Sitting in the Starbucks a mile away from campus in Springfield on a Saturday afternoon, I sit enjoying my coffee as I think of how much work I am getting done and take mental notes of what I still have left to do. In a matter of a few hours of being separated from the stress of Swarthmore, I have already finished my lab report and can begin writing my research paper before the sun sets and I head back to campus. I am in my element, in work mode, and nothing can stop me from finishing my homework now.
That is the case until a man who has been sitting in the chair next to me for the last few hours interrupts me to ask if he can share an outlet. Of course, I move over so that he can plug in his phone, but the conversation doesn’t end there. He begins asking me questions about the Swarthmore area and how long I have been in the Philadelphia region. It becomes evident to me that he has no idea that Swarthmore College even exists, let alone how selective and intensive its education is.
Somehow, and I have no idea how, we begin conversing about his life and how he just moved to Swarthmore to live with his sister after leaving behind gangs, drugs, and discrimination in Chester. I learn how he is in the process of turning his life around after involvement in some serious drug crimes, which have been difficult for him to escape. He explains, in great detail, his encounters with the police and how it would be impossible for him to ever return home. He claims Chester was not for him, and he would never want to return.
As I mostly listen and nod during his stories, I’m not sure if I should feel uncomfortable or if I should feel guilty for feeling uncomfortable. Despite my slight distress, when I glance at the time on my laptop, I notice that I have spent almost two hours engrossed in this man’s life stories. Before it gets too dark, I close my laptop with the barely started research paper I had hoped to make progress on and dismiss myself from the conversation.
Despite my unfinished paper and my unease, I have no regrets as I walk away from the discussion reminded of the world outside Swarthmore that is more than just academics or writing papers. I am reminded that Swarthmore is a beautiful ivory tower of knowledge that it is truly educating us with the hope of molding us into change agents. However, it is still a college of the elite, and that means that it alone cannot provide the resources necessary for understanding and effectively changing the world around us.
Walking back to campus, I think of the many other instances that I have been overwhelmed by the Swat bubble, not only how real it is, but also how dangerous it can be. I think of the time my friends and I took an Uber back to campus and the driver from Delaware seemed awestruck that people actually lived in such a scene of nature. I think of how wedding parties come to get their pictures taken in front of the bell tower, implying a surreal and magical quality of the campus that we have grown accustomed to and easily take for granted.
Perhaps most disheartening, I think of how some students have never even been into Philly and how many of us don’t leave campus more than a few times a semester, much less engage with the real world on a regular basis. Suddenly, I am saddened. As a student body, by separating ourselves from the real world, we are allowing ourselves to forget the privilege of even attending college, much less an institution as rigorous as Swarthmore. Yet, more dangerous is the fact that we are also creating an illusion of society based on readings rather than actually engaging with the real world. Through interpreting the world based solely on readings, news articles, and our daily experiences at Swarthmore, we as students are failing to immerse ourselves in understanding and interacting with the communities that we are hoping to impact. As a result, we are setting ourselves up to remain separated from the reality of problems in society and to implement mediocre solutions based on theory instead of knowledge and experience.
Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful that Swarthmore provides an inclusive environment that is determined to nurture students and that provides a safe haven from some of the very real hardships within society; it allows our academics to be so successful as we are able to focus solely on feeding our minds rather than dealing with problems that could impair us.
However, if we are ever truly going to implement successful solutions to the problems of society, we as students need to branch out of the serenity of the Swat bubble every once in awhile and expose ourselves to communities and the very real conflicts that many people face. As students, it is our job to embrace the whole world around us, beyond just academic perfection, in order to remember our potential to make a difference and form successful solutions to world problems both now and in the future. Even in our world of academic perfection, we need to remember that, despite our ivory tower, we are not just students; we are still members of society with a social responsibility.