My First Impression

Conviction and purpose. Those two words come to my mind when I think of Swarthmore and Swatties. Their academic and non-academic interests range from math, to public policy, medicine, social justice and more. I got the impression that Swatties were less driven by external rewards and more passionate about internal motivations, which I deem an important aspect that often gets overlooked in today’s society. I respected how Swarthmore’s orientation put emphasis on social issues regarding sustainability, sexual harassment, and the LGBTQ+ community. This in comparison to other schools’ orientations that revolved more around parties and pleasure devoid of conscience and less on issues that the society as a whole needs to face and solve. I have been beyond impressed by the ideals Swarthmore has been promoting, and I cannot wait to further indulge in this vibrant and caring community. And above all, my favorite part about Swarthmore has been how easy it has been for me to get closer to my professors, and I believe that this has all been possible thanks to the unique architecture of the Science Center in particular, which in my opinion, embodies the core value of Swarthmore: low-power distance between professors and students, a feature that is rarely found in other schools.

Before orientation, I wasn’t sure what being a Swattie entailed. No one from my high school had gone to Swarthmore in the past few years, and I did not do much research on Swarthmore before applying. When I applied to Swarthmore I was only attracted to its proximity to my home and its prestige. With surface-level knowledge about the school, my first footsteps at Swarthmore were more nervous than excited — but I soon learned that going to Swarthmore could become one of the biggest blessings of my life. Now in my fourth week at Swarthmore (I arrived on campus earlier than most freshmen because of the Bi-College Summer Social Justice Institute), I have been enjoying and appreciating every moment here, and especially my relationships with the professors — thanks to my best friend Jason, who is currently a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.

I was texting Jason the other day, and he told me that he planned to visit office hours to get help for multivariable calculus. When Jason said “office hours,” I just assumed that he was going to meet with a professor, which my fellow Swatties and I do regularly. He was actually getting help from TAs, however, who are typically grad school students or “very talented undergraduates who have taken the course already.” While I do not intend to underestimate Penn undergraduate or graduate students, I realize how lucky I am to not only be able to easily visit my math professor, Deborah Bergstrand — who, by the way, has been amazing so far — but also share casual conversations with her, discussing our favorite styles of watches and our academic backgrounds.

Indeed, Swarthmore is famous for its accessible faculty, so my close interactions with my professors haven’t been too shocking. What really surprised me, however, was Swarthmore’s thoughtfully designed infrastructure and how it adds to Swarthmore’s accessibility.

One of Swarthmore’s biggest selling points is its small classroom sizes, which make it easier for students to develop relationships with professors — something that is difficult to achieve in a typical big research university. While it must be understood that larger schools have small seminars too, Swarthmore’s advantages are most evident when it comes to classes like CS 21, one section of which has a capacity of 35 students; in contrast, a section of a Penn introductory programming course has a maximum enrollment of 199 students. This makes it harder for Penn students to reach out to professors since they have to compete for the office hours, whereas Swatties have access to office hours with very little competition and restrictions.

However, Swarthmore does more than just making small classroom sizes. My dad, a professor and a nerd who just happens to love visiting colleges (a typical academic, I know), has visited at least 30 American schools in his lifetime. When I first visited Swarthmore with him, he loved the abundance of trees and how most buildings were within a reasonable walking distance from each other (with the sole exception of Mary Lyons, of course, which is where I live). What my dad found most unique about Swarthmore, however, was not the beautiful greenery or the iconic Parrish Hall; rather, it was the way Swarthmore built its Science Center and placed professors’ offices within the building.

“In most universities, professors’ offices are never on the first floor,” said my dad. “When I was at Purdue University, University of Illinois, and University of California, Berkeley, you had to go upstairs, at least up to the third floor if you wanted to meet your professors. This really shows why it is so easy for Swarthmore students to go to office hours.”

According to University of Pennsylvania math department’s website, most if not all of the professors’ offices were indeed on the third floor. Furthermore, Penn’s music faculty offices are not only on the second floor but are also separated by several rooms and doors, while Swarthmore’s music faculty are on the same floor as the practice rooms. And to my point that Swarthmore professors’ offices (at least the ones at the Science Center) are on the first floor, I believe that this connects to the above mentioned aspect of Swarthmore’s low power distance culture, in which rankings and social hierarchy means little.

I asked my friends at UC Berkeley, Cornell, UPenn, Yale, and Carnegie Mellon if their peers normally call their professors by their first name, and they all replied with something along the lines of “we don’t normally do that.” At Swarthmore, however, my professors made it clear in the first minute I met them that students are allowed to call them by their first name. Having grown up in Korea, where age stratification and hierarchy rule all, I find it difficult to call Professor Mathieson “Sara” or Professor Bergstrand “Deborah” — but I saw many students doing so, which I found comforting and conducive to building great relationships. And this low-power distance is what I believe that Swarthmore hoped to manifest by placing the math and science professors’ offices in the Science Center. Such a decision shows that the professors should be regarded as humans of equal standing who may learn, collaborate, and engage with one another.

Even outside of class, I got close to Professor Kang and I don’t even take her class. I wanted to start teaching Korean because Swarthmore unfortunately does not have any Korean language courses nor Korean faculty member despite considerable demand from students to learn Korean. So I reached out to Professor Kang, who is fluent in Korean thanks to her Korean husband, and she has been very supportive and enthusiastic of my ideas. She happily invited me to her office, and we spoke in both English and Korean, along with a little bit of Chinese, as if we had been friends for a long time. I am beyond grateful for Swarthmore creating a community where we students are encouraged and welcome to approach professors easily.

Diving into the third week, I must concede that homesickness is beginning to sprout and that I wish I could see my mom more often. And while I believe that it’s a little too early to call Swarthmore my second home yet, I can definitely see it becoming one. Down-to-earth and passionate friends, libraries of coziness and collaboration, and caring professors who are not only mentors and teachers but also friends! There is nothing more I could ask from an institution. Sharples food doesn’t suit me quite well, but I came here to learn, not to eat!


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