About David Smith
“It’s all about helping young people find their voice and making it possible for them to succeed. This was the heart of my work….”
Helping Young People Succeed
Mohamed Jalloh ’01 is just one of the many Syracuse University graduates who owe a debt of gratitude to David Smith, who for more than 35 years served as head of admissions and financial aid at SU.
“Simply put, I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for David Smith’s influence,” says Jalloh, an attorney, adjunct professor, and elected official in Elizabeth, New Jersey. “He gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I can accomplish anything with desire and hard work.”
Smith’s long and distinguished career in college admissions began over a cup of coffee.
The year was 1966, and he had just gotten engaged, was soon to graduate from Utica College, needed a job, and was worried about being drafted and shipped off to Vietnam. “By mere happenstance, the director of admissions sat down across from me in the college cafeteria,” Smith says. “By the end of my coffee break, I had a job as assistant director of admissions at Utica College.”
“Simply put, I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for David Smith’s influence. He gave me the opportunity to prove to myself that I can accomplish anything with desire and hard work.”
–Mohamed Jalloh ’01
Making Good Choices
Smith had never seriously considered college admissions as a long-term career, but he soon discovered that helping kids and their families make good choices was a lot of fun and a worthy endeavor.
His own misguided decision to study business at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School made him keenly aware of how important it is for young people to choose wisely from the start. “My first college choice was a big mistake,” Smith says. “I had a very undistinguished experience during my brief time at Wharton, so I know how badly that can affect your life.”
Just as he was settling into his career at Utica College, Smith was informed that, contrary to what he had been told, his college admissions job did not qualify him for a draft deferment. After much anguish, he joined the U.S. Air Force, and the former English major trained to become an aircraft maintenance officer.
“By luck of the draw, I ended up staying in New Jersey, where I had all kinds of wonderful opportunities beyond my grade of captain,” Smith says. “I had 3,500 people reporting to me and 24/7 responsibility for a whole fleet of transport airplanes. This was the pivotal learning experience of my life.”
Jumping Right In
Smith entertained the idea of staying in the Air Force after his tour of duty ended in 1971. But when Clarkson University offered him a job in admissions, he seized the opportunity to resume a career he had come to love.
After two years at Clarkson, Smith joined Syracuse University’s growing admissions team, and before long, he was asked to become financial aid director. “I’d never dealt with the issues of financial aid, but my main weakness is my willingness to jump in,“ he says. “If I hadn’t done that, the rest of my career wouldn’t have been shaped the way it was, because financial aid soon became an integral part of college admissions policies.”
Promoted to SU’s dean of admissions and financial aid in 1985, Smith remained in that capacity until 2000, when he became vice president for enrollment management. Now he was responsible for the whole graduate enterprise as well as restructuring opening weekend and orientation.
In 2004, he assumed oversight of the registrar’s office, DIPA (now SU Abroad), institutional research, and the ROTC program. He also helped create the Haudenosaunee Promise Scholarship Program to provide access and opportunity for students from the six Haudenosaunee Nations.
A Rewarding Career
Smith stepped down as SU’s vice president for enrollment management in August 2007 and stayed on as vice president for administrative planning until his retirement in December 2008. In his many years at SU, he had a profound impact on countless students like Jalloh, who credits Smith with giving him real responsibility for the first time in his life.
“I met with Dean Smith while applying to SU, and I had nothing to offer but sorry excuses, desperate desires, and a promise to do better if admitted,” Jalloh says. “He asked me, ‘How is it possible that someone so intelligent can be satisfied with such poor results?’ He gave me a chance, and my family and I are so thankful to him for pointing me in the right direction and guiding me through major decisions in my life. I know his legacy will continue through me and all those he touched and inspired.”
Smith says he had a knack for knowing whether a kid was capable of handling college-level work and would do well. “It’s not a class issue or a financial issue,” he says. “It’s all about helping young people find their voice and making it possible for them to succeed. This was the heart of my work─my job was very rewarding.”
Looking back on his career in admissions and financial aid, Smith believes his life has been serendipitous. “I didn’t live up to my responsibility as a student at Wharton, so one day the vice dean summoned me into his office for an exit interview and very politely said, ‘Mr. Smith, whatever you do, don’t ever try to make money. If I were you, I’d look for a job that gives money away!’”