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Strategic Plan passes over the need for a student center

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The Paresky Center, a new student center at Williams college, is just one of several such centers at liberal arts colleges across the country.
(Courtesy of breadloaf.com)

Over winter break, I found myself reading “My Long Trip Home,” an autobiography by Mark Whitaker, a journalist who spent a semester at Swarthmore, and whose parents were Swarthmore graduates. Although Whitaker’s time at Swarthmore was limited to a semester in the 1970s, he described a familiar setting. “The classes were stimulating and the teachers were impressive, but the social life was insular and angst-inducing. How would I ever make new friends without offending the friends I already had? I worried. I had brief flirtations with a few girls, but I was haunted by thoughts of having to see them every day if we ever broke up … I desperately wanted to be in a larger environment with more people to meet, more things to do, and more places to hide out if I felt like it.”

I began to realize that Whitaker had begun to articulate something that is still missing at Swarthmore.
Almost 30 years ago, Swarthmore’s Tarble Activity Center, which is now Old Tarble, burned to the ground in a fire that was later labeled arson. Efforts to replace the student center in later years resulted in the creation of Tarble in Clothier, the “social hub of the campus,” according to the Swarthmore website. When thinking about the opportunities that Tarble in Clothier provides, this space sounds like an exciting and vibrant student center: there is a snack bar, an event space in Upper Tarble, Paces, a game room and offices for the debate team and student organizations.

Unfortunately, what may sound like a viable student center on admissions tours and to website readers does not truly serve as the heart of Swarthmore student life. The game room is tiny with a beaten up ping-pong table. Essie Mae’s is rarely an effective study space. The newly released strategic plan recognizes that “designed to fill [the student center] role, Tarble-in-Clothier is too small and incapable of supporting the programs that students desire.” In previous versions of strategic planning, a rebuilding of Sharples Dining Hall had been planned in order to create a student center that combined food services, meeting spaces and even fitness facilities. Unfortunately, this has been cut from the final version, which cites only the need to “imaginatively repurpose existing campus spaces (e.g. Tarble and Sharples) to support programming in more effective ways.”

At many American and international universities, the concept of a student or social center is expressed in a student union, a place that combines spaces for meetings, mailrooms, snack bars, lounges and movie screening spaces — many of the functions that at Swarthmore are split between Sharples, Tarble and Parrish. The concept of a student center is that, by combining many of the everyday activities of students in one location, not only are many activities made more convenient for students, but there is a true social hub which encourages chance encounters and allows socializing outside of the dorms.

Some might argue that Sharples, as the sole dining hall on campus, encourages those chance encounters. In fact, this is only partially true. Sharples was built in 1964 and was designed to serve a student population of around 1,000 students, according to the strategic plan. Today, Sharples serves more than 1,500 students and is noticeably overcrowded at peak times, particularly at weekday lunches. Furthermore, Sharples simply doesn’t offer the diversity of venues of a true student center.

At peer schools — residential liberal arts colleges with endowments similar to Swarthmore’s — student centers have not been ignored. Last week, I chose to compare Amherst, Bowdoin, Haverford, Middlebury and Williams to compare to Swarthmore in terms of student spending. This week, I googled each school’s name followed by “student center” — the first or second result for every school is a student center, while “Swarthmore student center” results in a mention of Worth Health Center. These student centers are comprehensive conglomerations of activities and gathering spaces. For example, Middlebury’s McCullough Student Center lists multiple dining options, mail room and ATM services, lounges and meeting rooms, event spaces, art galleries and offices for activities and administration while incorporating natural light-filled spaces.

The new strategic plan highlights and proposes concrete solutions to many campus problems, including some outdated academic and athletic facilities, but the issue of a student center appears to have fallen by the wayside despite the fact that many of our peer institutions have implemented student centers, and while strategic planners have admitted the need for such a center, Swarthmore has been without such a social hub since at least the 1983 fire. Can we really condemn future decades of Swarthmore students to student life without a true student center to go with the rest of their experience?

Steven is a sophomore. You can reach him at shazel1@swarthmore.edu.

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