Matthew Henry Smith ’16 (Providence, R.I.) grew up just outside the gates of Providence College, and he spent four years making the campus a welcome home for other students and himself.
He has been recognized nationally for his work. In 2015, Campus Compact, an organization that supports campus-based civic engagement, named Smith a Newman Civic Fellow.
Smith got to know PC before he arrived as a student. He attended Catholic schools near campus and both his older sister, Emily Florence Smith ’07, and his older brother, John Henry Smith ’13 & ’15G, attended PC.
But when he was in the process of choosing a college, his parents approached him and explained that because his father had cancer, they wanted him to stay close to home and go to PC. Smith’s father, Francis H. Smith was the executive director of the Smith Hill Community Development Corporation, which advocates for affordable housing within Providence’s Smith Hill neighborhood.
“A lot of people are in a position where they can make decisions based on the careers they want to have,” Smith said. “Faced with this information, I chose to make decisions based on my commitments to my family. Making decisions based on the family I have, and the one I would like to have, is how I have oriented my life.”
He doesn’t regret the choice, however, because he was able to work with the Smith Hill CDC as part of his major, as well as to be with his family when his father died during his junior year.
“I consider myself to be extraordinarily fortunate because we knew my father was dying for a long time, and we had time to get ready,” Smith said. “I didn’t have to spend my senior year wondering what my dad would have thought about what I was doing, or if he would be proud of me, because I know he was — he told me he was.
“I was able to just continue being the man he wanted me to be.”
Smith changed majors a few times before settling on public and community service studies. At PC’s Academic Awards Ceremony, he will be honored for earning the highest GPA in his major for the Class of 2016. He didn’t consider service-learning at first, but after talking with some faculty in the department, “it was so natural to me as a person, it was so central to the way my parents brought us up, that it seemed like a perfect fit,” Smith said.
In public and community service studies, service is used as a primary text for learning. Smith put his academics in practice right away, advocating for the inclusion of protections for people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ) within the College’s nondiscrimination policy.
“Part of loving something like I love Providence College is wanting it to be its best self,” Smith said. He compared the work of student activists to the sacrificial model of Jesus Christ. “You die often to your own interests for the sake of something else.”
“We started some fabulous conversations on campus and encouraged the building of consensus,” he said. “I’m proud of the work we did. In the end, it was really constructive.”
Smith, who identifies as gay, served as vice president of the Board of Multicultural Student Affairs and an executive board member of Stopping Homophobia, Eliminating Prejudice and Restoring Dignity (SHEPARD), PC’s organization for LGBTQ students and their allies.
He said it would have been impossible for him to become a campus activist without his mother’s influence. “She is unconditionally supportive, and I can think of no other person who better exemplifies love, as service, in action,” he said.
A public service course, Community Organizing, now uses the work on the non-discrimination policy as a case study. “That experience honed my gift for building consensus within community and asking questions of genuine interest of my peers and facilitating really constructive conversation,” Smith said.
During this time, he formed a close bond with Dr. Dana L. Dillon, assistant professor of theology. Though their positions on same-sex marriage are different, they found they agreed on many other points.
“We both tend to put relationship and community first, without shying away from truthful engagement of our disagreements,” Dillon said.
Smith later co-taught Introduction to Public and Community Service Studies with Dillon during his junior year. She says that he deeply influenced the course and how she has approached it since, as she continues to use texts and insights that he had shared. Several students were motivated to major or minor in public service as a result of the course.
“He has such a deep sense of community and of the connection between PC and Smith Hill. He brought so much insight and experience to that class,” she said. “I really couldn’t have imagined it without him.”
For his practicum course, Smith served as PC’s community liaison to YouthPride, Inc., a drop-in center for LGBTQ teenagers in Providence, overseeing community volunteers and helping them understand how the nonprofit organization functions.
Smith’s service also extended to environmental causes. He was an intern for the Partnership for Providence Parks, a philanthropic organization that supports and trains “friends of” groups for neighborhood parks. As a junior, he organized a used clothing sale and vintage bazaar that benefited the World Wildlife Fund, which diverted items from landfills and gave consumers an option to try “restorative consumption.”
“The West often scrutinizes the environmental impact of ‘developing’ nations, but we need to hold ourselves to an even higher standard. This means having difficult conversations about lifestyle, and using parks, our last truly public spaces, as laboratories for a restorative, democratic future,” he said.
Smith also pursued the arts, which provided spiritual fulfillment as well. After a brief introduction to film at PCTV, Smith discovered a passion for photography through a digital photography course taught by Eric Sung, associate professor of photography.
“It was another way for me to converse with individuals and build community,” he said. Now, Smith has founded a photography business to capture people and events.
“Photography, I think, is a way of giving somebody else a space and a voice, and it requires a lot of modesty on the part of the photographer, to stand behind a lens and just watch life in action,” he said.
Smith, who sang in high school, also joined the Footprints Gospel Choir. “Singing is important to me, and so is having a place for my spirituality to exist in community,” he said. “Being in the gospel choir gave me an opportunity to share my faith with people around me in a way that was sort of not typical.”
After a college career full of service, leadership, and creative pursuits, Smith is considering options as varied as a master’s degree in public administration or divinity or a master’s of fine arts in photography.
“I’m the sort of person who knows exactly who I want to be but I’m not sure what I want to do,” Smith said.
But he has confidence that the time he spent building consensus at PC will have a positive impact.
“It’s tough stuff, and not for everybody. But it has made the community a better place. I choose to believe that.”