Deep ambivalence on Ride the Tide, maybe worth it

I didn’t go to my own Ride the Tide in the spring of 2012. It was the weekend of the last cycling race of my high school career and of my senior prom (for which I was late, sunburned, and extremely unenthusiastic, but it was one of those things I felt that I should do, and I had a decent time even though my date was a friend of a friend rather than my girlfriend at the time, who I was dating in secret).

It was also one of the last weekends of a mostly blissful final semester of high school, to which I desperately clung.

It didn’t feel as though I was missing out on much. I worried briefly that I would be at a disadvantage when it came to navigating campus, or that others would have gotten a head start on making friends — but it seemed like the most that came out of Ride the Tide were some grainy, poorly-Instagram-filtered pictures that my future classmates, who had over-eagerly friended me back when we were accepted in the first round of Early Decision admissions, posted of themselves sitting on the Big Chair.

           Part of me also felt resistant to the idea of Ride the Tide at all — I had known I wanted to go to Swarthmore from the moment I clicked onto the college’s website in tenth grade, a feeling only confirmed the second I stepped on campus the summer before my senior, and I didn’t want to spend the weekend with people who were not only unsure but were deciding between Swarthmore and a host of other schools I hadn’t applied to.

        Also, frankly, I was terrified of my future classmates. I had had a deeply unpleasant social experience at the beginning of high school, and remained deeply unpopular and/or invisible throughout my four years there. I was pretty sure college would be more of the same, and was none too eager to get any kind of head start on that process. (Needless to say, I was startled to find, at Swarthmore, that people, especially my CA, my RA, and my fellow freshmen, were mostly kind, interesting, and wanted to be friends).

I felt no regret about my choice until Ride the Tide during the spring of my freshman year. I spent most of the night with a friend on a bench in the fragrance garden as prospective students scampered excitedly in and out of the courtyard until 3 or 4 a.m. They seemed giddy, delighted with visions of their future selves at Swarthmore.

At the time, I felt — and still feel — deeply optimistic about Swarthmore’s utopian community possibilities. Though the school was, at that time, in the midst of grappling with serious challenges to this vision, I saw the spring of 2013 as evidence that other students believed in the college’s potential to change and cared enough about their fellow community members to pour hours of logistical, intellectual effort — not to mention emotional labor — into attempting to effect this change.

So I felt excited for these prospective students (one of whom, I’m fairly certain, is my editor now and assigned me this piece, and is probably regretting it) and for the Swarthmore waiting for them the next fall. And I wished I, too, had started falling in love with Swarthmore sooner.

What, exactly, is the point of Ride the Tide, though? “Frolicking in fragrance garden until wee hours of night” is not, I’m fairly certain, one of the programs listed in the event schedule.

According to the college’s website, “Ride the Tide is our annual admitted students event, which is held in April. While on campus, students experience the condensed version of Swarthmore, from dorm life to academics and everything in between. We work closely with student clubs to organize events like late night soccer with the Dean of Admissions, a spoken word open mic, and a liquid nitrogen ice cream social with the Engineering department.”

I don’t know what a liquid nitrogen ice cream social is, exactly, and I’m fairly certain Jim Bock would beat me at soccer almost as badly as this newspaper’s softball team was vanquished by the Delta Upsilon team on Sunday. But the rest of that — a sort of “Swarthmore lite,” with a sampling of classes, dorm life, and extracurricular options — sounds pretty well-meaning and interesting to me.

For some students, however, Ride the Tide is a far cry from the magical experience I imagined, or from the intentions of the event’s organizers: : it’s awkward, boring, and, ultimately, doesn’t do much to change students’ minds about whether or not they want to attend the college. Also, a lot of specs are abandoned or neglected by the students who sign up to host them (though I still am unclear on why or how this happens).

So what’s the deal? What does Ride the Tide actually do? Does it actually convince people to come to Swarthmore, or is it just a slightly awkward 2-day adventure with strangers?

Liliana Frankel’s ’17 memory of Ride the Tide is somewhat funny but also sad.

“I felt uncomfortable as soon as I got to Swarthmore,” Frankel said. After picking up her name tag and folder from Parrish, Frankel went for a walk in the Ville, where she ended up buying an ice cream at the combo Dunkin Donuts/Baskin Robbins and calling her best friend from home.

Frankel’s host was working on a lab until after midnight, and she didn’t want to participate in any of the scheduled Ride the Tide activities. “So I just walked around campus looking at the plants,” Frankel said. “It was 4/20. I watched Admissions Dean Jim Bock motion some students who were smoking a spliff on the beach around a reggae-bumping boom box indoors. A lot of different Pub Safe officers asked me if I was lost.”

Frankel left on the first train the next morning.

Elizabeth Upton ’16, meanwhile, found that Ride the Tide made her less, not more, certain that she had made the right choice in applying to Swarthmore. “There were definitely aspects of it where I had a really good time, but there were also moments where I was like, ‘Oh God, I don’t know if this was the right fit,’” Upton said.

Upton acknowledged that there had been enjoyable parts of her Ride the Tide, such as when she and other prospective students made off with a container of ice cream from an event outside the Science Center (this must be what the liquid nitrogen ice cream social was). But overall, she felt that Ride the Tide simply made her feel unsure about her choice to attend the college.

“There was just this overall air of, ‘Wait a second, is this what I wanted?’” Upton said. “I definitely had a good experience, but I was uncertain still — it didn’t necessarily make me feel better about coming and it didn’t clarify for me that I made the right decision. If anything, it made me unsure, but I wasn’t unhappy.”

Perhaps, though, Upton said, the uncertainty that stemmed from her Ride the Tide was due to her status as an already-committed student. “Maybe for people who aren’t committed, it’s a two-day adventure with strangers, but for people who are committed, it’s a two-day opportunity to second-guess everything,” Upton said.

Ari Efron ’16 similarly grew uncertain about his choice to attend Swarthmore after his Ride the Tide experience. Efron came in optimistic: “I was so set on Swat, I so knew I was going to go here, and I was like, ‘Oh, this will be so much fun, I get to meet people I’m going to be in a class with,’” Efron remembered.

The fun did not quite materialize. “It was the worst,” Efron said. “I had a week to decide, and I almost flew out to Oregon to take a look at another school again, because I hated it so much that I thought I wasn’t going to go here.”

Efron was decidedly not the intended audience for the ice-cream-social, game-playing elements of Ride the Tide. “I got here and there was tag with foam swords and ice cream on the beach and all these types of events, none of which were related to anything I would be doing as a student at the school,” Efron said. He had an extremely positive previous overnight visit to the school — he and his host engaged in a lengthy discussion about magical realism, and then he went to Paces, where students were editing each other’s creative writing.

“I was a total sucker for it,” Efron said. “I was like, ‘This is a great place, people love learning, they love talking about ideas,” he said. Efron had thought Ride the Tide would be more of the same.

Instead, Efron felt Ride the Tide gave him no way to imagine what his time at Swarthmore would actually look like. “I felt totally alienated from any sense of what my life was actually going to be like here, and I didn’t need to be sold on a school the way that they tried to do it,” Efron said. “I think I wanted my school to have more of a grittiness to it than Ride the Tide — I got really freaked out that Swarthmore was upbeat and goofy and I was like, ‘Where are the real people here?’”

Efron feels, though, that he is not the norm: “I think it worked for a lot of people — that was my impression. Every time I bring up Ride the Tide, people like it. I think it does help people feel comfortable on campus. It’s fun and people do meet each other and feel like they get to know some of their class but I just really did not like it … but maybe I’m too jaded and I just wasn’t social enough.”

Victoria Stitt ’16 didn’t hate Ride the Tide, but she didn’t exactly see much of a point, either. She had already chosen Swarthmore, and went mostly in order to get out of going to school. “It really wasn’t that bad, but I wanted to go because I thought it’d be fun and informative,” Stitt said. “But I wasn’t in the right place to meet a bunch of high school seniors or listen to information that I’d forget the next day and hear again a million times in the coming months.”

Stitt’s host was absent most of the time she was at the college, and so Stitt ended up spending time instead with the host’s boyfriend. She remembers one student panel, focused on the experiences of students of color, was informative, but that it did not adequately prepare her for the reality of life at Swarthmore.

What about fun?

“Whatever entertainment they had planned was dumb,” Stitt said (she isn’t really the liquid nitrogen ice cream social/soccer with Bock type, I guess). “Everyone was just looking for alcohol the entire time,” she added. While some students succeeded, Stitt said, she did not, and went to bed at 10:30.

As Stitt’s story points out, Ride the Tide can be rife with boredom: although Bryton Fett ’18 was lucky enough to meet some of the people she now considers her best friends during the event, she was still somewhat disappointed. At 10 p.m. on the Thursday that her Ride the Tide began, Fett said, the campus seemed to have emptied out, and all of the current students appeared to have vacated the premises.

“For a spec who doesn’t know that it’s Pub Nite and can’t logistically attend any kind of on-campus event, it leaves you to fend for yourself,” Fett said. This feeling is only compounded when hosts, such as those of some of Fett’s Ride the Tide friends, abandon their prospective students (sometimes without telling prospective students where they should sleep that night).

Fett noted that she appreciated the events planned for Ride the Tide during the day, and the opportunities she had to become familiar with different groups on campus.

“That was really nice to have, but I feel like it would be better if there were some other event, later at night, when everyone else on campus is doing something, for specs to feel a little bit included and like they aren’t at a loss for activities to engage in,” Fett said.

So what activities did Fett engage in, exactly? Well, from 8 to 9 p.m., she attended a Vertigo-go show and then, from 10 p.m. to midnight, “I sat in the science center commons with three other specs watching a table of people drinking a massive handle of vodka and trying to figure out what we were doing next.” Finally, Fett and her RTT companions remembered that someone during the Vertigo-go show had mentioned something towards the end of the show about something called WSRN and located on Parrish fourth.

“We found Parrish and just went to the fourth floor to what we assumed was WSRN — which we realized later on was the radio station — and sat there while these three guys did a really strange radio show about a post-apocalyptic world,” Fett said. The students had been working on the show for weeks at that point, Fett recounted, and she and her friends were recruited to play different characters in that week’s episode of the show. Next, she and her friends headed to one of the students’ rooms. “We sat in this guy’s room while he rolled a joint on a copy of ‘Moby Dick’ and they talked about transcendentalism,” Fett recounted.

Then, Fett said, the specs went back to the radio station, where the three radio show hosts climbed out the window to smoke weed before getting busted by Public Safety. Fett and her friends wisely decided to leave the radio station at that moment, and spent the rest of the evening sitting on Parrish fourth with two other current students and another prospective student, discussing their senior years. “Eventually we found our way back to Kyle, and went to bed around two or something, while people were coming back drunk from Pub Nite,” Fett said.

The next morning, Fett and her fellow prospective students spent a few hours sitting on Parrish Beach, discussing the strangeness of the previous night. “And then I chose to come to Swarthmore,” Fett said. Why? “Because I met my friends, and I realized that if they had applied Early Decision, then there must be something to love about this school.”

There you have it. All of these Ride the Tide discontents have one thing in common: they ended up at Swarthmore anyway.

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