Sheri Smith sits in the K-State Student Union, comfortably sipping her coffee and casually waving at students she recognizes from her classes. Occasionally, a student will address her or she will call out to someone, possibly to check progress on a project.
Her laid-back approach comes naturally, but her interactions with students are not always easy. Smith said there are times when teaching can be uncomfortable for her as an African-American.
“Sometimes I have 134 students and not a minority in the class – but me,” she said. “I think sometimes it’s awkward. It’s awkward for the students, it’s awkward for me. I’ve handled it differently over my time here, and it was a lot harder when I first started.”
Smith is an associate professor of landscape architecture/ regional and community planning. She is part of the regional and community planning faculty program where she is also a minority, being the only black person and the only female.
While teaching, Smith said she has encountered situations where she has had to stop and tell the class that derogatory terms cannot be used in papers or else they would be kicked out of the class.
“I try to create an environment where we can say and talk about anything, because these are the issues you’re going to deal with when you get out there with the public, but there’s a way to do it respectfully,” she said.
Smith said students don’t always know what they can and can’t say in class discussions, and there are also students who know what they should not say but test the teacher.
“The students haven’t changed,” she said, referring to her six years of teaching experience at K-State. “I usually have an issue at least once a year. It’s not overt, but in my response, I’ve become a little more comfortable.”
Smith said she enjoys teaching for the moments when students acknowledge something they have learned from her.
“I always tell students that the things that I teach them now, they might not see the applicability, but I’m teaching them for the future,” she said. “But every once in a while you get a student that gets it.”
Smith teaches classes where students complete planning projects, and she said she likes to challenge students and is excited when they discover something new.
Smith is an urban planner by profession, and before getting her doctorate, she worked as an urban planner in Chicago and as a regional planner in Tulsa, Okla.
While an undergraduate, Smith said she knew she wanted to be involved in city planning, but she didn’t know the name for what she wanted to do.
“I like doing community development work,” she said. “I wanted to work in the subsets of cities.”
The regional and community planning program is in the College of Architecture, Planning and Design, but Smith differentiated between architecture and planning by saying the former is building the city up through the construction of buildings and the latter is building the city out and looking at issues like zoning and transportation.
Though her years of working eventually brought her to K-State, Smith said it is the faculty that have kept her here.
“I work with some good people, not only what they do, but just who they are,” she said. “You can have a great job and just detest the people that you work with, and it takes away from what you’re doing.”