In previous columns covering the Strategic Directions plan released this winter, I have focused on the problems and weaknesses of the strategic plan, from the lack of a community center to the inclination towards boosting Swarthmore’s ranking over more substantive changes. However, with this column I would like to focus on areas where the strategic plan identifies an admirable goal, but then fails to suggest some simple ways to achieve that goal. In particular, this column will look at several best practices of our peer institutions that many of our competitors have adopted successfully that would also serve Swarthmore’s stated goals and recommendation in the strategic plan.
One of the most consistent recommendations is that “Swarthmore should draw on its traditions and strengths as a community to serve as a model for purposeful communities in the 21st century” and that we need to further focus on wellness and leadership development. The strategic plan lists a new fitness center and more holding collection more frequently as methods to meet this goal, but missing is an obvious improvement: orientation trips.
Usually known by some variation of “Orientation Adventure,” many of Swarthmore’s peer institutions, including Amherst, Bowdoin and Williams, offer trips that last from three to seven days prior to the start of classes. Usually, as is the case with Bowdoin’s Pre-Orientation program, students can sign up for outdoor hiking trips with around eight other freshmen and an upperclassman trip leader, while students who would prefer housing can do community service trips in the college community. These trips are advertised as chances to develop group bonding and leadership before classes actually begin.
Why is Swarthmore not already pursuing such a program? Perhaps the most important moment in students’ time at Swarthmore is orientation, when first-years either begin to feel comfortable or get lost in the sea of activities and advising meetings available during the first week before classes. For a fairly low cost, an adventure orientation program would further the goals of the Strategic Plan from students’ first moments at Swarthmore, creating a sense of community via shared experiences hiking and orienteering in Pennsylvania parks, while allowing upperclassmen group leaders to practice leadership and encouraging all students in such a program to engage in wellness and outdoor activities during their four years at Swarthmore.
Another key area of focus in the strategic plan is the need for new and creative ways of teaching, including interdisciplinary work and high value learning experiences, which include the recommendation to “Support curricular innovation, especially interdisciplinary teaching and programs, with helpful structures and additional faculty positions.”
To fulfill this recommendation, the plan suggests that visiting faculty members be hired to focus on interdisciplinary work and programs. However, a program present at Amherst, Middlebury and Williams, among others, called winter term, allows students and professors to form classes that meet for a few weeks in January in between semesters. These classes are designed to allow students and faculty to explore interests and topics that would not be suited to a semester length class and to test out new curricular concepts.
A look at some of Williams’ winter term offerings — called “Winter Study Projects” — reveals that these classes cover an incredible range of subjects, from Public Speaking classes to Medical Apprenticeships to explorations of forgotten classics.
(A list of the 2008 courses offered is here: http://web.williams.edu/registrar/winterstudy/courseinfo/courses08.html)
In the case of Williams, these programs are mandatory all four years, although the flexibility of the program — students can design their own projects, do internships, or work on research projects — means that the program is more forgiving than the word mandatory would suggest.
At Swarthmore, a similar program could be launched that allowed professors to offer month long classes in January to interested students while allowing students to propose their own projects, which could be related to future jobs or their current interests. Even without making a winter term mandatory, such a program would advance the recommendation of allowing for interdisciplinary work, while also creating a way to integrate service projects, work and academics in a way that isn’t possible in the less flexible semester format.
Right now, Swarthmore offers generous grants to students doing summer research projects with faculty on campus, and recently the career services office has begun to offer a limited number of stipend for students pursuing entrepreneurship internships with selected startups over the summer. These are fantastic programs that help students pursue meaningful projects over the summer.
However, we could be doing more. The Strategic Plan recommends that “Swarthmore should invest in research and independent work experiences for all students, including travel to research sites, student stipends, and [more]” in order to provide high-impact learning experiences.
To achieve this, Swarthmore could begin offering more stipends for students undertaking unpaid internships with the goal of eventually being able to guarantee every student a stipend for one of their four years. As unpaid internships become more prevalent, stipends would allow students who could not otherwise have afforded such an internship the chance. In addition to helping students jump from liberal arts to career, this would allow students return after the summer with diverse experiences, not just research. As an aside, it’s easy to imagine such a program that guarantees summer funding drawing many new applications for admissions.
The Strategic Plan contained some good ideas, but seemed curiously lacking when it comes to many services for students. When we do try to achieve the plan’s many recommendations, Swarthmore planners shouldn’t be afraid to steal our peers’ good ideas.
Steven is a sophomore. You can reach him at email@example.com.