A Gap in Group Leadership

The Phoenix is a student-published paper that has been in print since 1881. In its time, it has fostered students’ passion for writing, arts, politics, and whatever else drove people to put pen to paper. It has been the proving ground for many a future journalist or artist and has given students a voice to air their grievances against scandal or to voice their beliefs. From year to year, hand to hand, and student to student, this paper has continued to establish itself as a school institution. What if, however, somewhere along the 140-year history of the paper, most students had been too busy to contribute, there hadn’t been enough people willing to do the work, or The Phoenix had been plain forgotten? To quote my favorite line of Good Will Hunting, “We all would have lost something.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused widespread loss around the world in ways that are still being discovered. Here on Swarthmore’s campus, we are just beginning to pick up the pieces ourselves with the return of in-person classes and roommates (under mask mandates). Sports teams are back on the field and clubs that haven’t lost all their members to two years of graduation are regrouping to try to entice half of the campus into the same joys that ensnared them years ago. 

As I’ve written before, I believe that clubs and student organizations are one of the most fundamental parts of Swarthmore culture. It has also been evident recently that they are also the most fickle, due to, ironically, the “student” aspect of student organizations.

Personally, I’ve been involved with many such organizations on campus and I’ve been lucky enough to have the chance to lead, or be on the leadership team, of many of them; I’ve even founded my own knitting club on campus (Sew, Upcycle, Crochet, Knit — S.U.C.K). I understand the responsibility and time that goes into managing or establishing a club, and it is not my intention to shame those who are busy, as we Swarthmore students tend to be. All I want to say is that the time and commitment are worth it, not just for students individually, but for the community as a whole.

At the moment there is a lurking crisis within the Swarthmore extracurricular sphere. Many clubs and student groups have been brought back through the dedication and remembrance of their group members and community, but many others have not risen from the ashes. For all these groups there is a struggle to regain an identity lost over the time that the pandemic forced them — and every other student — off campus. Having experienced this process with the groups I am involved with, I can say that it hasn’t been easy, even for the strongest and previously largest groups.

I would like to share an anecdote from one of my groups that is currently in limbo:

 The student group Terpsichore was founded in the early 2010s and has been committed to providing extracurricular dance opportunities for students to both perform and choreograph pieces without any departmental oversight. When I was a first year, the group experienced a boom with about 30 or so students and a half dozen choreographers, all of whom were passionate about the medium and took advantage of the opportunity to its fullest. Terpsichore maintained its liveliness in the following years, albeit with a more limited but still strong showing, and I was looking forward to continuing to dance, perform, and potentially choreograph with the group.

Then COVID-19 hit, and like most student groups, we went underground with a limited amount of group activity. The structure of some groups stayed pretty similar, like S.U.C.K., which just went from in person to online meetings. Terp as a performance art group, however, was hit particularly hard. We didn’t have as many seniors at the time of the pandemic, so we were hopeful about a resurrection with the new class year. As COVID outlasted our diehard senior members, though, we were only left with a minority of members with minimal Terp experience and a pile of archived Google Docs folders. 

Most of the board had graduated and there was not enough enthusiasm and energy for the group to even table and advertise at the activities fair. This is a tragedy, since I’ve always felt the resource Terp’ provided to choreographers of any dance style was something not found anywhere else on campus. Losing the group also means the opportunity was lost for many students to choreograph and dance outside of the department and with a chosen community.

We are one of the many groups who could not weather the storm and don’t have enough residual interest from upperclassmen to kickstart the group despite a potential market. I sympathize with upperclassmen who after spending a year or more away from these groups and communities have lost the initial spark of enjoyment, but through their return we could avoid the loss of institutional memory and culture that the pandemic has been threatening.

This is a worst case scenario for a group at Swarthmore, and I was glad to see how many groups that I remembered pre-pandemic were present at the activities fair. Most groups have been able to at least keep some leadership staff interested in the cause, and this is certainly cause for celebration. The resilience of these organisations, whether continued through the pandemic or not, is a testament to the passion of the Swarthmore student body and our desire to enjoy ourselves outside of class. It is exciting to see underclassmen get involved in some classic Swarthmore pastimes like birdwatching, acapella, and political activism.

That being said, I have some advice for groups who have not managed to hold on to members or a leadership team. For one, focus this semester on working on a mailing list of people interested in being in the group or helping to coordinate. Focus on the team aspect of the leadership team and get a group together interested in chartering, getting funding, or scheduling events. There is still time for juniors, if not seniors, to remember groups’ names and activities, so there is no rush.

Otherwise, for upperclassmen, all I have to say is this: being in a leadership position is not a selfish task, and it will take some grit and commitment to get through a semester. Extracurricular work in college isn’t about having something to put on your resume or grad school applications; it’s about networking, fostering community, and building connections through shared interests. The toll it may take is worth it for the indispensable role you could play in helping maintain an institution of the Swarthmore community. There is responsibility associated with these roles, but it is different than being busy, and the larger the board the more manageable your share of responsibility. So all in all, step up and don’t be afraid of leadership in one capacity or another, I guarantee you that it is not as intimidating as it seems, and the resulting growth and creation of community more than offsets the commitment it takes.

I know for Terpsichore, I will be a part of a group working on gathering those interested in leading and participating over the course of the semester and try to launch next semester in the old format. It will be my senior Spring and I know this is taking a burden on myself, but I think it will be worth it. Maybe it won’t be for me, but it will be for the students that remain after I graduate to make their own space and express themselves creatively outside of departmental range. It’s a small price to pay it forward for a group that meant so much to me, and I look forward to watching Swarthmore’s community heal with new and old groups alike.

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