VANESSA GATES-ELSTON, 01J/'02
Art History & Government Double Major / International Relations Minor
Former resident of Wilder and Wilson Houses at Smith
Native Texan, grew up in Maine, New Yorker since 2005
Served on the SCCNYC Board for 6 years as Vice President of Events
What kind of work do you do here in the City?
I assist the CEO of a Renewable Energy Company focused on developing/owning/operating utility-scale wind, solar and geothermal generation mostly in the Western U.S. Every day is a new challenge to solve, which I love. I utilize my Smith degree and experience every day, especially my curiosity, love of learning, perseverance, figuring out how to do something when everyone has said it can’t be done…leave it to a Smithie to get it done!
You've planned dozens of events for the Smith Club. Which ones stand out in your mind the most?
Every single event has a magical moment - connecting Smithies to one another, igniting the Smith self that comes out passionately and enthusiastically in a room full of Smithies, inspiring conversation and contemplation, empowering all generations of Smithies, networking and feeling supported by Smithies in the concrete jungle, and offering events no one can get anywhere else! They say your best years are in college - I say the best is yet to come. Being a Smith alumna is the greatest treasure and privilege! Cherish it and support your Smith Club!
The proudest event moments were the 2012 Fall Art Benefit after Hurricane Sandy during Winter storm Athena with Thelma Golden '87, Director and Chief Curator of The Studio Museum of Art in Harlem; the 2015 Networking Breakfast with President McCartney for 250 alumnae; 2015 Dialogue and Reflections on Otelia Cromwell, Class of 1900 with Professor Paula Giddings and Professor Riché Barnes; the 2016 Spring Scholarship Benefit with President Emerita Dr. Ruth J. Simmons; 2011 Hudson River Park Walking Tour with Lynden Miller '60 and Signe Nielsen '72; 2012 Sustainable Architecture and Design in Africa with Erinn McGurn '94 and Sierra Bainbridge '99; our salons hosted by Dr. Trish Tidwell, all our other Fall and Spring Benefits and Annual Faculty Lectures have been extraordinary; collaborating with the Smith School for Social Work and Smith College Alumnae Relations on various wonderful events; Museum of Art Holiday Trunk Shows; 2014 Dr. Shirley Zussman '34, renowned sex therapist; I could go on and on, a joy!
In your opinion, what are the benefits to getting involved with the Smith Club?
The Smith College Club of NYC is the oldest and largest of all the Clubs and connecting with the Club, connects you to your best self -- your Smith self, provides a wonderful way to connect with new Smithies and reconnect with old friends, learn something new, be part of a powerful legacy and network, mentor and support young alumnae and young women applying to Smith, and connect Smithies to the College. For many, the Club is the only source of connection so it's vital that the Club be supported.
What is your fondest Smith memory?
Getting to meet Adrienne Rich and Gloria Steinem on a very special night at a dinner before I graduated. Both women echoed one another - you went to Smith and worked hard at Smith, now serve and inspire others when you leave Smith. Be your best self. Be the voice for those who do not have one. Never back down. Never stop fighting. Honor Sophia Smith. Don't become complacent. Share your unique gifts in the world. Don't take no for an answer.
What advice would you give to a high school student who was considering attending Smith?
Smith opens worlds within that you never imagined. There are days when what you learned in your house has a much more far-reaching impact than what you learned in the classroom. There are days when what you learned at Smith will show up years later and enable you to be the person who fixes a problem. Smith encourages you to say yes to everything, to living out loud, to loving all of who you are, to being fierce, to shining your special light, to tenacious life-long passion for learning, to honoring the women that came before us, who fought for civil rights and women's equality and were pioneers/trailblazers in her own field. Every time I read about a woman who is doing something no one else is doing, I laugh out loud knowing she is a Smithie, kicking ass in the world. Smith will give you the tools and courage to go be your bravest self.
What are your favorite things to do in New York City?
Blowing a kiss at the Statue of Liberty every time I cross the various bridges from Brooklyn to Manhattan; exploring all the parks in this beautiful city and boroughs; all the art museums and galleries and graffiti (a la appreciating graffiti from my Pompeii senior seminar I did with Professor Kellum); the city at night just takes my breath away; seeing hawks, butterflies, and other wild things all over the city; saluting Patience and Fortitude, the New York Public Library Lions; Ooh and aaahing every time I go into Grand Central Station; turning down a side walk and the certain slant of light and sounds and honeysuckle coming from some magical place is spellbinding; the year where everything smelled like maple syrup; finding playing cards on city sidewalks; seeing the island on the water; Manhattanhenge and rainbows over the city; walking into a movie scene by accident filming around NYC; hearing the most soulful street musician in the subway that brought tears to my eyes; walking all the bridges; seeing the magnificent Hudson River Park; Bryant Park; Lincoln Center Park; Fulton Ferry Landing; NY Times Building Birch Trees; FDR Freedom Park; and countless other landscape wonders designed or restored by Smithies; snowstorms that blanket the city in silence and grace; Park Avenue at Christmas and the whole city at Christmas is just lovely; crunch of autumn leaves in Central Park's Poet Walk; the cherry blossoms all over the city but especially by the Central Park Reservoir; the best bagel/slice of pizza/best food from all over the world in your neighborhood; American Ballet at Lincoln Center, Rooftop Films, Florence and the Machine singing a song under the DUMBO overpass arch; Carnegie Hall - hearing Vivaldi's Four Seasons, hearing the amazing Joshua Bell and Itzhak Perlman, The Lumineers before they became huge at The Music Hall of Williamsburg, Hamilton (before the psycho ticket prices, saw it opening week on Broadway) and culture that only happens in this imaginative city; dragonflies on Governor's Island; vibration and energy of this city; knowing that my night owl self is never alone, the city never sleeps (and neither do I:)