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The joy of letting things go

in Op-Eds/Opinions by

I am easily stressed. I always feel the need to accomplish something even though I do not have to. Whenever I see people cranking out essays furiously in McCabe or complaining (read: humblebragging) about how sleep-deprived they are, I psych myself out, questioning whether I have worked enough. Even though I have the pass-fail cushion this semester, I have bailed out of social events on several occasions for fear of not studying enough. At a high-pressure institution like Swarthmore, it is sometimes difficult to relax, even for just a moment. An unexpected event changed my mindset. How? Here’s my story.

Three weeks ago, I received an e-mail about SwatDeck, offering $15, a one-day Independence Pass to Philadelphia, and an opportunity to travel with three Swarthmore students. I signed up without hesitation, even though I did not totally understand how the event worked. However, as the day for SwatDeck approached and work started piling up, ambivalence struck my mind: would it be alright if I took a break? Soon, the day came; I deviated from my study-Sunday for the first time by joining SwatDeck. I did not regret my decision.

When I arrived at the Swarthmore Station, there were many Swatties chatting with one another while waiting for the train to arrive. After checking in with the organizers of SwatDeck, I introduced myself to the other three members in my group, two of whom I had come across but never talked to. The group’s diversity was impressive. In terms of academics, there was an interest in classics, economics, computer science, and foreign languages. In terms of extracurriculars, we had lacrosse, badminton, and softball athletes, as well as a columnist for the Phoenix (me, apparently). None of us live in the same dormitory or take the same classes. Indeed, the event provides an escape from the “Swarthmore bubble.”

Soon after, the organizers handed us a list of recommended places, such as the popular restaurants in Chinatown, historic sites within Philadelphia, etc. Fortunately, the Philadelphia Museum of Art offers a free entrance on the first Sunday of every month, and because this coincided with SwatDeck, my group paid a visit to the museum to see the art exhibition. Having never visited any art museum before, I was thrilled to see such famous works of art as Vincent Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” and Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Thanks to the fact that one of the members in my SwatDeck group was knowledgeable in art history, I could see the art and appreciate the background behind some of the works as well. Moreover, the museum trip introduced me to many controversial debates, such as whether a work of art could be made of non-art structures and what the essence of art is. After our museum trip concluded, my group dined at a delicious Chinese restaurant nearby and had a great conversation.

What do I make of this experience? First of all, after reflecting upon SwatDeck, I realized that, counterintuitive as this claim sounds, I learn more from “learning” less. During the past few months, I have focused on the classes I am taking to an extreme degree. As each class intensifies in its difficulty, I find it progressively more difficult to explore other subjects with which I am unfamiliar. However, SwatDeck made me realize that doing random activities can be educational, as well. Thanks to my visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I understand more when my friends debate such topics as what qualifies as a work of art or whether one should, when interpreting art, take the artist’s history into account. Had I decided to finish my homework that day, I would not have found my interest in art or art history. The joy of letting the pressure to work go led me to somewhere unexpected.

What I also appreciated about SwatDeck is that the event helps people who are unlikely to meet to socialize with one another. Although the small size of the Swarthmore community can help foster close relationships, such relationships may not necessarily occur. In my case, because I am not heavily involved in sports and usually take STEM classes, I would never have met an athlete who enjoys studying classics had it not been for SwatDeck. This situation applies to every person across our institution. It is unrealistic to take the size of Swarthmore for granted and expect to meet new people automatically. To break out of the “Swarthmore bubble,” one must take the initiative to meet and build relationships with those outside of one’s social circle.  

Lastly, when I let go of the work-first mindset, I experienced the joy of living in the moment. The thought “I must work” does not cloud my mind as it used to. I realized how unrealistic it is to tell myself I must finish every piece of work before I can relax; no matter what day of the year it is, I still have some tasks to finish or some activities I want to do. In other words, one will never truly have free time; work always exists, no matter what. Sometimes, work can wait, and we can focus on some events that cannot.

All in all, by deviating from my habits, I discovered an unexpected joy from meeting new people and visiting places I had never been. The joy of living in the moment comes from freeing oneself from the binding pressure to always work and differentiating between what needs to be done and what needs to be done now. And this joy is invaluable, indeed.


SwatDeck connects community via Philly

in Around Campus/Campus Journal by


Most people would consider Swarthmore to be a small school, with a student body of only 1,500 students. While this small population makes it harder to avoid the people you have awkward relationships with, it can still be hard to meet new people outside of classes, sports, or other activities. Most students consider themselves quite adventurous, tackling rigorous workloads and seeing how close they can come to a paper deadline while still optimizing their grade. Despite this love for adventure, many  students find themselves staying on campus while they could be exploring the amazing city of Philadelphia only 35 minutes away by SEPTA, with a station right on campus. As an opportunity for Swatties to connect and to explore Philadelphia at no cost. Brennan Klein ’14, Isaac Opoku ’14, Emma Kates-Shaw ’16, and Raven Bennett ’17 created SwatDeck. SwatDeck is a program where students are matched with other Swarthmore students in groups of four. Once in a group, they are given money and SEPTA day passes, then are given free range on how they would like to spend the day together.

“I would say that the genesis of the idea for SwatDeck was from a SwatDeck-esque scenario. Emma, Isaac, Raven and I were all serendipitously hanging out, talking about definitions of “space” and got onto this idea of Swatties-not-hanging-out-with-Swatties-enough. This was timed well with the Community Development Grant, and we ended up winning it that winter (2014),” Klein said.

Eriko Shrestha ‘19, who is a part of the team organizing SwatDeck for the 2016 year, shared how students are split up into groups based on their responses to questions when filling out the informational sign up sheet for SwatDeck.

“We look at their responses and then try to even out groups out based on their year, majors, etc. Five of us do it together so that we have a better idea of the friend circles and we try to put people into groups of strangers,” said Shrestha.

“We wanted to build an easy way for students to learn from and listen to one another. We wanted to inspire new perspectives through unexpected conversations. In the end, we wanted to transmit a mindset that probably checks all the boxes of Millennial Cliché Bingo: embrace serendipity, meet new people, carpe that diem,” Klein said.

Bilige Yang ’19 participated in the program for the first time this year and fell in love with the serendipity and was happily surprised to have the opportunity to explore Philadelphia.

I did not know there are so many amazing places in Philly. I like Philly more after this trip … we got to see places all of us had always wanted to see, the Magic Garden and the Old Street and it was also relaxing since it was like a day off. It is not much different compared to going out with friends,” Yang said.

Yang said that he signed up for SwatDeck to meet people he would not have met otherwise.

“The three other people in my group were all seniors and hanging out with them made me feel connected to the Swat community … It is indeed hard to meet people outside my friend group and I joined SwatDeck to make more friends,” Yang shared.

Hanan Ahmed ’19 enjoyed how SwatDeck allowed her to hang out with Swatties while also distracting her from her work in a very fun and guiltless way.

I remember thinking, this is ridiculous … I’m in the middle of the city with a group of people I just met. I should be doing work today, what am I doing? No, it’s okay, I’m not spending any money on this trip. Oh, let’s get boba tea,” Ahmed said.

Daniel Dellal ’18 enjoyed how SwatDeck enabled students to meet people outside of their own friend group and embark on new adventures in Philadelphia.

“I thought it was nice to be allowed to participate in a program where I was with people I’d never met before, which is something you don’t experience often at swat, and also that there was no set plan to it, they pretty much hand you a train ticket and $20 and let you do anything you want,” Dellal said.

SwatDeck was a huge success this year, with a lot of students giving positive feedback and over 100 students signing up to take part in the program. The large number of participants even surprised the program’s original founders.

I think from Emma’s reaction, she didn’t expect that level of participation. We were only planning to do it for two days, but there were so many people we added a third,” Shrestha said.

In the midst all of our work as we near the end of the semester, SwatDeck provides a fun and  accessible way to escape the Swat bubble while making new friends and going on new adventures. SwatDeck continues to grow and has done a wonderful job bringing together students who would have otherwise not met and providing them with a great opportunity to delve into Philly without worrying about who will be there or what you will do. It’s the adventure almost every student wants constructed, organized, and funded by the SwatDeck committee.


SwatDeck program gets underway, with more to come

in Around Campus/News by
SwatDeck participants meet at the SEPTA station.
SwatDeck participants meet at the SEPTA station on Sunday.

SwatDeck, one of two recipients of a $10,000 Community Development Grant (CDG), debuted this week with successful involvement by students. The CDGs are a part of the Community Development Fund, a $150,000 fund established by the President’s office in October to be spent over the next three years. 

The CDGs are given to projects focused on promoting inclusivity on campus and building community, and SwatDeck, proposed by Brennan Klein ’14, Isaac Opoku ’14, Emma Kates-Shaw ’16 and Raven Bennett ’17, is designed to do just that.

“People who sign up to participate will be randomly assigned to groups of four based on sets of four same numbered cards, they will then be given a sum of money and some philosophical questions to discuss and they will head out into Philly or Media to spend time together and talk,” Kates-Shaw explained. “In the process they will gain new perspectives and expand their network in the Swarthmore community.”

Twenty-four people participated in six groups this week, with over 40 people scheduled to participate in each of the three coming weekends. On Friday, each person received a playing card and a notebook with that card stenciled on it. They formed a group with three other people who had the same card in different suits.

At the Swarthmore train station on Sunday, they were given $30, an Independence Pass which gave them unlimited access to public transportation to and in Philadelphia, a map of Philadelphia with suggested places for them to explore and a list of questions for them to discuss.

The organizers were pleasantly surprised by the response.

“It very well could have fallen on its face, but they thought it was an adventure, which was really cool,” Klein said.

Some participants like Savannah Saunders ’16 were unsure of how the day would go.

“I thought it would be great to spend the day in Philly, but I was worried SwatDeck would be ‘swakward’,” Saunders said. “Meeting up with a bunch of semi-strangers and spending hours together sounded exciting, but also intimidating. I was mostly worried we would have little to talk about.”

Another participant, Shantanu Jain ’17, was more optimistic from the outset.

“Swatties are interesting in different ways but similarly interesting,” Jain said. “Putting four of these people together in a fun free-form way can’t really end badly. Different SwatDeck groups could get more or less out of it than my group did, but at the bare minimum, you’ll create memories with a bunch of people you’ll continue to see around. At maximum, you’ve had some insightful discussions.”

According to the responses the coordinators received in the post survey, people had different gradations of how much they enjoyed it, but everyone felt it was worthwhile and would like to do it again. There were a few hiccups, according to Opoku, with one of the participating juniors commenting that the freshmen had not gone through many of the Swarthmore experiences that they had, and it was hard for them to get in depth into some of the conversations. Klein said that the groups that had the most success were the ones that were the most stratified, with each group consisting of a variety of class years, interests and backgrounds in the ideal configuration. However, this ideal configuration is always in danger of being disrupted by people not showing up for the weekend they had signed up for, which is a predominant concern of the SwatDeck coordinators.

The SwatDeck groups visited many different places in Philadelphia, from bookstores to restaurants to Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens, and talked about a range of topics, from growing up in their hometown, their high school experiences and how different or similar those experiences were to what the big problems of their generation were and what constituted privilege.

Many participants of SwatDeck see it as a good way to spend the Community Development Fund.

“SwatDeck has a great future,” Saunders said. “Swarthmore can hold dozens of collections, workshops and discussions on community — but the best way to truly build community is by spending time and forming bonds with one another.”

Jain agreed with Saunders, and is a strong supporter of SwatDeck.

“There was nothing forced about SwatDeck,” Jain said. “Some of these community development things can become so painful. But it was really cool in that it was completely free, but you did have the opportunity to get into a random deep conversation that you wouldn’t talk about when you meet someone for first time. They set us up with the premise that you have the option of talking about something meaningful, but you don’t have to.”

The organizers are hoping to improve on the debut weekend through more structured emailing during the experience and a more elaborate map.

The SwatDeck coordinators are considering ways for the project to expand and continue through endeavors such as trying to get all the people holding cards of the same suit together to meet, and continuing the program next semester. While Klein and Opoku are graduating, they plan to continue to be peripherally involved but to also take the mindset of SwatDeck wherever they go.

“The mindset behind SwatDeck is the willingness to be serendipitous with people and meet with people you wouldn’t otherwise meet,” Klein said.

Community Development Grants awarded to students and staff

in Around Campus/News by
SwatDeck Cofounders
SwatDeck Cofounders

This year’s Community Development Grants, $10,000 awards given to projects focused on promoting inclusivity on campus and building community, have been awarded. The grants come from the Community Development Fund, a reserve of $150,000 created last year to be spent over the next three years on projects proposed by members of the college community.

One of the two grants was awarded to fund SwatDeck, a proposal by a student group consisting of Brennan Klein ’14, Isaac Opoku ’14, Emma Kates-Shaw ’16 and Raven Bennett ‘17. The other grant was awarded to Pamela Prescod-Caesar, vice president for human resources, and Zenobia Hargust, employee relations and training manager for human resources, who are using it to sponsor photographer Adam Mastoon in his creation of a Community Documentation Project for Swarthmore that will consist of prominently displayed photographs with quotes and text.

“SwatDeck is an initiative to promote meaningful interaction among Swarthmore students, in the form of a simple and powerful activity: speaking to one another. Groups of four people will be randomly selected using a deck of cards, and will each receive a train ticket and funds for a meal in Philadelphia, during which they will be given guiding questions and prompts for conversation,” Kates-Shaw said. “The ensuing conversation will ideally transcend existing campus divides and focus on commonality, strengthening our collective feeling of community.”

A research conference attended by Klein, where a deck of cards had been similarly used to stimulate lunchtime conversation between researchers from all over the globe, inspired SwatDeck. After engaging in the rich conversations he had due to the concept, Klein spent more time noticing the random, serendipitous interactions in his life, which sparked a discussion with Kates-Shaw and Opoku.

“We began talking about how interesting these random, chance encounters are with ‘familiar strangers’ from different academic, cultural, and geographical backgrounds. Coincidentally, this was also when Dean [Liliana] Rodriguez [Associate Dean For Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development] announced the Community Development Grant. We got together several more times, planned the grant, and that was that,” Klein said. “SwatDeck was becoming a ‘thing’ in our minds, and it wasn’t even an ‘event’ per se — it was more like a perspective, to force ourselves to notice and appreciate the randomness in our day-to-day lives.”

SwatDeck plans to use social media to help create an exhibit which will be displayed in the Science Center during Reading Week in the beginning of May. Participants will be encouraged to post photos and thoughts about the experiences they had during the project, on Instagram, Tumblr and Facebook during their outings.

The students behind SwatDeck have many ideas about the future of the project. As the freshman in the group, Bennett believes it’s her responsibility to make sure the project continues. Kates-Shaw wants to see wider application of the concept in the future, with faculty and staff becoming a part of it at some point, and maybe even implementing such a project in her neighborhood back home.

“Such a project needs continuity in order for us to realize its true potential,” Opoku said. “Furthermore, the findings that come out of it can help others integrate similar community-building ideas into their spaces and do so more effectively. I’d definitely love to see this idea expand beyond Swarthmore.”

The second grant was awarded to Prescod-Caesar and Hargust’s proposal which sponsors Adam Mastoon in creating a Community Documentation Project by Mastoon, in collaboration with the Swarthmore community. Mastoon is the photographer and creator of the RISDiversity Project, a community narratives project which gives voice through photographs and stories to faculty, staff and students. Using a similar concept, Mastoon will create 25 portraits with photographs and text in celebration of Swarthmore’s vibrant and diverse community.

Rodriguez is excited about the project and its final outcome.

“I know we’ll be prompting the artist to focus his process on challenging us as members of a community to wrestle with defining ‘community’ — as well as our personal role in making it an inclusive one,” she said. “However, it’s hard to say where this project goes since interviewing individuals across campus is a part of the process — and what individuals say will inform the final product. It’s a very dynamic project we’re excited to begin in fall 2014.”

Prescod-Caesar plans for the project to engage members of the campus community in all aspects of planning and implementation and hopes that it will serve to foster meaningful dialogues which will educate and cultivate a dynamic and inclusive learning environment.

Prescod-Caesar and Hargust are confident that the project will accomplish the CDF’s mission, creating cross-community collaboration and a greater awareness of other members of the community.

“Though photographs are the foundation for the project, the project illustrates a much richer picture of each individual participant,” Hargust said. “This is truly an opportunity to appreciate individual differences, while celebrating the many similarities within our community.”

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