Why Were 2016 “Summer Scholars” Isolated from Upperclassmen?

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Last June, sixteen incoming first-years arrived on campus for the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program. The students (or “scholars”) lived and studied under near-constant supervision from student mentors, who had instructions to prevent scholars from interacting with upperclassmen.

The program’s chair, History Professor Allison Dorsey, relayed the restriction in an email to the program’s six mentors.

“All upperclassmen/women, including those from the class of 2019, as well-meaning as they might be, should be kept at a respectful distance from this 2016 [Summer Scholars] cohort,” Dorsey wrote on June 11.

The Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program, which began in 2015, targets scientifically-inclined students who are low-income, first-generation, or from underrepresented backgrounds, and prepares them for college academics. Scholars live in Parrish hall and take special classes in science, math, and writing during the summer before their first semester. While the five-week program always isolated its participants to some extent, the explicit call to keep upperclassmen at bay was new this year.

Mentor Connor Hodge ‘19 heard these instructions “very frequently” during his training. To enforce the no-contact rule, mentors confronted upperclassmen who tried to chat with scholars, but they avoided directly interrupting conversations, Hodge said.

“All upperclassmen/women, […] as well-meaning as they might be, should be kept at a respectful distance from this 2016 cohort”
– Prof. Allison Dorsey, June 11, 2016

The Daily Gazette talked to six of the scholars from the 2016 program. All six seemed aware of the rule. Three of the six, Ken’delle Durkson ‘20, Hannah Torres ‘20, and Alexis Davis ‘20, found the rule limiting.

“I specifically thought it was pretty dumb,” Alexis Davis said. She added that it gave scholars an overly narrow view of Swarthmore.

Others took a more measured view. Christian Galo ‘20 didn’t understand why the rule was there, but said it wasn’t as detrimental as others claimed. Among the six, Alyssa Davis ‘20 alone praised the restrictions.

“I feel like this rule helped us build stronger bonds in our cohort and work together to succeed in such a busy schedule,” she said.

In an interview and subsequent email exchanges with The Daily Gazette, Dorsey echoed Alyssa Davis’s justification, saying that the rule strengthened bonds among scholars, and that they would get a chance to meet other students in the fall. The program follows a cohort-based theory of learning, which encourages students to rely on one another for support. In an email to mentors, Dorsey additionally suggested that interacting with the previous year’s scholars might spoil the uniqueness of each cohort’s experience. Alyssa Davis agreed:

“[T]he program structure is meant to be a surprise to the scholars, and any contact with past scholars would ruin the excitement of finding out what the schedule would look like,” she said.

But Hodge and Jonathan Tostado-Marquez ‘19, another mentor, reported hearing about another reason to keep upperclassmen at a distance: a fear that current students might tell “horror stories” about Swarthmore that would demoralize the scholars. In summer 2015, scholars and upperclassmen interacted more frequently. Some of those interactions displeased the program’s leadership, Tostado-Marquez and Hodge said.

Tostado-Marquez said he heard from the program’s leaders that, in the previous summer, “upperclassmen mentioned negative things about Swarthmore, and that we wouldn’t want that to happen again.”

When asked if there had been negative interactions during the 2015 program, Dorsey said the primary problem with scholars and upperclassmen cohabiting that year had been the cluttered Parrish kitchen, which the two groups shared.

The 2016 program’s efforts to keep the scholars in a bubble extended beyond keeping upperclassmen at bay. Most evenings, scholars studied together in supervised study sessions, and they always dined together at Sharples. When one scholar ordered Chinese food, Dorsey asked mentors to prevent such dietary deviations in the future.

“[The scholar] is to be discouraged from attempting to order special take out,” she wrote to mentors. “While I understand he is unhappy with Sharples, there is something to be said for staying the course and being in solidarity with your peers.”

Restrictions on contact with upperclassmen made both Hodge and Tostado-Marquez uncomfortable, to varying degrees. Hodge thought the program should’ve more accurately reflected the freedom of being a college student.

“I think that [the Summer Scholars Program] would do its job much better if it could look more like what Swarthmore College really is,” he said.

Tostado-Marquez agreed with Dorsey that the restrictions helped strengthen bonds among scholars, but he added that “the complete cutting off of ‘no upperclassmen whatsoever’ was a bit extreme.”

However, both mentors interviewed noted that the rule appeared to relax towards the end of the program, and that scholars did get a few chances to interact with upperclassmen. And whatever their thoughts on the rule, most mentors and scholars praised the program overall.

“I think it’s excellent that Swarthmore is trying to put its money where its mouth is in supporting underprivileged students,” Hodge said. “Some of the elements of the program are definitely weird and not-great, but I think that this will go away in the long run.”

Featured image: “Parrish Bubble,” by Eduard Saakashvili ’17/The Daily Gazette, with material from Bing.com.


CLARIFICATION Nov 2, 9:12 a.m: The program’s purpose to prepare students for college academics was clarified, as well as the fact that mentors supervised them in studying and everyday life.

CLARIFICATION Nov 2, 4:10 p.m: The word “underprivileged” was changed to a description more in line with the program’s intentions.

Eduard Saakashvili

Eduard is a film and media studies major from Tbilisi, Georgia. He abandoned The Daily Gazette during sophomore year to focus on his career in club fencing. Big mistake.


  1. It hasn’t even been ten years, but sometimes I can hardly recognize Swarthmore anymore. This program sounds like a strange Orwellian re-education camp.

  2. The goal is to introduce the students to Swarthmore’s rigor and college culture. That shouldn’t involve treating them like infants. The incident with the takeout food seems particularly egregious to me.

    • Agreed. This program feels downright absurd and borderline creepy in its restrictions, especially given that you really CAN’T have a full Swat experience without talking to upperclassmen or ordering takeout. That’s just stuff that we DO.

      I think that the restrictions on the summer scholars were an extreme and borderline unethical action by the administration, and should not be taken again. There are WAY too many Stalin vibes in what Prof. Dorsey told the student supervisors to do, and I say that as a communist.

  3. This is marginally related, but Professor Dorsey has requested in the past that the term “underprivileged” not be used in the context of S3P because it renders the program as remedial, and the experiences of the students involved as insufficient. I don’t think that the usage in this article detracts from its meaning that much, but I thought that Dorsey’s response to a previous article was worth bringing back in to the conversation.


    • Hey, thanks for the criticism! It’s a word I hesitated to use, and I considered “low-income,” but wasn’t sure if the two were interchangeable in this case. For instance, we had been told that the program also targeted students who went to less-than-stellar high schools, which you could argue falls under “under-privileged” but doesn’t necessarily mean a student is low-income. I suppose we could have added all these qualifiers, but elected not to do that in the interest of brevity.

      Do you have any thoughts on what language we should use in the future?

      Co-Editor in Chief

      UPDATE: We changed the wording, taking the lead from the program’s website. Thanks again.

  4. “near-constant supervision”, “contact restrictions”, “supervised study sessions”, “no dietary deviations”.

    What is this, a cult??

    Also, so-called cohort-based ‘learning community’ theory is just that, a theory –albeit admittedly a nowadays increasingly fashionable one. Upon closer inspection, however, actual evidence of its success is indirect and elusive at best… So perhaps the program should engage a bit more critically with the literature –and with the inescapably ironical fact of an Orwellian ‘(re)education camp’, complete with wardens and all, to ‘righten’ students to “the rigors of education [of the sciences at Swat]”… (Maybe, just maybe, there is something wrong with _the sciences at Swat_ instead, as opposed to with the students it denies and excludes?? Crazy thought, huh?)

  5. There were very good aspects of this program that this article seemed to not even mention. This is very one sided and as a participant this past summer, I’d disagree that it was anything like a dictatorship. I did think that the no talking rule was unnecessary but we still learned a lot from the student mentors and from the faculty that could give us a more condensed version of swarthmore.

  6. I’m not trying to get into any kind of flame war–but I do want to re-state how important this program is, as a whole. The claim that the program is “Orwellian” certainly has some truth to it, but seems a little melodramatic, if you ask me.

    As a low-income student at Swarthmore, I often feel like there is a lack of support for some students, and the Summer Scholars Program does a GREAT job of combatting this. The Program is only in its second year, and deserves to be given the chance to grow and work out its kinks. This rule is a MAJOR kink, but I think the program as a whole should be given credit where it’s due. I think it’s shameful to overlook the great service going on and focus only on criticism.

  7. Alright, so I’ll do the unpopular thing here and argue in favor of this.

    I think freshmen coming onto campus are vulnerable, and freshmen from particular backgrounds may be especially vulnerable. If the purpose of this program is to provide students, who professors have reason to believe will suffer through a difficult transition into life at Swarthmore, with a safe and nurturing environment, then I believe that the professors acting “in loco parentis” in this situation are acting perfectly reasonable. Upperclassmen can unwittingly have an outsize influence on the environment around a freshman during the first few months of the year. This is one of the reasons we discourage “swooping.”

    I think it’s fair that these particular students be given an environment in which everyone is equal, in terms of being essentially friendless in a strange place. Upperclassmen aren’t vulnerable in that way, and if giving these students a few months to bond changes the power calculus and makes the freshmen more able to withstand the stresses of Swarthmore, I think we ought to encourage it.

  8. As a summer scholar, I think that we should have been able to experience the full freedoms of being a Swarthmore student. Quite frankly, all those who argue that restricting our ability to communicate with whomever we pleased or dictating our schedule was a “positive quality” for the program, are absolutely and unequivocally wrong. I think there is something to be examined if a program goes to great lengths to keep upperclassmen from telling “horror stories”. I have a right, as a Swattie, to know the full truth of my college coming in and any efforts to curtail my access to that information is wrong– no matter the reasoning. The program experience in a every aspect is foreign to my experience as a freshman now. Concisely, the projected experience is artificial

    Granted, there were positive aspects of the program that could have been mentioned but I also think that this was not the context for said positive attributions. This was an article examining the extreme limitations placed on the scholars and no one can fully understand those limitations unless they themselves experienced them. There is a place for scrutiny and people arguing that the good should have balanced the bad, clearly does not understand the motive of this article. It’s an opinion piece people. Trying to cover bad aspects with the good aspects is a deceptive practice in its own right and should be highly discouraged. However, like mentioned before the program did have a myriad of positive aspects: I just think those positive aspects could be discussed in another article. But concisely, from my majority positive experience, I think the program is a great asset to some students and should be given its due credit for that reason alone.

    Lastly, I agree with the overwhelming sentiment that this program, in some respects, have Orwellian characteristics. As one coming from a background with little to no restrictions on my freedoms, I was taken aback when told some of things I could not do, such as order take out. I find Dr. Dorsey’s explanation for why the scholars should be discouraged from ordering take out to be highly inadequate and slightly humorous. That instance is just another example of a freedom being warped all in the name of acclimating the scholars to the life of the Swattie. As though all Swatties say “hey Bob can’t order take out so let’s eat in solidarity with him in wretched Sharples”. This is totally the experience guys! But then again, it should be stressed that these are my opinions and should not be used to represent the perspective of the program.

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