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Ada Comstock Scholars Program



Born on December 11, 1876 in Moorehead, Minnesota, Ada Comstock was the eldest of three children; she was bright, vivacious, and very much a tomboy in her early childhood. Her father, a successful lawyer, recognized her capabilities and potential and set about to cultivate them by encouraging an early and sound education for his daughter.

Ada completed her high school education at the age of fifteen and then went on to college. In 1895 she transferred from the University of Minnesota to Smith College, where she completed her last two years of undergraduate study. As a Smith student, Ada often questioned the established rules and norms of college life. While a resident of Hubbard House, she was given a case of champagne which the housemother felt should be given away. Instead, in what was characteristically her spirit, she decided to store it in the water cooler to refresh her friends!

After graduating from Smith in 1897, Ada went on to a graduate program at Moorehead State Normal School where she became certified to teach. She then entered Columbia University for graduate work in English, History, and Education, and by 1899 was ready to return home to look for a job. In 1907, after teaching rhetoric at the University of Minnesota, she was appointed the University’s first Dean of Women. In this capacity, she was instrumental in improving the quality of life for the women of the college, arguing persistently that a college was responsible for one’s physical and intellectual well-being.

In 1912, Ada came to Smith as the first ever Dean of the College and to teach English. Particularly challenging to her was the opportunity to advise and teach young women in an all-female institution. One of the most important tenets of her educational philosophy was the inculcation in young women of self-respect, one aspect of which was knowing how to employ oneself. Ada believed very strongly throughout her entire life that a college education should inspire women to take a part in the shaping of the world.

In 1917, when the Presidency of Smith College became vacant, Ada was given the responsibility of its operation for approximately 6 months, but was neither given the title of acting President nor was she considered for the position. Despite Ada’s significant and numerous contributions to the College, Smith was not ready for its first woman President. The chance to become the President of a women’s college presented itself to Ada in 1923 when Radcliffe offered her the position of their first full-time President. Throughout most of her administration, Ada Comstock struggled with trying to maintain a balance between Radcliffe’s association with Harvard and its establishment as an independent women’s college. Under President Comstock, Radcliffe was able to launch a nationwide admission program, improve student housing, construct new classroom buildings and expand the graduate program. In 1943, Ada felt her work at Radcliffe was complete. She had brought the institution to distinction and maturity, and it was now time to move on. At the age of sixty-seven, she stepped down from the Presidency and shortly after announced her marriage to Wallace Notestein, Sterling Professor Emeritus of History at Yale University, a man she had known since her days at the University of Minnesota.

Retirement for Ada was an extremely busy period in her life. She continued to be actively involved with the Board of Trustees of Smith College, worked on plans for the graduate center at Radcliffe, did extensive educational committee work, administered a two-career household, and traveled extensively with her husband.

Ada Comstock Notestein considered education and personal growth to be a lifelong process. As Ada Comstock Scholars, our lives epitomize these ideals. Active and involved in her work for higher education for women until her death at ninety-seven, she inspires all of us with her enthusiasm for life and perseverance in the attainment of personal goals.

Found in 2 Collections and/or Records:

Ada Comstock Scholars Program records

Identifier: CA-MS-01052

The Ada Comstock Scholars Program enables women of nontraditional college age to complete a bachelor of arts degree at Smith College. The collection consists of individual student files for Ada Comstock Scholars as well as records of the program, student and alumni events, and related committees.

Dates of Materials: 1922 - 2005

Office of the President Thomas Corwin Mendenhall Files

Identifier: CA-MS-00032

Sixth President of Smith College, Professor, history. Contains official records of the Office of the President, incoming and outgoing correspondence, reports and working papers, news clippings and photographs

Dates of Materials: 1956 - 1982