On the second evening of orientation week, first years filed into LPAC to engage in a discussion called “We Are Swarthmore”. The program was meant to introduce students to concepts of identity and inclusion at Swarthmore and to provide the vocabulary for fruitful conversations on such issues.
The evening began with a word from T. Shá Duncan Smith, associate dean of diversity, inclusion, and community development, who gave a presentation on the fundamentals of identity and facilitated a large conversation. Afterward students broke into smaller groups to continue the discussion. While some students enjoyed the event, others had suggestions for improvement.
“We are Swarthmore” began a few years ago, but Smith joins the first years as a new member of the campus community. To her, the event was about starting the conversation rather than to promote any ideology.
“The goal of the dialogue I facilitated during “We Are Swarthmore” was to explore the different identities, backgrounds, lived experiences, and perspectives that we all bring to the table as a part of the ’beloved community’ that makes us Swarthmore,” she explained. “In short, “We Are Swarthmore” was meant to highlight the richness of the differences that every single one of us contributes to this community and to spark meaningful dialogue. I think what went so well was the willingness of the students to participate in the discussion,” she added.
Some students didn’t feel the same way, and expressed frustration with certain elements. Taylor Tucker ’20 believes the space became overly confrontational, “something she believes could have been avoided had students been more prepared. She suggested first years be given a book over the summer about identity and intersectionality to provide a common starting point for discussion.
“A safe, brave space wasn’t created before we entered the discussion. There weren’t clear guidelines about how we approach it. We didn’t create a space where people who weren’t privileged could speak up for themselves. We didn’t explain how to practice allyship; it wasn’t explained whatsoever,” said Tucker.
Following the presentation, students were divided into small groups where RAs and other orientation leaders who were trained for facilitation posed questions about identity and inclusion, encouraging people to share personal stories and examples from their own lives. According to Smith, the majority of student feedback about the small groups was positive. For some students however, these group conversations seemed awkward and silent. Emma Mogavero ’20 remembers it as being very uncomfortable.
“My particular group discussion was not very fruitful. Basically nobody spoke except my roommate and I,” she said.
Tucker echoed this concern. “My discussion afterwards was very bland. Most of us were concerned about how [the white, cis men] were going to respond. Our room was mainly silent for the entire time. My friend and I tried to facilitate ourselves, but it didn’t go very well,” she said.
The program’s structure was also benefitted from constructive criticism. Students suggested the addition of a panel of Swarthmore students from diverse backgrounds to make the conversation more accessible.
“They should have brought up multiple people to give a sense of how diverse this campus is. It makes more sense to have people up there who held different privileges and occupy different spaces on this campus,” said Tucker. “There’s just a part of campus life that faculty aren’t going to be able to talk about. There are certain things that they aren’t going to see.”
Had first years seen other students sharing their personal experiences, she added, the small group conversations might have been more successful as well.
While students’ visions of the panel varied, they all agreed that an array of student experiences, in addition to the presentation and large discussion format, was key to developing awareness of identity’s plurality. In response to this suggestion, Smith expressed her appreciation for students’ feedback, while noting the importance of maintaining first years’ participation in the full group conversation.
“I like the idea of a student panel, but I would also like there to be some way for the new students to engage as well. They are exposed to a lot of panels when they first arrive, and I truly believe that even though they have just arrived on campus they can learn a lot from each other, which is what I liked best about the session, hearing from the participants,” said Smith. “The session was more of dialogue than a series of monologues. So if there were a way to do a hybrid of sorts where the panel engages with the students in dialogue that would be great,” she added.
These conversations sparked by “We are Swarthmore” speak to its intention as a starting point. The administration, for its part, said that there are numerous avenues at the college, institutional as well as personal, that allow further discussion.
“Students can connect with their Diversity Peer Advisors, their Resident Advisors, Green Advisors, Student Academic Mentors as well as the different centers like the Women’s Resource Center, the Intercultural Center, the Interfaith Center, International Student Service’s Office and the Black Cultural Center. There are many opportunities in this community to explore diversity, equity, inclusion, and community development in a deeper way and in a way that is based on the student’s academic and personal interests, because many of these issues intersect,” said Smith.
If their feedback is any indication, first years will continue this important conversation, grappling with identity and inclusion with the nuance it requires.