Life at Swarthmore is Defined by Uncertainties

10 mins read
Parrish September 11, 2018 on the campus of Swarthmore College in Swarthmore, PA. (Photo by Emma Ricci-De Lucca ’21)

How would you summarize your first-year experience at Swarthmore? Would you say it was too academically intense? Would you say it was boring? I will say my first-year experience can be summarized by the word “uncertainties.” The most important lesson I learned at Swarthmore during my first year was how to accept uncertainties in my college life. Many aspects of our college life are full of uncertainties. We do not always know what courses we will be able to take in the future or which dorm we are going to stay in the next year. As a result, accepting these uncertainties is crucial to overall success.

Course lotteries and scheduling conflicts mean our academic plans are always subject to change. I have heard that some freshmen plan their next four years before entering Swarthmore. They know which courses they should take every semester. Scheduling conflicts, however, often force us to change our plan. When I was pre-registering for this semester, I was sad to learn that three of the courses in my original plan shared the same slot. Furthermore, sometimes we have course lotteries, so we can never predict exactly what we are going to take next.

I have not been very lucky in terms of course lotteries — I have been lotteried out of two courses plus one P.E. class. In my first semester, I was lotteried out of a first-year seminar that was not available in the spring semester, and I was just lotteried out of a required course for my future major. These two scenarios are trickier than being lotteried out of a course that is offered every semester and is used solely for fulfilling distribution requirements. If you are lotteried out of a first-year seminar which is not available in the spring term, you cannot take it during your time at Swarthmore. If you are lotteried out of an introductory or intermediate major course early on, you probably will have to take your upper-level courses later in your Swarthmore career. We are often told that we must be flexible about our academic plan, but it is often difficult to reschedule courses after lotteries.

I have several suggestions for course lotteries. First, we should pre-register smartly. We can see how many students have registered for a specific course online. If you are not an upperclassman and the course has an especially high demand, then you are more likely to be lotteried out. In this case, it is often wise for you to switch. Secondly, it is often helpful to talk to professors and advisors for alternatives. Finally, most often you are just swapping the relative order of the courses you are going to take, but you will take them all in your time here.

    Housing is also a major source of uncertainties, especially for first years. The housing process for freshmen is somewhat mysterious. We are required to fill in a housing questionnaire prior to orientation, but we must wait for months to receive our housing assignment. There are no clues about where we will end up for our first year. We do not have lottery numbers like upperclassmen, nor do we know whether students with common traits will be assigned to the same dorm and the same floor. I once suspected that students who preferred to sleep late would be assigned together, and students who loved studying in the dorm would be assigned together. But the process is a lot more mysterious and uncontrollable than the rising sophomore or junior housing selection processes, which have clearer rules.

I was not very lucky in terms of the housing assignment for my first year. I ended up in Mary Lyon, which was often considered to be the least desirable dorm to live. It is old, not air-conditioned, and most importantly, remote. Mary Lyon’s geographical location has brought me a lot of inconveniences, which have resulted in profound implications. Earlier this semester, I suffered from a sleep disorder and found it extremely hard to concentrate in the afternoon. I often wanted to take a short nap in the afternoon. Unfortunately, the remoteness of Mary Lyon prevented me from doing so. As a result, I was often in a poor mood and inefficient in classes and work every afternoon.

How did I accept such “misfortune?” I do not really know, but for a long time, I believed the future would be brighter. Fortunately, I received an excellent lottery number this semester, and I am optimistic that I will end up in my first-choice dorm next semester. I feel also appreciated the practical benefits, such as the breakfast at Mary Lyon on weekends.

    In a world full of uncertainties, a place with more certainties feels safer and more reliable. For me, the place with the least uncertainties is Sharples. The breakfast is always the same. We can expect pasta bar every Wednesday and Sunday dinner. What’s more, we can check the menu in advance online. While we do not know the exact types of pizzas that will be available, most of the time pizzas will have cheese. A question we might want to ask is: Do we really like such certainties? I have mixed feelings over this question. Sometimes people claim the food here is repetitive and not innovative. On the other hand, such certainties can make it easier to plan everything. I do not like pasta bar. Since I know that Sunday dinner has pasta bar, I can instead go for dinner in Center City or in the Ville. If I am going for dinner in Center City, I can buy tickets on Friday morning to avoid extra fees.

    Finally, I could not have predicted the kinds of historical events I would witness at Swarthmore. Throughout my first year, I have witnessed multiple reforms, like introducing Curricular Practical Training to international students and changes to computer science major requirements. However, I will say the protests to end fraternity violence were the most memorable events. Fraternities have a rich history at Swarthmore, so I took the existence of fraternities for granted, initially. I did not expect that their internal documents would be available to the public one day. Even after the documents were publicized, I was uncertain how our community would respond to them. Still, I could feel the courage when Swarthmore students organized protests, petitions, and sit-ins.

No students can predict when these historical events will happen, nor can students predict how will these events evolve. Those in power can control the future of Greek life at Swarthmore, but students are always uncertain about the future before the officials announce their decisions. However, students and many other members of the Swarthmore community are struggling to be more certain that fraternity violence will end in the future, and I hope that I can witness the day when there is no more fraternity violence. We can never predict what will happen in the future. However, such unpredictability makes our life colorful. Every day we can wake up and expect some things that excite us. Uncertainties make us feel insecure, but we can learn how to handle them. We should be prepared for occasional bad luck or unexpected plan changes, and appreciate the time when we are luckier. My first-year life at Swarthmore has taught me these lessons, and I will apply what I have learned to the future.

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