When I Was Younger: Lessons from a Seasoned Swattie

Photo courtesy of SignalPAD.

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.

Arriving on campus as an incoming freshman, I already had a lot on my plate. Whether I was trying to figure out why my key for “Alice Paul” wouldn’t let me in (because it was for David Kemp), puzzling over why there was artwork where there should have been Essie Mae’s (it turns out New Tarble and Old Tarble are two separate buildings), or trying to create the “perfect” schedule for my “perfect” first semester as a Swattie, I was pretty overwhelmed.

Yet as I, a seasoned junior about to embark on an international journey, reflect on that year, I can only remember the excitement I felt to just be here. “I made it!” I screamed to myself. “Give me the parties! Oh, bring on the books to unpack (even if it was TK weeks into the semester) and the men to meet! Where are the free festivals and dance lessons on the beach?!”

I had heard these would be the best four years of my life, and I can pleasantly say they have been. But to gain my grip on all-that-is-Swarthmore, I fell pretty hard academically, personally and intellectually. As the song lyric goes: I wish that I knew what I know now…when I was younger. Now, I am a proud Honors English Major and Spanish minor. While I still doesn’t know what I want to do with my life, I do know that I am confident in who I am and who I have become at Swarthmore. I can only wish the same for every freshman.

To try to make this transition a little easier, I asked a handful of Swatties things they wished they knew before starting, things that would have made their experience more fulfilling. Here are the top 10 pieces of advice that seasoned Swatties would like to impart on their wide-eyed successors. Read them before it’s TOO LATE.

10. Get Social (and Fast)
As a freshman, I dove into cultural groups, sports clubs, the works! I ended up taking an entry-level position on the Swarthmore African-American Student Society (SASS) executive board, danced in the Rhythm & Motion dance crew and applied to be a Writing Associate. These small leaps of faith landed me in fulfilling, leadership roles that are often the highlight of my Swarthmore experience.

A rising senior, sighing, wishes that she “would have known about other groups [like MULTI (cultural group for those who identify as mixed race); Enlace (the Latino cultural group); LASS (an all-women’s organization)]” she would have “gotten active sooner.” These groups not only provide free services, but also opportunities to meet like-minded people.

So, take a couple risks! Try to dance in the ballroom club even if you feel you have no rhythm. Join MULTI to engage in conversations about multi-racial identities. Create your own radio show on WSRN to showcase your unique musical tastes. Become a mentor in Dare to Soar and tutor primary-school aged children in Chester. For more information, pay attention at the Activities Fair to be held on Sunday, August 28th!

In addition to being active in Swarthmore groups, Swattie also recommend taking advantage of the free sketch comedy shows preformed by Boy Meets Tractor, the sloppy bro party, the lecture on Shakespeare or the campus-wide movie. They  can make college feel all the more worthwhile: as an adult, you won’t have the time to just dance for the sake of dancing or sit around and talk about the world.

9. Use Your Resources
At Swarthmore, there are countless resources at your disposal. The most plentiful, underused resource to freshman Swatties is upperclassmen! “Do not be afraid to talk to upperclassmen about your academic trajectory!” in that “talking to people who are familiar with professors and departments can very much help you avoid classes that end up not being valuable and also lead you to classes/professors that work in favor,” explains one very enthusiastic senior. “Plus, older students, not unlike grandparents, pretty much unanimously enjoy getting to recount their academic travails to Freshies, so don’t be shy about asking,” he adds.

Another student, a rising junior, describes “there are so many resources (like CAPS, free tutors, etc.) for everyone that I didn’t even know about until I needed them.” These resources also include the “go-to-people” of each department, such as Phil Kudish in Biology and Kaitlyn for Math.”

Whether you want counseling or funding for a campus-wide event, want to smooth over a mix-up about classes or find internships, the resources are endless (and the staff is cool too). For a full list of these resources, visit the “Administration” tab on the Swarthmore website.

8. Start Thinking SERIOUSLY About What You Want to Do
Don’t get stuck as a junior trying to fill distribution requirements! Use your freshman year to explore and get the not-so-fun courses out of the way. That way, you can be the junior who is taking a bunch of cool classes that match your interests and is on the fast track to graduation.

In addition to getting on your distributions requirements as soon as possible, make sure you start to think about what you want to study at Swarthmore- and seriously. As a rising senior remarks, “I wish I knew how early [I] needed to get my act together, when it comes to picking majors.” She had “heard the Sophomore paper was a joke, but found that many people couldn’t get into a lot of honors seminars as a junior unless you specifically mentioned it in your paper.” And this doesn’t only apply to non-honors students, but declared Honors majors as well in the Biology and English departments, for example.

So, take classes you like but be smart and plan out your academic career early with the help of your academic advisors. Oh, and give some thought to your Sophomore paper.

7. Be Creative with Your Study Spots
Once you have sorted out your academic trajectory, take some steps to ensure your academic success. With its barred windows and stuffy rooms, McCabe makes anyone feel a bit claustrophobic. The fact that it is bustling with students at every time of day doesn’t exactly promote productivity. If you’re having trouble working at the main library, don’t chuck the studying, but get creative!

Study areas that have been successful (and are a little less mainstream are):

– The Educational Materials Center (in Pearson)

– Papazian Lounge

– The Basement of the Science Center

– The Lang Center for Civic Responsibility (nice lounges, mostly quiet)

– Parrish Parlours (for a comfortable, mildly social study environment)

– Main floor of Cornell (quiet but populated)

– Kohlberg Coffee Bar

– Underhill Music & Dance Library

6. Swarthmore’s Bubble is REALLY Just That
Why exactly do people refer to Swarthmore as a bubble? The answer lies in a bubble’s properties. Small and enclosed, with all of its inner contents protected by a transparent shell. Swarthmore, with its scenic landscape and quaintness, is just like a bubble, and can feel pretty small. A rising senior answered “The first thing that comes to mind – and maybe this is kind of trite – is how damn small Swarthmore really is, and the various ways in which that can be frustrating.”

Academically, it can result in limited class selection (especially when trying to fulfill distribution requirements) and personally, it can extremely limit one’s social life because “after two years or so here, you basically know where you stand in relation to everybody else and people don’t come into your life very often,” he adds. This issue will affect not only who you hang out but even your chances of finding love on campus. According to him, the lack of a “large pool of candidates” is particularly frustrating in the LGBT community, where finding a match is “ridiculously slim.” He capped his response by advising freshman to “expect that to get frustrating and go abroad if you can. haha.”

Another negative consequence of how small Swarthmore really is is that it can often be really cliquey and not satisfy some people’s views and/or expectations of diversity. Many students of color often feel that people aren’t as “welcoming” as Swarthmore tries to project. What this translates to is to push yourself to get to know people who you otherwise wouldn’t and to not take some interactions you may have so seriously.

5. Go Abroad: ¡Bienvenidos a su aventura!
I am going to be studying in Madrid in the fall and I am pretty excited. Going abroad will give me the opportunity to improve my Spanish, do some much-needed soul searching and get to know new people. What I am hoping I gain from my experience is a greater appreciation of Swarthmore in general.

Most of the Swatties I have spoken with have thoroughly enjoyed their international adventures and have returned calmer, more independent and happier. If your schedule will permit, do it! In addition to Swarthmore programs abroad, students can participate in other programs with the help of the off-campus study office. Pat Martin and Rosa Bernard are extremely helpful and approachable. ¡Bienvenidos a su aventura! (Welcome to your adventure). Swarthmore will be waiting when you return.

4. Get Off Campus
Any Swattie will tell you that while Swarthmore is a beautiful place, it can also be really overwhelming and a bitsmothering, stifling. Once the novelty wears off, you might want to escape the bubble. Luckily, it can be really easy.

As a rising sophomore noted “Philly can be really fun and a free shuttle is offered [to get] there.” In case the shuttle doesn’t exactly take you where you want to go (or is filled on the weeknight you want to use it), there is the SEPTA R3 at the foot of campus. You could also take the “109 to 69th street and then the market-frankford line to various parts of Philly for 3 bucks each way” in that “it is a bit cheaper than the R3 and has later hours of operation.”

A rising senior Swattie wishes “she took more advantage of Philly” and even “Media has a ton of cool things, like cute events and festivals.”  She also found that “just walking to the mall once a week was good” in that she got “fresh air [and] to see people outside the 18-23 year-old age group, and to get away” from the stresses of being a Swattie. Taking some you-time can greatly improve your overall happiness and lessen the severity of the never-ending Swarthmore anxiety.

3. Get to Know Professors: It could get you an A (and a life-long mentor)
Professors at Swarthmore are not only brilliant, but approachable. I remember sitting in professor’s offices having conversations about the pictures on their wall or the argumentative strength of my thesis for the midterm paper. My relationships with professors have not only earned me better grades, but also opened opportunities for scholarships, fellowships and independent study. Most importantly, they have become my group of wise advisors who care about the trajectory of my life. So, how do you do it? Even a rising junior wishes he “had known how approachable professors really were. People talked about it, but I never really knew how to approach profs.”

Developing a meaningful relationship with professors is as easy as visiting them at their office on the office hours provided on their syllabus and asking an intelligent question. “Professors dedicate their time to help everyone,” a rising sophomore remarked “not just the majors or the gifted…[s]ometimes I felt like I was a waste of their time”  but never felt treated differently. Their professors, they love to teach and get to know their students. So, no one is a waste of their time!

2. Ditch the Perfectionism
Any Swattie will tell you that Swarthmore is one rigorous institution and can really run a person ragged. A rising senior, who had a tough transition freshman year that resulted in the deterioration of her health, wishes she knew “just how hard classes were” and that someone had told her “it was okay to turn in things late…[and] that not everything needed to be perfect.” I have seen this true; it is easy to feel the pressure to be perfect when surrounded by hundreds of brilliant students. When your grades don’t exactly match the ones you used to get in high school or your workload is double what you’re used to, remember this: turn in things late, take 4 credits and learn to say NO. Oh, and ditch the perfectionism, it gets a little old after a while. Replace it with your desire to learn.

1. LIVE IT UP: You’re only a college student ONCE
If there is one thing almost all recent graduates of Swarthmore agree with, it is that the biggest thing they wished they knew before graduating was how much they’d miss it. So, enjoy yourself! Take risks! Work hard. Play hard. Welcome to Swarthmore!

 —Courtney Dickens


  1. My crankier advice to freshmen:

    Start Thinking SERIOUSLY About What You Want to Do Learn

    or better yet just

    Start Thinking SERIOUSLY.

    You are still an idiot teenager and you have no idea what you are doing… yes, you too you smug bastard. In all likelihood you have terribly mistaken ideas about the complex fields of knowledge and practice which you casually describe as your “academic interests”.

    There’s nothing necessarily wrong with your awful ignorance and overconfidence as long as you have an open-minded attitude about learning. Don’t let your so-called “academic career” get in the way of your personal and intellectual growth. The first year or two shouldn’t be thought of as an exploratory or preparatory prelude to being a major–think of it as the first half of a college education. Most majors are basically just a selection of courses that happen to be in the same department and unless you are considering a major with a very rigid schedule, you should just be undecided and proud until they force you to write your sophomore paper. Then just use the paper strategically to get into courses which might fill and you want to get into. The author of this article makes it seem like this requires in depth planning–it doesn’t require anything but an hour or two of thought and effort in the middle of sophomore year. Freshmen don’t need to know anything about the sophomore paper. They should be filling their minds with Knowledge and Understanding (among other things) not worrying about their honors minor and which professors are going to be on sabbatical in Spring 2015.

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