When I came to Swatstruck in 2018, I made sure to ask the quintessential Spec question — “Why did you choose Swarthmore?” — to pretty much every student that I encountered. Generally, the answers either revolved around Swat’s specific academic programs or the college’s generous financial aid policies. Even now, nearing the end of my first year here, “Why did you come to Swarthmore?” remains a question ubiquitous in getting-to-know-you type conversations, and the answers are still the same.
To this day, despite the number of times that I’ve conversed with fellow students about why we came to Swat, there’s only one answer that I found worthwhile, or memorable. When I asked a senior from the class of 2018 why he came to Swarthmore, he answered that after four years here, he felt that he wouldn’t have necessarily been happier or less happy anywhere else.
After a year at Swarthmore, I still think about that answer frequently. I love Swarthmore, and at this point, it’s difficult to imagine my life without the college’s physical property and the people that I’ve met here. When push comes to shove, however, Swarthmore is an institution, and being here has forced me over and over again to critically reevaluate what it means to be so closely affiliated with an institution.
While we tend to conflate Swarthmore College with Swarthmore’s disambiguated community, we are perhaps remiss in doing so. Institutions are formed to fulfill one or more purposes, and while they heavily rely on the people within them, they are inherently separate entities. In the long run, to an institution, all people are dispensable. Institutions cannot change because their existence depends on a status quo, and while a status quo can be flexible over time, the institution’s dependence on it will always remain. Institutions can begin and end, but their rigidity can never fluctuate.
On the other hand, communities, even if they initially form around institutions, are based within people’s minds and hearts. They are fluid collections of people seeking to form connections with and to love each other. We define our communities, and in turn, they define us as well. While communities oftentimes form spontaneously, it is deliberately that we find our own places within them. As individuals, we can alter communities and make ourselves indispensable to them in a manner that is fundamentally impossible with institutions.
I don’t love the cold and clinical institution of Swarthmore College, and it definitely doesn’t love me. I don’t even love Swarthmore’s wider community. I love the smaller communities in which I have found a place, because it is when all members of a community are salient to each other that everyone can grow together. And when we form communities centered on growth and love, we can change the status quo.
Like many other students, I spent the majority of my time from Saturday afternoon to Tuesday night huddled on grimy floor of Our House (formerly known as Phi Psi), singing optimistic chants and trying to help further the goals of the sit-in in whichever way possible. In that case, the sit-in was our institution, and all of us who participated formed a new community centered around the house and the sit-in. We took over the space. We hung up posters, made artwork, and decorated Our House’s yard with flowers and a wishing tree. On Tuesday evening, we spent hours cleaning every inch of the house’s public spaces. I don’t know how long it had been since someone last scrubbed the floors properly, but layers of dirt and dried beer came off of the floors when they came into contact with soap and water. That cleaning felt cathartic, as if were physically alleviating the house of its history.
That night, within an hour of each other, Delta Upsilon and Phi Psi both announced their disbanding. There immediately erupted shouts and screams of joy, exhilaration among countless students, and near-universal celebration on campus. Swarthmore College, the institution, played no role in this victory. It was us humans of the sit-in, the community, who had endlessly promoted peace and positive, nonviolent change. The college as an institution did not change, but the status quo upon which it relies underwent a massive transformation during those four days.
After everything, and after all of the positive change that communities at Swarthmore have enacted during the past two semesters, I still don’t think that I’m necessarily happier at Swarthmore than I would have been anywhere else. My skepticism regarding that ambiguity, however, has turned into positivity, because I no longer care whether I would have been happier or less happy anywhere else. It no longer matters to me why I’m here; rather, I focus on what I do to ameliorate my communities. Institutions are roughly the same everywhere, but here, I have found a place in countless communities who not only love about each other, but use the growth resulting from that love to impact the status quo.
Are such communities unique to Swarthmore’s campus? Absolutely not. But I am happy to be a part of loving, forward-looking communities here, at Swarthmore, and that’s all that matters.