What makes a room feel safe? This question is especially pertinent here at Swarthmore, where the high-stress environment reinforces the need to create a space where one is comfortable: an escape of sorts from campus life. In building a home away from home, Swatties have various tools at their disposal, and many are able to construct a wholesome environment to escape to.
For some, safety takes the form of another life, as is the case for Lee Kucic ’15. Her two rats, Pickles and Digby, live in a cozy cage across from her bed. They declined to comment when asked for an interview.
“They’re not technically pets, they’re companion and comfort animals,” said Kucic. “Like most people at Swarthmore, I have issues and it really helps me to have living beings with me, especially at night.”
The animals help Kucic remain calm when she’s alone; with them, she’s able to distance herself from campus life whilst avoiding the anxieties of solitude.
“I get easily freaked out,” she explained. “It’s really helpful for me to have them here, to know that I can get away from people and know that I’m not completely alone. They make me feel a lot more secure being by myself.”
Kucic is not alone in appreciating animal company. Over at the Barn, Amit Schwalb ’17 has a pet of his own.
“That’s Lola … She’s the star of the show,” he said.
Rested on his desk, Lola the betta fish swam around her “Diva” signpost, calmly constrained in her glass fishbowl. Unfortunately, she also declined to comment when asked for an interview.
“Having my fish, another living being to take care of and care for, is really important for me,” Schwalb said, “to have a responsibility of, ‘Wow, I get caught up in school work but I have this other living being to keep alive.’”
As opposed to Kucic, whose animals provided a comforting presence, Schwalb seems to be grounded by his fish, a recurring aspect of how Schwalb constructs his space, as exemplified by the importance he gives to his religion and ethnicity in his room. You can see it in the ritual objects scattered around his room, and perhaps most prominently in the prayer written on his wall, surrounded by lights. His favorite prayer, it reads, “The soul that God gave to me is pure.”
“For me it’s is a reminder that I have to strive to wholeness,” he said. “It’s easy at Swarthmore to get caught up in academics or drama and it’s nice to have a reminder that’s grounded in thousands of years of tradition and culture.”
Ritual, for Schwalb, has a wider meaning than just the purely religious: objects imbued with personal significance find their place and bring comfort. A particular favorite of mine was his altar to Vaginal Davis and Madonna, but they aren’t limited to queer iconography.
“Amongst [ritual objects are] funny objects that have become sacred to me, like this turtle shell I got in Tennessee,” he said.
Other Swatties’ conception of ritual goes further — Michelle Myers ’15 has recently erected a shrine to herself in her Hallowell dorm room. Scattered lipsticks and other beauty products surround a full body mirror leaning against the wall. At the base of the mirror lie cozily placed rocks and cotton.
“I wanted to create a space where I felt comfortable using a lot of things I associate with vanity and self-care like makeup,” she said. “To do self-care like plucking my eyebrows and doing my nails whilst looking at myself in the mirror is way to get more comfortable with myself.”
Her goal was to create a space where she could confront her image safely and learn to associate it with a positive attitude.
“I used to hate looking at myself in the mirror a lot, which was related to a lot of mental health problems,” said Myers. “It was a project to make myself enjoy looking at myself in the mirror by making it safer.”
Physical safety is also important to Myers. Her camera was recently stolen from her room, and redecorating allowed her to become comfortable alone in that space again.
“I moved furniture around to make myself feel as cozy as possible and feel comfortable again,” she said. “I definitely am getting there, getting more comfortable with myself and spending time with myself alone.”
Her sentiment echoes Kucic’s, who also worries about outside intruders into her comfort.
“What makes me feel the safest is the lock on my door,” she said, “not because I don’t trust everyone on my hall; I just don’t want anyone coming into my room who’s not from the dorm.”
Both Myers and Kucic find solace in items that remind them of close ones — Myers keeps a note from her mother on her wall, the Kucic keeps her “funny awards” from the women’s rugby team. Sara Blazevic ’15 takes it one step further: most of her room is comprised of others’ belongings.
“I’ve lived in this apartment for three years but change rooms every year, and I’ve gotten to absorb a lot of random objects from other people who’ve lived here,” she said. “All the furniture in this room comes from different people who’ve lived in this house.”
Blazevic ran through some of these items: a plant left by her ex-roommate Anjali, couches left by other residents, motivational cards gifted by an artist friend. She shares her apartment with Schwalb, and drew me from room to room to show off trinkets left behind in this shared home. In the living room, a plug-in snow-scene that played winter classics, in the kitchen the advertisement for a toothpick-embellished Christmas tree. The apartment’s charm stemmed mostly from these artifacts of graduated friends and strangers, in a sense of continuity which would be impossible in a dorm.
“This room in particular and the apartment as a whole is a reminder of these people that have been important in my life,” she said.
From animals to shrines, Swatties show admirable versatility in how they construct safety in their rooms, balancing a retreat from campus life with mementos of important values and close ones within the space, one that is both connected and disconnected from the campus as a whole.