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Why I Left Swarthmore

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

I was studying for finals in Cornell basement when the email came. It was one of 50 emails I received every day, but this one was different. Almost afraid to click on it, my fight-or-flight response kicked in as my heart raced faster and my body tensed up as if I were about to take an organic chemistry final. After a few seconds, I finally clicked on the link:

“Congratulations! It is my pleasure to offer you admission…”                                      

I wanted to scream but instead let out the smallest squeal, quickly remembering that I was in a library. After a weird look from a student sitting near me, I calmed myself down and kept reading.

I had been accepted into Brown University, where I am now.

That acceptance letter made me feel happier than I had in awhile, maybe even that whole year. The funny thing is, that feeling of happiness was all too familiar. I had felt almost the same way when I got into Swarthmore. Actually, I was even more excited about my acceptance to Swarthmore because college decisions felt like a much bigger deal back then. So what changed, and why did I leave Swarthmore?

Maybe my high expectations of Swarthmore had something to do with it. I loved the idea of going to Swarthmore and looked forward to it more and more during my gap year. But a few weeks after arriving on campus, the initial excitement wore off, and I started to realize that Swarthmore really wasn’t the perfect place for me.

While academically I was enjoying classes like Bio 1 and Narcissus and the History of Reflection (a first year seminar), I couldn’t help but think I wanted more classes to choose from. I wanted to study neuroscience as well as science and society, which involves studying how science interacts with society through different lenses.  Last semester at Brown, I absolutely loved Introduction to Neuroscience not just because of the class t-shirt, but also because I learned about neuroanatomy, vision, pain, addiction, mental illness, and more.

Just as importantly, I wasn’t happy at Swarthmore. I often felt trapped and frustrated, partly because of the small campus. Being from LA and having taken a gap year, I missed the energy and excitement of cities, and I found myself on a train to Philly every weekend. It was also clear to me that not many of my friends felt the same way—when my friends and I returned from Philly one evening, they told me how nice it was to be back on campus. I, on the other hand, wanted nothing more than to get back on the train.

By the time I went back home for winter break, it was clear that I needed a different environment. So for the next few months, I worked on my common app and wrote essays about why I wanted to transfer. The hardest part of the process was asking my professors for recommendation letters because I knew they loved Swarthmore. Thankfully, all of my professors were fully supportive and understood my decision. It was particularly reassuring when one professor told me that some students feel the same way when they come back from studying abroad.

After receiving decisions in May, it took me a while to decide to come to Brown. What if Brown wasn’t right for me either? Ultimately, I decided to take that chance and am happy to be where I am now. I love being in a bigger school with a lively atmosphere (even though it’s much colder here). I love that my roommate is a dual degree student studying anthropology at Brown and furniture design at RISD (she even made a table for our room), and that I can shop classes like Death, Health Care in the US, and Cognitive Neuroscience of Meditation. And of course, Brown gets bonus points for having a Starbucks two minutes away from my room instead of 20 minutes.

But at the same time, there were definitely some things I took for granted at Swarthmore, like my relationship with my professors. Ironically enough, leaving Swarthmore has made me appreciate it even more. Yes, it’s definitely not the best school for me personally, but I feel incredibly lucky to have gone there for a year. In fact, I talk so highly of Swarthmore that it’s a top choice school for both my sister (a senior in high school) and brother (a freshman trying to transfer). When I tell my friends at Brown about Swarthmore, even they agree that they would love to have the kind of professor interactions that Swarthmore students have—they’re amazed that my intro biology and chemistry professors not only knew my name but also helped me write my papers and showed up to problem sessions three times a week. Now that I’m at Brown, I understand how incredible and valuable those interactions were, especially for a freshman.

I also had an amazing job as a graphic design associate at the Women’s Resource Center where I got to design posters and plan events. I loved working with an amazing team in such a calm, beautiful space. Though I didn’t always appreciate it while I was there, the entire campus, for that matter, is just magical in the fall and spring . When I made my final decision to go to Brown, my mom even said, “But Swarthmore’s so much prettier than Brown! I’d stay at Swarthmore if I were you.”

Sometimes, I really do miss being a student there. I miss the walk from the Science Center to Sharples in the evening, having discussions over tea and snacks at the WRC, and most of all, seeing my friends at Swarthmore every day. The way I feel about Swarthmore is similar to how I feel about Korea—even though I spent most of my life in LA, I still consider Korea another home, with family and people I care about. That’s why, even as a student at Brown, I still love Swarthmore and consider myself a Swattie.

 

The Musings of Mariani

in Columns/Opinions by

In these pleasant suburban surroundings we are forced to keep ourselves busy just like the Swarthmore commuters, filling every moment with distractions or tedium or predetermined socializing or total spontaneous and meaningless chatter with a stranger. The commuters take the train to Philadelphia while we get to sleep in and sit all day amidst our books, dreaming about the world we construct with our preferred abstractions, be they mathematical or sociological. Perhaps Swarthmore has lost its old bohemian character, but it remains monastic. We work hard and quietly and alone.

While we work, the world burns— or rather, it is simply getting hotter. What makes our most grave problems so difficult is that they are seemingly not very grave. It is scary how un-frightening they are. The universalization of the knowledge of our society’s worst injustices and outrages means that any impending problem, no matter how significant, does not strike us as anything new. The spread of recreational drugs, junk food, exercise equipment, and the advent of the smartphone have vastly increased the degree to which the average person can satiate themselves and tranquilize any anxiety or pain. This has occurred simultaneously with a vast increase in the anxiety and pain people experience as society decays.

At Swarthmore we have the apotheosis of this societal phenomenon. The world requires us to work intensely, so we do and are forced to avail ourselves of the various stimulants and depressants our society gives to the emotionally troubled, a category that is being expanded all the time to include larger and larger swathes of the population. We sit in our comfortable libraries and walk around our verdant campus, occasionally dining in the picturesque town that shares our college’s name, and we despair that the world is falling apart.

While I know that many people here are truly driven by a deep devotion to justice arising from a miraculous inner-well of compassion (I truly believe this and say it unironically), I do sometimes detect, at least within myself, a certain histrionic character to the rantings and ravings against the injustices of the world we are all prone to, which sabotages the honest efforts I and others do make to improve our world. I find within myself, and I see in others, a tendency to give up our commitment to changing the world as soon as we have to get up from our proverbial armchair. Once I see my pursuit of justice taking me down paths which will force me to abandon my dearest comforts and pleasures, I suddenly become paralyzed with indecision, hopelessly struggling against the ambiguity of the world. I then begin to read the news, and am outraged by the latest injustice, perpetuated  by the selfish and complacent elite who run the world, horrified that they could be so complacent when confronted with grave moral problems.

The challenging thing about the times we live in is the extent to which we all have to be willing to make personal sacrifices in order to improve our society and the world. This requires a degree of moral integrity and endurance, which many inspiring people at Swarthmore and around the world have, but which I know I lack. I suspect that some of my peers do as well. We compose and enact the society we are so hasty to critique; in fact, we are elite members of it. Obviously, we operate within institutions that need reform, but we continuously take actions which we know contribute society’s ills, and excuse ourselves through rationalization.

Speaking personally, what horrified me most about Trump was how recognizable and understandable he was to me. Growing up I played a lot of golf and met a lot of obnoxious, narcissistic, alpha-male types who I privately idolized for what I perceived to be their strength. A large part of my education at Swarthmore has the effort to eradicate this idolization within myself. Yet Trump is only the most recent and horrible product of the processes of oppression which have been tearing our society apart for centuries now. These processes are implemented with the machinery of our society, of which I, and we, find ourselves in command.

What we put out into the world through our actions can only be a reflection of the moral courage we have inside us. Fear of pain and fear of failure sap our drive, and dastardly men are free to cause pandemonium in our world. The United States of America is being led by a man who wanted to achieve the presidency for unambiguously masturbatory reasons. But our problem is not Donald Trump. Evil, prideful men have been with us for all of history. The conditions of our society created a situation Trump could exploit. We as individuals makeup our society and our actions in part gave rise to these conditions; therefore we are responsible for Trump. Even if his rise to power is not our fault, the responsibility to defeat him is. But it is well within our power to defeat him, and to fight against the injustices from which he draws his terrible power.

Bursting not one bubble, but two

in Columns/Opinions by

December 16, 2014, two days before I was due to leave campus for winter break, I stood in a room surrounded by fellow Swatties, gathered in a collection for the Peshawar school attacks that had taken place that same day. Militants had entered an army-run school in the Northern region of Pakistan and killed 141 people, 132 of whom were children. Until that point, I had not fully registered the reality of the tragedy unfolding in my own country. Perhaps I never would have, had I not been present at the collection. Although I had wanted nothing more than to be back in Karachi upon hearing the news, that night I began to realize how much my home away from home truly offered me. In short, the feeling was new — different, weird and wonderful. I felt it when someone I had never before spoken to saw that I was crying and put her arm around me. I felt it when I, never a fan of speaking in large crowds, was comfortable enough to raise my voice and share how I was feeling in the moment, as is the tradition in Quaker collection. And I felt it when I looked around and saw students from a multitude of backgrounds present, the majority of whom had no connection to Pakistan, in an amazing display of support and solidarity.

The most important realization for me that day was that my personal experience and interpretation of this incident would have been vastly different back home. This is not at all to say that such terrible atrocities are a regular occurrence in Pakistan, but militant violence on a smaller scale is not uncommon. It may sound awful, but for many of us at home, our sensitivity and reactions to such violence have steadily attenuated to the point of near-numbness. Constant exposure seems to breed indifference, whether or not that indifference is justifiable. What I found at the Swarthmore collection, however, was the polar opposite of indifference; it was a compassionate response that was incredibly heartening, humbling and comforting.

September 17, 2015: Once again, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion while taking part in a collection, this one for the Global Refugee Crisis. The only real difference this time was that now I was the one without any connection to the issue at hand. Yet I found myself feeling all the same things I had felt nearly a year ago. What really struck me was how readily those present came forward with their stories, poignant and emotionally charged, and how together we were able to create an environment in which they felt safe doing so. I realized that not being directly connected to or affected by a crisis does not make it any less relevant to my own life. We all have a stake in what goes on in our world — we all have a role to play.

I was, and continue to be, blown away by the power of the support network we readily extend to one another when we’re not too wrapped up in our own lives. The community at Swarthmore is one that is capable of reaching out to its members and listening without judgment; it is capable of asking and being asked difficult questions. Granted, this is not the side we see often enough, but it exists, and when reached out to, it reciprocates. It certainly took me by surprise, but it has made me value the time I spend here that much more. Even in an environment as socially conscious as ours, it’s easy to get caught up. Gatherings like these serve as a reminder to care and reestablish the link between our world here and the real world outside it. Although they may only represent a small form of recognition, they are the first step to larger action and fit in with Swarthmore’s overall dedication to social justice.

I have found that I tend to slip into living my life within two different bubbles, depending on where I am. There is the Swarthmore bubble, disconnected from the outside world. And there is the Karachi bubble, desensitized to the world within its immediate surroundings. They burst rom time to time, as they did on the two above occasions and then are quickly formed again. I am trying to burst these bubbles permanently, to step out of them and stay out. It feels impossible sometimes, but it’s moments like the collections that remind me it can be done. I believe that we all have a duty to listen to the stories of others, to engage with them, to share them. I believe that it is our obligation to question, challenge and oppose the injustices we see around us, and that it is society’s obligation to respond. I don’t consider myself to be an idealist and I know that, as it currently stands, our combined voices are still not loud enough. Even so, I refuse to accept that we, as Swatties, possessing the kind of educational capital we do, have no power to alter the unfortunate circumstances prevailing in so many parts of the world. Everything starts out small; perhaps recognizing this is the first step. It is only once we collectively channel the heightened awareness with which Swarthmore equips us that we can begin to be more active participants in larger conversations and efforts for change.

 

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