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South Carolina Honors College

  • Jan Smoak smiling on USC's Historic Horseshoe

Where there’s Smoak, there’s fire: Honors College assistant dean recognized with USC Outstanding Staff Award

On a rainy Tuesday in early May, Jan Phillips Smoak stood in the west wing of DeSaussure College’s third floor and announced that she was headed to USC’s staff appreciation event.

“I got an email inviting me to an award ceremony,” the South Carolina Honors College assistant dean told her colleague Jen Bess. “I guess I should go.”

Jan Smoak holding her award.
Smoak with USC vice president of human resources Carolina Agardy, President Amiridis and Tyson Lusk, Staff Senate president.

It’s a good thing she did. A few hours later at the inaugural Staff Appreciation Day, hosted by the Staff Senate, Smoak was honored with the University of South Carolina’s Outstanding Staff Award. Though a surprise to Smoak, the first-place award recognizes what many already know: She is a Carolina legend.

“Jan has positively influenced hundreds of students’ lives,” says Steve Lynn, dean of the Honors College. “She is beloved for who she is.”

Smoak has called Columbia home for most of her life and is a two-time alumna of the University of South Carolina (‘89 journalism, ‘91 Master of Education). In 1998, she joined what was then called the Office of Fellowships and Scholar Programs as assistant director and has been fostering a positive community for students ever since.

“Jan is the quintessential team player,” says Novella Beskid, who served as inaugural director of what is now National Fellowships and Scholar Programs and worked with Smoak for 24 years. “She doesn’t keep score and reaches across campus to develop and maintain relationships with faculty and staff, no matter their position.”

Jan Smoak with a group of Top Scholars at their spring formal.
Smoak with Top Scholars at the 2023 Scholar Formal.

Supporting scholars

Also among her cherished contacts are hundreds of Top Scholars: Students earning the most prestigious merit scholarships offered by the university. When the news broke about Smoak’s award, Top Scholars were some of the first to offer congratulations on social media. Karlee Witherite, a rising senior Stamps scholar, sent Smoak an overflowing vase of what she called “Beyoncé Flowers” –– a nod to the floral arrangement that the music icon sent Coach Dawn Staley following the 2024 women’s basketball national championship victory.

“Since day one of my freshman year,” says Witherite, “I knew that Jan would do anything she could to make my time in undergraduate and beyond as successful as possible.”

Jan Smoak posing with a group of 2017 McNair scholars.
Smoak with 2017 McNair scholars (Brett Williams in back row, third from left).

It was a McNair scholar, Brett Williams ‘17, who nominated Smoak for the Outstanding Staff Award. Now a Scholar Programs coordinator, he continues Smoak’s legacy of student service.

“For 25 years, she took hundreds of Top Scholars under her wing and made sure they knew they had a home base on campus that would take care of them,” Williams wrote in his nomination. “Whether that meant staging highly detailed special events for them ... getting to know what makes each one tick and helping them make a tailored plan to achieve their career and life goals, being a kind and attentive ear, and showing tough love when needed, Jan did everything in her power to bring out her students’ best and optimize their time on campus.”

Robert Pokora, ‘23 Stamps scholar, will always be grateful for Smoak’s guidance. “On one of the first days of class, I scheduled a meeting with Jan, and she helped me think about my vision for my time at USC, as well as helped me think about my journey to medical school,” he recalls. “From that point forward, Mrs. Jan and I met in her office at least once a semester in order to check in on how life was going, how my time at USC had been, and to talk about our Lady Gamecocks basketball team...I am very thankful to know Mrs. Jan and cannot think of anyone more deserving of the USC Outstanding Staff Award than her.”

“Jan has been such a constant light in my Honors experience,” says Blakely Hardin, ‘24 Carolina scholar. “From encouragement to advice, Jan is always the first to help her students reach their goals. She’s supported all of my hopes and dreams and continues to go out of her way to support everyone around her.”

Jan Smoak hugging Jennifer Bess at a 5K race.
Smoak with Jen Bess after 5K race.

Forever to thee

Her current colleagues can also attest to her support, both in and out of the office. “I’ll always be grateful for her in big things, like supporting me after my mom passed away,” says Bess, director of National Fellowships, “but also in little things like giving up her time on a freezing cold Saturday morning in January to watch me run my first 5K.”

Kim McMahon, director of the Russell House, recalls Smoak’s dedication to cross-campus camaraderie: “Jan has been a friend, colleague and mentor to me for over 30 years,” she says. “When I returned to USC in 2008, she was a ‘go to’ for me to reacquaint myself with the university and all things related to being a mom.”

And if there’s anyone who can acquaint you with USC, it’s Jan Smoak. On social media, she’s @USCJan. On women’s basketball game days, she’s in Colonial Life Arena with her family, decked out in garnet and black. On the Horseshoe, she’s leading a yoga session for students, showing off the campus to visiting friends or delivering donuts to an office she that knows is facing a heavy workload.

Smoak and Scholar Programs staff posing with Cocky.
Smoak and staff with Cocky at First-Year Scholar event.

“Her fingerprints across this campus are heavy and numerous,” wrote Williams, “and she has done it all with the same passion for our university and its people throughout.”

Smoak became assistant dean for awards and enrollment management in 2022, extending her influence to even more aspiring Honors students and igniting their interest in the Carolina experience.

“I tell [students] if you have a dream, we’re going to do everything we can to help you make it happen,” wrote Williams. “That’s the precedent Jan set for 25 years.” 

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