Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
My first fall at Swarthmore is nearly over. All the colored leaves are gone, and yesterday I saw snow! I wonder when we will get our first big snowfall. My hall mates and I plan to go sledding on dining hall trays, which are really too small for them, but would be great for me. Do you remember those guinea pig sweaters we used to look at online? The weather has gotten much colder here, but one of my friends here knits, and she made me a full-body sweater, which I love and wear nearly every day.
I feel that I have finally begun to adjust to the social environment here. At first it seemed as though there wasn’t much for someone like me to do – I don’t feel comfortable going to parties, because I don’t really like loud music or drinking alcohol (and it’s illegal anyway), or being in a crowded hot place with other people. For a while it seemed that was the only thing to do on campus, but I have found other people who enjoy conversations, board games, and other less wild forms of entertainment. It’s nice to see that there are fun things to do even for quieter people like me.
Swarthmore’s campus is very open. Students talk a lot about all the trees we have, but they are almost all stuffed into the little bit of woods next to the stream – where no one ever needs to go! In a normal day, most of the paths are in the open air, which no one else seems to mind. I have to be very careful, though, because there is no cover. Sure enough, a couple days I ago I was walking down to get dinner, when I suddenly spotted a hawk circling around above me! I panicked and burst down the hill at a breakneck gallop.
When I came to my senses, I found myself somehow in a dark corner of Sharples that I had never been to before. It was really quiet, and there were three upperclassmen talking quietly but confidently together. As I gathered my breath back, I heard one of them say somewhat disdainfully, “Well, that’s Swarthmore’s liberal hypocrisy for you.”
“What?” I thought to myself, “How can there be students who would say things like that about Swarthmore?” I decided to listen more.
“Of course,” one of the others said. “They tolerate all the things they like, but do not tolerate anything they call ‘intolerance’ – which is whatever they don’t like.”
I wasn’t sure exactly who these people were, but I knew that they had tapped into some concerns that I had but had never voiced. Should I sit down with them and learn more? Why weren’t they worried that other people might hear them? If I joined them, would I be an outcast? The room was almost empty, though, and maybe because of my near-death experiences, I was more bold than ever. I stepped over and asked if I could sit down.
It turns out they two two seniors and a junior. When I asked them about why they were so critical of Swarthmore, they sized me up, and then said, “Are you one of those people in love with Swat who can’t make it in the real world, and so come running back here after every break?”
“Uh—- no. I’m pretty conservative. Swarthmore’s really different from where I come from.” This seemed to satisfy them, and they continued their conversation, while I stayed mostly quiet. I began to understand what sort of people they were. At one point one of the seniors said, “I’m just tired of every day in every class hearing my views dismissed as ignorant; no one even bothers to look critically at what the other argument IS. They just assume they know already.”
I piped up, “If life at Swarthmore is so hard, then why do you stay? You could go somewhere else.”
The three shifted uncomfortably and looked at each other; the junior decided to speak up for them. “Because being here is one of the best experiences I could have. Don’t ever get me wrong, Swarthmore is a great school. The education is top quality, and being here forces you to sink or swim. I know all these people better than they will ever know me – and I know that there is more in this world than liberal academia. Look around you – most of these students will spend their lives sheltered in the protective wing of academic grants or NGOs or think tanks. They cannot survive anywhere else. We have spent three years here, but we have not fallen for it. We can go on and lead normal lives away from this fantasy world. But while we are here, the education is worth it.”
The second senior added, “And because it was a challenge.”
“But aren’t you worried that no one will like you or take you seriously?” I queried anxiously.
They laughed. “Do we seem the most popular people here?”
“Our friends know what I think, and accept it even when they disagree. Other people don’t accept it, and they aren’t my friends. It really shows you who your real friends are.”
Maybe I don’t want to know just yet who my real friends are.
The whole episode from hawk to conservatives in a corner was quite surreal. I probably am over romanticizing it when I say that those three students seemed almost like hardened soldiers. They weren’t fazed at the thought that people might overhear them – after all, what harm could come from it? They didn’t seem confused at all either, like they understood what was going on at Swarthmore with perspectives of outsiders, and made judgments that seemed accurate, because they no longer had illusions about it.
The way they talked, Swarthmore seemed unchangeable – and I began to see myself, maybe, three years from now sitting in a dark corner of Sharples with a few very close friends and a lot of people who kind of disliked me. I didn’t like the idea. When I asked some other people about those three, many other upperclassmen didn’t seem to care for them at all.
Will that be me in three years? I don’t think it has to be – I don’t agree that Swat is as bad as they made it out to be, or as one-sided, or that if you don’t agree with many of Swarthmore’s values you can’t still be involved with college life.
After all —- now I know that there are at least three students here who don’t share the same view as everyone else, and are not afraid to say so when asked. Isn’t that the seeds of thought diversity right there?