The insecurity of a dark campus

8 mins read

As days grow shorter and night time fills more of the days, I notice how underlit campus is. Walking between dorms and libraries, I often find myself speeding to the next street lamp without much light to accompany me. Even at the end of my first semester at Swarthmore, I recognize there is a discomfort in being so wholly in the dark.
I don’t think it’s unfamiliar to feel unsafe on campus. Parties are the first spaces to come to mind, and McCabe has been vandalized and used for hate speech this semester. More universally, however, the lack of lighting on campus sidewalks at night and absence of Garnet Safety call lines present a different problem altogether. In the present state, the college does not guarantee security when moving between campus spaces, and although there is no substitution for teaching individuals how to act properly and how to avoid dangerous situations, the addition of campus lighting and the implementation of more programs like Swat Team beyond party spaces must be taken on to make our campus a better place to live and move.
Early on Thursday mornings, I walk home from the Phoenix Office after helping to put out the paper. At the beginning of the semester, I walked by the amphitheater to Wharton because that was the fastest way to my bed. However, after two or three weeks of walking in the dark, I realized how uncomfortable I felt when I couldn’t see or know what was immediately to my right. Since then, I’ve started to walk down Parrish Beach to have even just a few lamps lighting my way home.
Just to note, I haven’t been uncomfortable walking before coming to Swarthmore. I often spent nights in Rock Creek Park and neighborhoods like Swampoodle and Petworth in Washington, DC into the early morning, roaming parks or streets I hadn’t visited before. The fact that there is some dissonance between being at ease in a place similar to the arboretum for hours and the anxiety I feel in the short five minutes should be cause for concern. I am far from unfamiliar with walking alone, so it’s not just the newness of being alone that is making me disconcerted.
My discomfort, however, does not come from my time on campus being just over three month; many first years and others have voiced similar concerns. It should not be acceptable that students can so consistently feel uncomfortable or even unsafe, particularly when it involves getting to where students live. North campus is generally well lit, but the areas more populated with dorms, which need to be accessed more at night, are left unlit. Besides the short walk across Parrish Walk, the walk from Mertz to Wharton only has four lampposts. First, students at colleges like Swarthmore are often up working late at libraries due to rigorous workloads, meaning they must walk home fatigued with only their backpack. Further, that main line between dorms includes those party spaces like the frats and Olde Club, mixing many people, some of whom are drunk, with spaces in which it can be hard to know one’s surroundings. Leaving the party does not mean that the insecurity of the space stops at the door; getting home can sometimes be the most frightening part of the night. Lastly, the current system fails most sharply for students without good eyesight and other problems with getting between buildings. It should be the school’s priority to ensure their access and the utility of infrastructure for all that use our campus.
To make the campus work for each person, the college should invest in adding more lampposts and blue light stations to sidewalks between dorms and on the northeastern side of campus. The lampposts would mitigate the dangers of late night walks as described earlier and would enhance the campus experience for many, functionally or emotionally. Blue lights, however, are more important. Although many students have cell phones to contact Public Safety, issues of phones running out of battery or a loss of service, as is common near Wharton, happen often. I would recommend Swarthmore follow the system in place at the University of Maryland College Park where, at any spot on campus, one can see at least one blue light, and from one blue light, one can see two others. Yes, that campus is much larger than Swarthmore’s, but the function of a student being able to move from one light to the next, so Public Safety officers can see from where a student is calling their office, holds high value in dangerous situations where a student may not feel like they can speak. Finally, having groups of students trained like Swat Team outside on Friday and Saturday nights would make sure there is an active force mitigating interpersonal situations that might now go unchecked.
Now, there are objections to having these installations from going in the ground. First, some argue that the investment is not worthwhile and that campus has enough measures of security in place to protect students. However, by building these systems, campus would gain three benefits. On top of simply improving student welfare, the college would preempt any citations on the campus infrastructure being a contributor to dangerous situations. Moreover, the college could more effectively describe its efforts to make the campus community safe to prospective students and families, making the school more attractive to many.
Some say the environmental aspect of campus would deteriorate because of the installations. Although we lack of severe light pollution despite our proximity to Philly, I would say there are environmentally-conscious ways to incorporate these measures, like using LED lamps, and that student safety and health should be the priority of the college.
Swarthmore’s campus does not provide access or security to students as it now stands, and it should be the college’s focus to improve conditions to make it functional for all people that enter campus. I would recommend the college act now to build these systems as winter approaches, days become shorter, and more hazards like ice become a reality.


  1. My biggest disappointment about the Swarthmore campus when I was a freshman was that it never got truly dark at night. No matter how late it was and no matter the weather, the light pollution from Philadelphia would always remind me where I was. It seems likely that this author has never spent much time outside of a city. Fortunately his proposal to add more lights is going to be ignored or I would have to actively campaign against it.

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