Swarthmore: The Happiest Place on Earth

Intercurtual Center, Interfaith Center, and International Student Center Open House at the new Hormel-Nguyen Intercultural Center in Sproul on September 14, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca '21)

From the windows of the airplane that departed from the city I call home, I felt both dreadful and thrilled as I watched trees, cars, and skyscrapers disappear into the distance, replaced by fluffy, white clouds. It was not the first time for me to leave home; after all, I had studied in the United States for more than six years. Leaving home, however, never gets easier. Despite years of American education in a private Christian institution in Ohio, I still found this continent foreign and unwelcoming. Nevertheless, in pursuit of a better education, I persisted on returning to this foreign land year after year. Homesickness was a nuanced emotion for international students, who grew up in streets and ate food that were nothing like the ones at Swarthmore. However, through the kind hearts of the students and staff, Swarthmore became a second home for us.

When I initially arrived on campus, my nervous intuition insisted that everyone around me was an intimidating upperclassman. Yet, in reality, all except the-blue-shirt-wearing orientation leaders were my fellow international classmates, who probably were just as nervous as I was. While a part of me still did not believe that I made it to Swarthmore College, the other part anxiously planned out each step of making a first impression on my fellow classmates.The discomfort quickly disappeared. In our shared anticipation and nervousness, we greeted each other with shy but friendly smiles, asked standard questions like “Where are you from?” or “What would you like to study?” and contributed to the occasional political discussions. Our bonds strengthened as we toured Philly: we laughed at our orientation leader’s feeble knowledge of American history, visited a sex shop, and ate udon in Chinatown. As we finally sat together in the amphitheater for the First Collection, with a candle in our hands, it felt as if the dust had settled on the previous pages of our lives and that we were beginning something incredible.

When reminiscing about the days of International Orientation, it becomes clear to me that the community of Swarthmore College is like nothing I have ever encountered. It is a fresh breath of air compared to the toxic environment of my high school. My experiences in a racially and religiously homogeneous middle school and high school have morphed me into someone who’s always self-conscious and insecure of my occasional accent and foreign appearance. Even in my hometown, I was constantly anxious of how I presented myself. No one I’ve met at Swarthmore has ever made me feel embarrassed because of how I look or how I speak English. Everyone genuinely wants to get to know each other and make a friendship that lasts for a lifetime.

Despite that Swarthmore had a bad reputation of being a liberal echo chamber, I was still exposed to a diversity of ideas. During the two weeks of orientation, my personal views had been challenged on several occasions. From my fellow international classmates, I encountered many controversial questions that I usually wouldn’t have questioned. I never thought that I would have a hard time explaining the logical reasonings behind my answers to my genuinely curious classmates who have lived in another country and are not familiar with the dynamics of American society. It led me to question if I should have been more suspicious of the views I was exposed to by the environment I surrounded myself with. It was beneficial for me to rethink the reasons I hold some views and take a step back from identity politics. I am glad and thankful that I met friends with different opinions. Even if we disagree, I know that we all have good intentions and hopes for a better world.

On the Disney themed t-shirts that our international leaders wore, it said “the happiest place on Earth.” That must be the name of the spell everyone casts on this magical campus together. In the following years we spend together, I hope that the stars in our eyes never fade and that the happiest place on Earth will be wherever we are together.

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