decades, the attention and recognition feels very surreal.”
Though she has graduated, Smith has not left the UW. This fall she will rejoin the Department of History as a graduate student working toward a PhD. “Over the course of the time I have known her, Jennifer has gone from wondering if she belongs in the academy to exploring ways to remake it,” says García. “She is poised to make serious contributions to histories of Indigenous peoples, the environment, and the U.S. West, and to the critical study of race, gender, and species.”
Read the full story in the Arts & Sciences newsletter, Perspectives