Valerie Smith (president of Swarthmore College) in “The Corner Office”

Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Valerie Smith , president of Swarthmore College) in “The Corner Office.” To read the complete interview, check out other articles, and obtain subscription information, please click here.

Photo credit: Earl Wilson/The New York Times

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What were your early years like?

I grew up in Brooklyn, the eldest of three children. I started school young and skipped a couple of grades. I graduated from high school at 15.

I was kind of nerdy. I loved to read, I loved school and I loved exploring the city. My parents gave us a lot of latitude and let us explore the city. Back then, they felt the city was pretty safe.

Tell me more about your parents.

My mother was an elementary schoolteacher and my father was a biology professor. They both grew up in Charleston, S.C., and moved to New York looking for greater opportunities. That example of openness to adventure inspired me and gave me a willingness to take chances.

Any favorite family expressions?

My mother always admonished us if we said mean things about people we didn’t like. She always would say that everybody has some good quality. I tend to be very literal-minded, so I developed this habit early on of looking at people, even when I wasn’t feeling terribly warmly toward them, to try to find that good quality about them.

My parents also raised us to never take our good fortune for granted or to be overly impressed with our own gifts, and to appreciate the fact that any success we had was the result of the sacrifices that people had made on our behalf.

When you went to college, did you have an idea what you wanted to do for a career?

I didn’t really. I knew that I was likely to be an English major. I loved languages so I took a lot of French. The pivotal decision that I made was to study abroad, in England.

That was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life because it turned me into a traveler. It gave me a high degree of confidence in my ability to adjust to completely different cultures.

You were a professor before taking on more administrative leadership roles. What made you decide to switch?

I loved teaching and mentoring students, but I also realized that I had the ability to make a difference in terms of creating communities that were more inclusive and that helped advance the institutional mission.

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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews of hundreds of business leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here. To contact him, please click here.

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