Sometimes Swatties: Over-committed Students affect Clubs on Campus

The Swarthmore College Student Life Team’s Wellness Packet places a heavy emphasis on taking a few moments out of every day for basic de-stressing activities. Wes Willison ’12 advises students to “take a Sabbath. Don’t do any work for a day, either for school or anything else.” Wellness Coordinator Satya Nelms reminds Swatties that “there is a joy to be found in doing nothing.” Patricia Fischette, LSW Post Graudate Clinical Fellow CAPS, suggests “try[ing] to carve out a few minutes to do something you enjoy for yourself.”

Deep breathing, reinvigorating yoga practices and scenic walks through the Crum are easier erased from a hectic schedule than penciled in. Many alumni quoted in the Wellness Packet, as well as the living, breathing students on campus, have found that living a healthy lifestyle often comes at the expense of some other area of their academic experience. When a paper deadline, an orchestra rehearsal and a lab assignment all fall within the same calendar block, finding a moment for personal relaxation often falls to the bottom of the priority list — and gets pushed to later on the theoretical schedule. With increased workload or personal stress also comes a need to chop from packed schedules — and the first ball to drop (after sleep) tends to be extracurricular commitments.

Dean of Student Life Myrt Westphal describes the Swarthmore experience as a “giant candy store,” and Swatties typically want one of every flavor. Much like psychology professor Barry Schwartz’s paradox of choice — the idea that after a certain point, too many options actually decrease personal happiness as people regret the opportunities they didn’t sample — the myriad of groups on campus can sometimes prove fatally tempting to students who haven’t yet learned how much is too much to heap onto their plates.

Gaps between professor and student expectations can additionally cause for an ill-managed time budget, according to Westphal. Overhearing senior colleagues discussing the overemphasis students place on extracurriculars — and the corresponding lack of preparation for class — suggested to Wesphal that students don’t agree with the professor’s assumption that 8 to 10 hours of their week should be devoted to a single course’s work.

“I think there’s a mismatch between what faculty expects and what students do,” she said. “I think students quickly learn here how much to do and when to stop, and if you can’t figure out when to stop, that’s when you get into stress mode. If you’re a real perfectionist, or run into a subject that stumps you and you need to put extra time into it, that’s a hard thing to accommodate.”

Director of Counseling and Psychology Services (CAPS) David Ramirez defines this problem as one of “wiggle room” — not leaving enough time to accommodate the unexpected. “You might take five credits and your clubs and your commitments [and put them on a schedule] and say okay, I can do all this, which is fine — as long as you don’t get a cold, and your best friend doesn’t break up with her boyfriend and spend the night crying in your room,” he said. “I think it’s the most problematic and challenging [part] for Swarthmore students — they don’t give wiggle room, and because of that, things can go haywire pretty quickly.”

With the unexpected comes a need to shirk the responsibilities that tend to pile up unchecked. With over 100 student groups to choose from — not including varsity sports and musical ensembles — membership tends to already be spread thin, and no-shows can drastically affect what a group is able to accomplish. Danny Hirschel-Burns, the president of Swarthmore’s STAND chapter, noted that sporadic attendance often leads to less-than-ideal club functioning.

“Genocide is such a complicated issue that for people who are new to studying it and advocating against it, missing meetings really detracts from their effectiveness and understanding,” he said in an email. “It’s hard if it’s a new group of people each week, because delegating tasks becomes impossible, and the few people who come every week end up doing all the work.”

Other campus groups thrive on irregular attendance, and see their accommodating nature as benefiting their general functioning. Atish Agarwala ’13, the head of the ice hockey club MotherPuckers, sees the show-when-you-can atmosphere as boosting overall membership and helping retain the more committed core members.

“[T]he casual commitment of MotherPuckers is really important to get the core members as well [as less regular attendees],” Agarwala said in an email. “Most of our members have never played hockey before, and some are nervous about trying something so new. The fact that they can come start whenever they want, with no time commitment, means that people are more likely to come in the first place. If they enjoy it, they’ll come back for more… The flexibility helps people stay involved as much as they are able.”

The success of MotherPuckers’ attendance policy indicates that students are thinking about how much to take on before committing. For groups where attendance is crucial, such as the Dare2Soar tutoring program in Chester, defining the commitment from the get-go may additionally prompt students to consider how much they’re able to devote to another project.

“[In Dare2Soar], you’re not just making a commitment or obligation to yourself, you’re making a commitment the students you’re tutoring,” former lead coordinator Lisa Sendrow ’13 said.

While a heavy workload will sometimes prompt cancellations, overall tutor attendance has seen great improvement over the past two years, according to Sendrow, perhaps in part due to new sign-up sheets that hold tutors accountable for their attendance. Swarthmore Feminists, a group Sendrow has also had an active leadership role in, doesn’t see such regular attendance from all its members at weekly dinners, but less regular attendance can actually contribute to discussion — core members often are familiar with one another’s views, whereas more irregular attendees can provide new perspectives.

Although some clubs can function with haphazard attendance, it’s unclear whether the benefits outweigh the costs, both on the individual and group level. Agarwala noted that less regular skaters tend to miss out on the camaraderie between consistent players, which he believes is a large part of why the regulars are so regular in their attendance. Sendrow stated that while less regular dinner diners offer unique perspectives, those perspectives can be pushed aside by regular members, who devalue opinions from students who “don’t know what’s going on” due to flaky attendance.

Westphal doesn’t see the amalgam of different groups on campus as a negative development, but rather, as a reflection of the desire of Swatties to start something new and assume leadership roles. Starting a new club can often be more appealing than moving up the hierarchy of an older group, and can give leaders the opportunity to develop financing and marketing techniques, among other skills. She suggests considering the nature of a commitment before making it: programs like Dare2Soar, for example, require a greater commitment than interest groups where regular attendance doesn’t have a direct impact on another party.

The tendency to bite off more than one can reasonably chew is often the result of the transitional process between high school and college, as both Westphal and Ramirez noted. Moving from the relatively structured world of a six-hour school day and supplementary activities scheduled with the help of parents, the large blocks of time that college affords necessitates self-regulation on the part of students. Oftentimes, this means recognizing time constraints that didn’t exist before Swarthmore.

“Swat students, by virtue of admittance, are demonstrably accomplished people,” Ramirez said. “A lot of them have never felt a limit. Other people had limits, but not them. Then they come here, and they have to come to terms with limitations of energy.”

Making regular, long-term commitments, to sports teams or musical ensembles, for example, can often help put those limits in sharper relief, and give students a more effective way to think about the reality of their time, according to Westphal. Student athletes in-season often note how much more efficiently they manage time, and can more realistically manage smaller blocks versus bigger chunks. Additionally, pursuing passions through credit — dance, music, and creative writing courses, for example — and recognizing that the pursuit of passion doesn’t end in college can help students make more realistic time commitments while at school.

While many people associate the pass/fail semester with the testing grounds for discovering collegiate limits, Westphal notes that the notorious sophomore slump may also represent a period in which students are pushing the boundaries of what they’re realistically able to accomplish — hence, the slump.

“Sophomores tend to be leaders here,” she said. “They get involved and interested freshmen year, and take leadership roles as sophomores. Then junior year they go abroad, and senior year, they are deep in their majors and looking to the future… a large majority of events are planned by sophomores, and they do tend to get overwhelmed. [Time management] is something they learn from overload and stress. They [have a moment when they] say, ‘this is not the way I want to live, I’ve got to reevaluate.’”

“You want to enjoy yourself,” Ramirez agrees. “You don’t want to just get to the finish line… ask yourself, what are my pleasures and what what room am I leaving for them? Will overcommitting strip away the potential pleasurable part [of my college experience]?”

Defining priorities is another crucial step to securing a more fulfilling schedule. For Hirschel-Burns, a big part of time management is scheduling out every hour of his week around mandatory eight-hour blocks of sleep. He has also recognized that academics sometimes need to take a back seat.

“I… have refused to always put academics first,” he said. “I realize that there are simply other things that are more important to me… as I get older, I’ve gotten less interested in doing academic work that I don’t find interesting (and I’ve also gotten a much clearer idea of my interests as I’ve gotten over). This has really helped me find a balance between school and everything else.”

Ramirez suggests thinking about Bubble-time like the cost of remodeling a kitchen: estimate how much time it’s going to take, then add an additional percentage. “However busy you think you’re going to be… [add] at least 30 percent,” he said with a smile. “And factoring in that wiggle room, to make time for the unexpected, is a part [of that].”

“People live unexamined lives,” Westphal said. “They don’t sit down and think about what’s really important, including their time.”

1 Comment

  1. Hey Alli, great article. It makes me wonder whether students are more likely to feel drained by commitments that are unrelated to their major, or whether those kinds of groups offer a respite from academics. I know that personally I feel like a “jack of all trades, master of none” from time to time. From a sophomore’s perspective, it can be hard to see where everything is going to fit into my life beyond Swarthmore.

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