Traditions Take Root for Class of 2017

One of the questions I hear most often when informing a well-meaning yet clueless person that I go to Swarthmore is, “Swath-more? Is that an all-girls’ school?”

No, Swarthmore College is not all girls. Swarthmore, in fact, attempts with moderate success not to adhere to a gender binary. Perhaps the confused interrogators are thinking of Skidmore, which was a women’s college until 1971 (so there remains little excuse for mistaking Skidmore as an all-girls school in 2014). Swarthmore, on the other hand, was founded in 1864 by Lucretia Mott and Joseph Wharton, who established it from the beginning as a coeducational institution. As we approach the 150th anniversary of its founding, we find ourselves upholding, and creating, traditions that are unique and important to the school’s character.

So freshmen, welcome to Swarthmore; returners, welcome back. Whether your summer was too long or too short, there is nothing like stepping onto Swarthmore’s campus, with the soggy, pressing hot August air draining the sweat from your body and the drone of cicadas massacring your eardrums. However, with the discomfort of summer’s end in Philly come a host of traditions that are sacred at Swarthmore, the first of which is the aptly named First Collection.

 First Collection, which took place on August 30th of this year, is a Quaker-based tradition that officially begins each student’s Swarthmore life. Once upon a time, the school had daily and later weekly Quaker meetings called Collections. Scripture readings in the early days became replaced by speakers and music, and words were followed by contemplative silence. As time progressed, Collections became a trice-per-semester occurrence, and in 1994, Andrew Feldman (’96) introduced First Collection in its modern glory: a gathering in which students hold candles and pass the flame along. Feldman got the candle idea from his work as a camp counselor, and with the support of the Dean, the tradition took off. Speakers bestow wisdom upon the incoming freshmen, and a capella groups often sing at the event as well. First Collection is located in the outdoor amphitheater, whose proliferation of tulip trees and moss must have earned it the status of the most fireproof place in which to pass along an open flame.

Now, First Collection is a tradition that for each student will be repeated only once, at—guess its name—Last Collection.  As Swatties near the end of their Swarthmore career, they must be brought back to the same place where they once sat nervously, leaping at lame conversation starters to make friends, passing a candle along the mossy stone steps of the amphitheater with shaking freshman hands, and this time pass candles in a ceremony of closure.

But this time of year is for beginnings, not ends, and nothing signifies ‘beginning’ like a cuddly green baby plant. That’s why another tradition specifically for freshmen involves obtaining a plant at the Scott Arboretum. The Scott Arboretum, which contains nearly 5000 different types of plants, was created in 1929 as a memorial to Arthur Hoyt Scott, who graduated from Swarthmore in 1895. The Arboretum is intended to be not just a display of plants, but as The Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Foundation, a Ten-Year History, tells us, an inspiration for all those ‘of average means’ living in the Philadelphia area for their own gardens. Today, the arboretum continues its tradition of educating people at and around Swarthmore about plants and providing them with plants that grow well in this area.

Your new plant may seem small, but beware: the plant, like the brain of its owner, will grow and flourish to unbelievable extents during its four years at Swarthmore. It is traditional to keep the plant in one’s dorm for all four years (and this involves some awkward traveling as the plant blossoms to eight times its original size, especially for those without the luxury of a car) and for the plant to be cared for as though it were a metaphor for the student’s own success. Studies have proven that having something to nurture and care for lengthens lifespan and improves both mental and physical health. Granted, these studies were done in nursing homes, but the point remains: if students have a plant waiting in their dorm that needs watering and love, maybe they won’t pull that unbelievably idiotic all-nighter in Sci Commons that may actually cause them to sleep through their exam the next morning. Ergo, a plant is beneficial and maybe even life-saving at Swarthmore. Freshmen, if you picked up your plant on August 29, you are now stuck with it for the rest of your four years. Enjoy!

And now for the tradition you’ve all been waiting for: The Graduate. Moved to Sunday, September 8th for a variety of reasons, The Graduate will be shown on the lawn outside the science center. The Graduate, which was released in 1967, is a movie traditionally watched by Swatties on the night before classes (or, in this case, the night after the first week of classes) that details every Swarthmore student’s fate after graduating. The highly realistic and plausible plot follows Ben, a recent graduate from a school resembling Swarthmore, and his immediate seduction by and subsequent affair with a married woman whose husband remains blissfully unaware of the adultery. If there is enough silence to hear any of the words this year, it may even be enjoyable as a movie rather than solely as a social event—but if not, never fear: the movie has a typical, male-centric, heteronormative Hollywood ending in which the guy receives the girl he wants much the way an athlete is handed a coveted trophy. That being said, it is nonetheless a tradition to attend the showing of this classic movie! The Graduate will not be a dry event, ensuring that it will also be a loud, chaotic one. Make sure you participate in your designated amount of frustration at trying to find an available seat and actually watch the movie, or else give up, go with the flow, and engage in inconsiderate shouting conversations with your friends as the movie fruitlessly plays on in front of you.

Many more Swarthmore traditions will bombard us as the year progresses, some to benefit social, environmental, or political activism, some just for fun, and some for no identifiable reason at all. But for now, enjoy the beginning of our no-longer-officially-Quaker school’s year and the traditions that make our school just a little bit better than any other tiny elite liberal arts college.


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