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DiscoSwat or DiscoNot: Diversity not what it seems

in Columns/Opinions by

Ah, it’s Fall at Swat again. Parrish beach withstands the red tide of fallen leaves, the trees across campus light up with colors, punctuating the landscape like an impressionist painting. The Crum boasts New England-like natural beauty at its most picturesque, and families from the Ville swarm the grounds to have their photos taken on the Big Chair or by the extraordinarily crimson Willets tree. It’s Fall, and Swarthmore is arguably at its most beautiful, its most ideal.

It’s no wonder that this is when admissions chooses to run the Discover Swarthmore program.

Discover Swarthmore (or to use the popularized vernacular, DiscoSwat) is self-described as an all-expense-paid visit for prospective students in their senior year of high school. The program invites all who are interested to apply, but notes that it will give preference to those of “traditionally underrepresented groups, students who are the first in their family to attend college, and students from low-income backgrounds.” In other words, admissions is trying to bring “diversity” to Swarthmore.

This is in itself a noble effort, with noble intentions. Swarthmore’s Quaker values, commitment to social justice, trying to save the damn world, yada, yada, yada, — these lofty ideals are meaningless if we don’t commit to them on campus. Recruiting students who represent a variety of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds to campus seems a pretty viable way to do this. On paper, this looks good — great, even. It certainly did to me when I applied for the DiscoSwat program.

But I fear Discover Swarthmore becomes, more often than not, a self-congratulatory pat on the back for the school. Yay! We did it! People of color and low-income students have arrived on campus! We’re DIVERSE, goddammit! And for prospective students, this weekend daydream feels like Swat reality. Surrounded by other young people who come from places they can relate to, it feels like a dream come true. A small liberal arts school with Ivy-League standards of education, bomb financial aid, and hella POCs? What’s there not to like?

I certainly felt this way during my short time at DiscoSwat. Like so many before me, I quickly latched on to a group of like-minded specs, and we spent most of our time trying to avoid going to panels and playing late night games of pool in Mephistos, before passing out in AP lounge because our hosts were already asleep (or fully engaged in the debauchery of Pub Night) to let us back into our respective dorms. We killed it at the Open Mic, got kicked out of Sharples, explored Crumhenge  (before its recent demise *sniff*), made the midnight run to Renato’s, and even dropped by the WSRN (peep my previous article on Freestyle Fridays).  One of these specs I met again at a similar program at Amherst. We continued to keep in touch, and now Min Kim ’19 and I spend most of our time in Willets basement. DiscoSwat was an undeniably great time, and I, too, was lured to apply by the promise of a campus that would satisfy my thirst for culture and diversity, parched as I had been for 17 long years in a white-ass town in Nowhere, New Jersey.

And I’m having an undeniably great time here now. But damn did DiscoSwat fool me.

Coming back to Swarthmore this year, I had high expectations for the spectrum of students I’d find on campus. I thought that the people I connected with and befriended at Discover Swarthmore would return with me — or at least that that community would be represented on campus as much as it was during the program. I was wrong. I recognized a handful, handful, of freshmen from DiscoSwat — and by handful I mean that I could count them on one hand, these few students out of the two hundred or so specs that came the year before. And of the students at Swat, what of them? A quick search on the college’s website lets us know that a whopping 43% of students here identify as white. A quick up and down of Sharples, Kohlberg, or hell, the Matchbox, will quickly confirm that statistic.

While I can’t speak with authority on the causes of this diaspora of “traditionally underrepresented groups,” I have my suspicions and they mostly have to do with Ivy League acceptance. And to the homies that made it there, mad props. But my beef ain’t with them. It’s about the false pretenses under which I applied here. Are the people of color, people from underprivileged backgrounds, and first generation college students here at Swarthmore? Yes there are. Do we have a bomb new DPA program? Yes we do. Do we have a black president? Ya damn skippy. But just because we have those things doesn’t mean we have a continued and thorough commitment to bringing diversity to campus. Just because we have Obama doesn’t mean we can forget Black Lives Matter. We can’t continue to congratulate ourselves for small steps forward when the bigger problem still exists. Students from these underrepresented groups are not coming to campus as much as DiscoSwat would have specs and Swatties think, and we need to change that.

Why this is happening again? How we can solve it? I’m all ears. But the fact is that Discover Swarthmore delivers a false promise to those hoping to come to campus next year, and those hoping to see more people like them arrive as freshmen. Or, as my roommate Colin Pillsbury ’19 said on the matter, “They brought back Indian bar just for DiscoSwat. That’s just not right.”

2 Comments

  1. Entertainingly written article, but I do have some stuff to say about it. Colleges advertise to give you an idealized perspective of what attending their school might be, which of course is far from the actual product. This is no different from literally any marketing scheme for any product ever. That’s simply the reality. The reason no one ever seems to talk about that fact is because by time you are a sophomore or junior, there’s a 99% chance that you’ve forgotten and/or ceased to care. If you disagree with colleges falsely advertising, then IMO the only solution is to do away entirely with the concept of private universities, because, hard as you may try and good as your school’s morals may be, I don’t think you’ll never be able to separate a private institution from its desire to grow and enroll more students. Like it or not, private colleges are businesses. Even public universities are guilty of this same bullshit, actually. Also, I hate to break it to you buddy but 43% white is actually relatively diverse for an American university (it certainly beats my school). The American average is about 56%. I should also point out that race is not the only indicator of diversity but w/e. I don’t go to Swat, so I don’t have the mind of a Swattie, and I don’t think I’m alternative enough to be comparable. Perhaps to the people of Swarthmore, 9% under the national average isn’t good enough. But I would just say, take a little outside perspective and realize that things can be far worse elsewhere.

  2. Great article! In all fairness however, I think the college continues to put a lot of effort in diversifying its student population, more than other colleges I know of. Also, keep in mind that this is a “Discovery” program, students discovering if they would like to attend Swarthmore (if they got in). So some reasons may explain the low number at admissions:
    • Student choice – DiscoSwat participants that decided not to apply to Swarthmore
    • Decision – DiscoSwat participants that declined their acceptance offer from Swarthmore
    • Low acceptance rate – with the highly competitive and highly selective admissions process, further selection would have limited the overall acceptance for the school and thus the DiscoSwat group
    • Other policies/processes – other admissions policies and/or criteria that may limit the number of qualified students.

    At any rate, if DiscoSwat is truly not what it tries to convey, perhaps it might be beneficial to form a focus group of students from all backgrounds, and discuss and present the purpose of the program and ways of enhancing the program so that students discover the real Swarthmore; i.e., “what you see is what you will get when you enroll….or close to it”. This is Swarthmore after all–you have the opportunity, the intellect, and the means to make things happen!

    Keep up the good work.

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