Leader-Smith wants to help ensure that the integration of digital technologies in higher education promotes equitable access and respects student privacy.
Headshot of Adam Leader-Smith
Adam Leader-Smith

Now a second-year Master of Public Policy (MPP) student studying higher education policy at Harris, Adam Leader-Smith remembers the experience of dropping out of college.

“Because I come from a privileged background and went to a private high school, I felt a lot of pressure to be perfect, get straight A’s, and succeed. Many of my closest friends went on to Ivy League schools and I felt like I had to measure up to them...and I very much didn't. I struggled academically in high school, and then I almost failed out of my first college in Indiana. I eventually managed to improve my GPA, but dropped out due to depression after my third semester, and spent almost a year unsure as to what to do with myself.”

Fortunately, Leader-Smith had the opportunity to study abroad with the Autonomous University of Social Movements as part of the Mexico Solidarity Network, which works to introduce students to autonomous, community-based organizing and to build solidarity with Mexico. “That experience learning about Mexican social movements and engaging with real-world issues got me back on the right track.”

After that, Leader-Smith went on to study Social Thought and Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he became a student-activist. “In college, I was an organizer on campus to fight against raising tuition fees in the state of Massachusetts and other issues in which students’ voices weren’t being heard.” He was especially inspired by his Grassroots Community Organizing class, a peer-led alternative spring break course that studied the root of social inequality and then spent a week organizing in low-income areas. “Learning from my peers completely transformed the way I viewed higher education. I gained confidence and became a facilitator. This paved the way for my later career.”

After graduating with honors from UMass Amherst, Leader-Smith worked with the nonprofit Council on Library and Information Resources on the digitization of scholarly collections. Seeking to return to higher education, he secured a role as a Project Coordinator for the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University, where he helped to develop inclusive pedagogies through digital learning. 

“When you look at media representations of higher education, it tends to be very focused on this narrow band of elite universities with ivy covered brick walls. Now that I’ve studied and worked in higher ed, I have learned that the average college student in the United States is older, poorer, and from more diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds than in the past—and these are the people we should focus on when we think about higher education policy.”

Leader-Smith ultimately decided to come to Harris because he wants to help ensure that the integration of digital technologies in higher education promotes equitable access and respects student privacy. “It felt somewhat validating to end up at University of Chicago, but also ironic because the prestige was no longer the motivating factor. I came here because what is offered at Harris may allow me to change the rules of the game to make higher education more accessible.”

In his first year at Harris, Leader-Smith became a board member of HarrisTech, a Harris Student Organization that discusses issues at the intersection of technology and policy. He also engaged with Harris Community Action, where his team worked with Definition Theater, a Black theatre ensemble looking to do community programming and performances in Woodlawn to create a landscape analysis about the social, demographic, and economic components of the local community to inform their programming.

This summer, Leader-Smith has secured an internship with Braven, a nonprofit that seeks to help first-generation and minority students land good first jobs after they graduate. “I found the Braven internship because it was funded through Institute of Politics targeting UChicago students and also because another Harris student, Janiel Santos, worked at Braven, so there was kind of a torch passing there where she gave me some tips to apply.”

Leader-Smith shared the following advice for incoming students: “Cherish and invest your time in those aspects of your education that are about building community. Grad school can sometimes be a grind, and the best thing I’ve gotten out of Harris are those personal relationships where we support each other through that.”