Did Swarthmore Change or Did I?

Two weeks ago, some percentage of Swarthmore students returned in the freezing weather to another batch of liminal Swarthmore. By liminal Swarthmore, I refer to the mix of synchronous and asynchronous classwork, the long treks to and from Sharples with the chill biting at hands carrying compostable containers, and the silence which hangs over every academic building and former social space.

Funnily enough, this isn’t actually that new. Most students were on campus for some portion of the 2020-2021 academic school year, with half of the student body on campus at any given time. I think that we should even consider ourselves lucky to only have two weeks of liminal Swarthmore (fingers-crossed) compared to the full semesters that were previously experienced.

Even with that being the case, I would be lying if I said that these two weeks have not been harder to deal with, especially given the juxtaposition with a much more recent in-person semester. Last year’s first batch of liminal Swat was served cold after a summer and/or an extra semester of virtual work, and I was so happy for some sort of traditional school experience that I didn’t even flinch. But now, I’ve been wondering how that time changed me and what is different now. I say this because Swarthmore hasn’t felt the same since.

To be fair, I do not wish to insult the school’s Covid policies since they, in general, have left the school with a very low case count. Rather, I want to explore how these policies have affected the student experience, specifically my experience as a current senior.

Swarthmore does not feel like Swarthmore to me anymore, and it hasn’t in a while. While there are a number of tangible differences in my situation between then and now, through reflection, I’ve often been struck by how different of a person I have become because of the pandemic. I have noticed how much I’ve grown outside of this school, instead returning home while being enrolled and educated in a similar way to when I was on campus.

Before college, I imagined the experience would be a single continuous experience on the campus with a few breaks here and there until graduation day finally arrived. Lo and behold, I remember my first and second years as a continuous set of experiences semester to semester, and I felt myself growing in the context of Swarthmore. I imagine that without the pandemic, that continuity of experience would not have been broken: I would have been molded and shaped by Swarthmore’s community.

But I am now a different person from the one who got a continuous four-year experience. I’ve been aware for a while that I changed during quarantine in ways it’s going to take more than CAPS to understand, but I did not expect to feel as permanently alienated from Swarthmore as I do now. That has been the case even with two semesters on campus and about a year and a half of academics, more Swarthmore than I had before the pandemic. I made it back to campus hoping for solace, but the magic in the air never returned for me other than in flashes of memory and nostalgia for late-night hang-outs and the joy of exploring a lively campus which remind me of how good I had it. 

The slow building sense of myself at Swarthmore was broken, and now my relationship with it is different; not necessarily bad, but just different. I don’t hear people talking, though, about how much this sucks! 

I miss the way Swarthmore used to feel, the constant feeling of movement and purpose held by the people traveling from building to building, the endless learning possibilities, a sense of being able to stumble upon fabulous events every night, and the feeling that I could become someone great in a place like this. Some of the best experiences of my life happened in those years between the parties, the friends I made, and how much I learned and grew. Swarthmore was such a vibrant location, and I felt more alive than ever exploring the reaches of experiences it could provide, making important friends and living once-in-a-lifetime experiences.

Swarthmore changed from a place of infinite possibility to an abstract idea of education and community which could be given and taken away by a fickle administration. For me, this has been a tragedy. With some amount of guilt currently, I realize how much I loved who I was at Swarthmore back then with all the good and the bad, and I am now constantly plagued with the sense that I am lesser for losing the ability to find joy in the same environment as I lived in back then.

For all intents and purposes, that is still how I feel. I did say it would take me time to get over the effects of such a shattering experience for the world, let alone adjust my understanding of and expectations for myself. Though, in this state of mind, I’ve begun to wonder about how the alternate reality me would actually be doing. 

For all the idealism of the idea of a Swarthmore experience without a pandemic, I would still have had the same problems, needed to figure out myself in a similar way, and maybe would have even become as disconnected from that initial college experience as I am now. I chuckle that I may have even missed out on some problems that I would have run into at Swarthmore without the pandemic. I do not dislike the person that I’ve become; I’ve just been trying to make the comparison between the way I feel now and the presumed happiness of this other me less painful because, in the end, it still would have been me.

Thinking back on who I was before quarantine, this hypothetical other me — the one that continued my life as it was — brings me pain and resentment. However, denying the positivity of those times because of the pain of reflection discounts the joy that myself and others at this college experienced then. I do not want to do that to the memory of the Swarthmore I used to love.

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