“There Really is No Social Scene Here”: Students Reflect on Post-COVID-19 Campus Environment

Photo by Abby Chang for The Phoenix

After spending the past two years in an unusual campus environment, the Swarthmore community has returned to full residential life in the Fall 2021 semester. COVID-19, however, is still affecting the community, with the administration continuing to enforce restrictions to contain the virus and prevent its spread on campus. As a result of the impact of COVID-19 on the campus community, students are feeling more socially disconnected than ever. 

In an interview with The Phoenix, Gyan Bains ’23 discussed his opinions on the social environment at Swarthmore since the campus returned from virtual learning. Bains explained that as a result of social inactivity, students are venturing off campus, impacting the social environment at Swarthmore.

“More people leave campus now than before. Before, there used to be functions on campus like on Thursday and Saturday nights, and now that is just non-existent,” Bains said. ”Everyone just leaves campus and goes their own ways … people will go to places such as Villanova, Center City, and UPenn, so everyone is more spread out. And I feel like that’s negatively affecting our campus culture and environment.”

In an interview with The Phoenix, Shay Downey ’22, also discussed her opinion on the college’s decision to decrease campus programming throughout the school year. Furthermore, she expressed frustration over the lack of social opportunities from the Office of Student Engagement. 

“We don’t really have a lot of on-campus programming. I think that the administration had the best intent when they decided to reduce campus programming to prevent people from crowding in the same space,” Downey said. “I feel like most of the fun things that have happened on campus now are primarily organized by student groups. And student groups don’t have the bandwidth to support everything at Swarthmore. That’s why we have an Office of Student Engagement, but it feels minimal.”

The increase of students departing campus could be connected to the administration’s COVID-19 safety measures implemented at the beginning of the Spring 2022 semester. The college changed their COVID-19 policies from the Fall 2021 semester due to the national surge in the Omicron variant. These changes were outlined in an email to the Swarthmore community on Jan. 21; Senior Associate Dean of Student Life Nathan Miller announced a prohibition of campus events, including Alcohol Registered Events (A.R.E.) and group gatherings of over ten people.

Miller sent another email on Feb. 11 informing the campus community that the college would lift some precautions because of the decrease in positive cases both on campus and in Delaware County. As of Feb. 14, all events, including Alcohol Registered Events, are now allowed on campus as long as they do not exceed the 50 participant limit. 

In order for students to travel off campus, they must pay for public transportation, which can introduce financial burdens on students. Bains explained the consequences of the administration’s more restrictive policies on social events towards first-generation, low-income (F.L.I.) students. 

“I feel like what the administration didn’t consider is the disparate impact on first generation low income students. It’s not cheap to go to Philly,” he said. “An Uber is like 35 bucks and bars and clubs are expensive. So really, like, some people can’t afford to do that. And that’s just had an unfair impact on them versus people who can just afford to do that every weekend.”

Before the pandemic, the college offered different means for students to travel off-campus. A shuttle to the nearby town of Media, which has restaurants and stores, was offered on Friday and Saturday for students to use. A shuttle to the nearby AMC Movie Theater and King of Prussia Mall was also offered. Now, the only shuttle available is to the Target at the Springfield Mall, which runs on Sundays and Tuesdays from 6-8 PM. 

Sara Yun ’23, explained how she took advantage of the Media Shuttle when it was offered on campus. She discussed the change of scenery that going to Media provided for her and her friends.

“It was a weekly event going to Media because on Fridays a lot of students, including myself, would meet up with their friends and have a nice meal together and take a break from Swat after a long week,” Yun said. “I feel like the Media shuttle was a huge escape from Swarthmore. Having to stay at Swarthmore this year a lot more has honestly taken a lot of happiness away. Taking a break by going to Media was so refreshing because it’s not a place that you have gone to regularly.”

Jordan Jones ’25, also expressed the need for the return of the Media shuttle and reflected on the cons of taking public transportation to other off-campus locations. 

“We need to bring back the shuttle to Media. I feel like I’m missing out, especially as a freshman, from gaining experiences outside Swarthmore,” Jones said. “Taking the train all the time is expensive and is a longer commute. I would definitely be happy if we had shuttles.” 

Downey also described the impact of not having shuttles on students who do not have access to cars and other private transportation methods. Furthermore, she explained that shuttle service to off-campus areas can lead to inclusion, particularly for first-generation low-income students. 

“I feel like an important thing about the shuttles is how it factors into actual inclusion and accessibility on campus. The majority of students don’t live within the area and don’t have cars on campus. And those that do have cars, because they can either afford a car or live close enough to have that, get to have more fun because they can leave campus and do these things and not have to pay for public transit, which is expensive,” Downey said. “And there have been some initiatives like the F.L.I. SEPTA passes and stuff like that, but having those shuttles was a big part of people getting around.”

Downey shared her experiences with Engaged Scholarship opportunities, which were paused during the Fall 2021 semester due to COVID-19 restrictions. Engaged Scholarship courses emphasize learning outside the classroom and provide students an opportunity to travel off-campus to locations such as Philadelphia and Chester and interact with Swarthmore’s surrounding areas. 

“Engaged Scholarship expands farther than just academics. It’s also like the life experience that you have and interacting with people who are not exclusively in this super academic environment,” Downey said. “Delco is a very different place than Swarthmore College. And so it’s nice to see how life is outside of Swarthmore.”

Bains tied the decline in campus culture and community to the administration’s COVID-19 restrictions on events that are causing students to attend events off-campus and engage in riskier behavior. 

“They have to relax the COVID-19 restrictions a little bit. There’s plenty of testing that’s going on — people are going to get COVID-19,” he said. “The goal can’t be ‘zero COVID.’ It’s so disappointing that they’re so strict when the only effect it has is just causing people to leave campus, where they’re engaging in more unsafe behaviors and crowded areas off campus, whereas you could just do that same thing on campus in the bubble with better safety precautions.”

The “bubble” is a widely used term by Swatties to describe the tendency of Swarthmore students not to venture outside of campus boundaries. Hannah Holt ’22, remembered first hearing the term as a first-year. 

“I didn’t really know what that meant at first, but I learned how there is a culture at Swarthmore that when you leave campus and interact with people outside campus, it feels like almost a culture shock,” Holt said. “You’re surrounded by very different people and ideas when you stay in the bubble.” 

With many students tending to stay within “the bubble,” social events are the main opportunities to meet new people and find friends. But with college policies reducing events with large gatherings of people, some students have found it difficult to make these connections. In an interview with The Phoenix, Nicole Padron ’25, further described the exclusive nature of the “bubble.” 

“There really is no social scene here. People tend to hang out only with the friends they have, so the opportunity to actually go and talk to new people is extremely limited,” Padron said. “You might recognize other people from your classes, but people don’t tend to directly talk with them and make new friends.”

Jones expanded on how Swarthmore’s small size impacts students’ ability to make friends outside of their immediate friend groups. 

“I feel like it’s actually kind of elitist and cliquey here. It’s way more difficult for me to make friends in my classes because you might talk to people in class, but no one makes any initiative here to be outgoing and expand outside their friend group,” Jones said. “I think that is just the culture here as a small school.” 

Bains discussed how on-campus activities and social functions allowed him to tolerate “the bubble.” Without those opportunities to meet other students on campus, however, many students are left to find other ways of socializing, including traveling off campus. 

“People tend to just go out with or hang out with the people that they already know. So I feel like that’s just limited how many new people you can meet and the kind of social networks that you can build this year,” he said. “I’ve just felt disappointed with what’s been available on campus so I make it a point to leave campus every weekend. Because otherwise everything’s kind of a trap where you can just get stuck here and then become unhappy. So I think leaving campus every weekend is important.”

Despite the social inactivity as a result of the new Spring 2022 policies outlined by Dean Miller in January, now that A.R.E. events and other events over ten students are permitted, the future may hold more opportunities for students to interact.

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