On Wednesday, Feb. 8, President Valerie Smith sent out an email announcing the release of the Student Experience Visioning Study Report that enumerated the conclusions of the almost year-long visioning process.
Starting at the end of the Spring 2016 semester, the college began collecting data and holding conversations with members of the Swarthmore community on how the student experience can be improved. During the Fall 2016 semester, the college began working with Bright Spot consultants to gain an outside perspective on how the college can improve student experiences on campus. Although Bright Spot contributed to the report, it was produced by the college.
According to the report, the study highlighted “key opportunities to improve the student experience and pave the way for future planning activities.” According to Dean of Students Liz Braun, the study focused on the student experience outside of the classroom and its relationship to programs, facilities, and buildings. The report listed three key visions: community and belonging, growth and development, and exploration and curiosity.
Braun further described the student input involved in the visioning process.
“One of the primary ways we’ve been working with SGO is through regular touch points with the senate. [We have tried] to use the senate as a large group of students that come from a lot of different class years [as a way] of testing ideas with them and kind of making sure that they’ve got good information to ideally share with their constituencies. So I think there’s a nice balance between using the senate in addition to all of our regular committees, which SGO appoints students to,” said Braun.
Some of the central committees included the Dining Services student advisory committee and the Space Matters committee.
The report identified 15 “highest impact” emerging strategies and 10 lower-priority strategies. Of the short-term projects, there are several, such as utilizing flat-screen TV’s across campus to feature upcoming events or create support for student run events, on which OSE has already begun working. It also includes several long-term projects such as addressing overcrowding in Sharples and the functionality of the libraries. According to Braun, the long-term projects have a timeframe between three and five years while the short-term projects have the ability to be completed by next semester.
“One of the things to me that is critically important about the work that we’ve done is that this isn’t about drop[ping] a shovel in the ground and build some 15 million dollar building before we figure out what we actually want to do. It’s about testing some ideas. The idea about changing out furniture in lounges to see if that was actually what the students were looking for is a really good example of that,” added Vice President of Finance and Administration Greg Brown. He later reiterated the importance of intermediary steps before implementing more expensive, larger scale projects.
One of those large scale projects includes Sharples Dining Hall. Braun recognized that Sharples is too small for the current student body.
“The dining hall is too small for our student body, and has been for quite some time. We need to come up with a longer term solution. In terms of future planning for the college, there’s a big piece that we have to think about relating to meeting social needs and dining needs,” said Braun.
Brown identified upgrading McCabe as a priority.
“Mccabe is still very much a library of a certain period, but not what students want,” said Brown.
He referenced the recent Cornell Library renovations over the summer as a successful experiment that could be applied to possible future renovation projects at McCabe Library.
In addition to the facilities projects, the report also included several less tangible goals. These including “increasing access to and awareness of mental and physical health resources” and “create ‘social only’ spaces.” The report does not include as many concrete steps for these goals.
“I think that that’s really part of our next steps for really figuring out how to implement that, and again, I think we really have to partner with students. … In terms of the awareness around resources, we’ve been trying some different strategies … — for example, Alice Holland with the introduction of Izzy the very popular therapy puppy. I think that has been really popular amongst students, but also has created a different link between students and different reasons to go to the Health and Wellness Center,” said Braun. “We are trying to do more in terms of programming, getting folks out of CAPS, and out of Health and Wellness into different aspects of the community.”
One thing that the college will be doing to help improve its health services is an external review of Counseling and Psychological Services.
“The other thing we are going to be doing this spring is an external review of CAPS. This is something we had decided to do last year after feedback from the climate study and, kind of, other feedback. Something most departments due every three to five years [is that] outside people come in and kind of take a look [at their programs] and offer recommendations around what we can do to continue to improve the services,” Braun said.
Another goal unrelated to changes in facilities is to increase student access to Philadelphia. Several programs already exist to bridge the 11 mile gap between Swarthmore and the city such as Swat Deck and Lang Center funding, but Braun recognized that there is more to do.
“I think the challenge of that is, this is what we heard very frequently from students, is that they don’t always feel like they have the time to devote to going off campus, [but] they have the desire. So how do we balance that part of the student experience. But I do think modeling off of things like SwatDeck, thinking about are there collaborative ventures that we might engage in with Haverford and Bryn Mawr in Philly. What would that look like and what would attract sudents. So we’re really very actively thinking about that,” said Brown.
In addition to getting students into the city for recreation, Brown is also looking to get students off campus for work or volunteer opportunities.
“The other thing we’re looking to coordinate better, which again I think is really mission-centered, something I think is important to our students is how can our students volunteer more to help people in Chester, for example, or neighboring communities, and what does that look like? How do we make sure those opportunities are clear and available because I think there are plenty of things to do, but I don’t think it’s always clear how to find them,” said Brown.
For more information, the full report can be found on the Swarthmore webpage under Re-imagining the Student Experience.