Access to the Arts at Swarthmore: A New Perspective from a Semester Abroad

If you’ve paid any attention to your Swarthmore Gmail account in recent weeks, you’ll have doubtlessly received numerous emails from the theatre, dance, and music departments advertising the plethora of shows happening before the end of the semester. You might have also caught wind of student-organized groups sharing their sound all over campus and the Ville. Many ensembles and performance venues have returned to their pre-pandemic glory — the chorus performed masked on risers for the first time since 2019, and student musicians recently reclaimed the stage of the Olde Club. In the three weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas breaks, there are more concerts, plays, exhibitions, and showcases than what seems possible for a college of our size.

You may ask: “But Jenna, you’re studying abroad in London, how are you still keeping up with everything happening at Swat?” Because I’m subscribed to more mailing lists than I should be, I’ve experienced a serious amount of FOMO this semester, and I am nothing, if not an overly dedicated music student. After all, as the arts at Swarthmore are beginning to define their new “normal”, it’s hard not to want to stay as involved in the process as possible. Surprisingly, I have found this relatively easy to do, thanks, in part, to the remnants of pandemic-era live-streaming efforts. Just two weekends ago, I watched the Chorus and Wind Ensemble concerts from my cozy dorm room, and director Andrew Hauze even electronically provided the program notes. The Dance department set up a similar live-stream for a student choreography event, and I got to applaud my friends via Zoom for their incredible performances.

While my time abroad has certainly been filled with the most wonderful experiences, I have found myself longing for the ease of access to the arts that Swarthmore provides. At the university where I’m studying, students must pay a club membership fee to perform in music ensembles, and to even audition for theatre productions they must have declared specific courses of study (the UK equivalent of majors). Here, students are tasked with finding outlets for creativity themselves, a steep contrast to the numerous courses, clubs, and ensembles offered by Swarthmore’s arts departments. Personally, I have no regrets about taking the initiative to find a community of artists off-campus; those relationships are some of the strongest I’ve formed while here and will last even after I return to the U.S. But it has also been a much more time-consuming and expensive process than simply walking five minutes from my dorm to LPAC or Lang Music. I arrived here already privileged with resources and connections in London that have allowed me to broaden my artistic experiences beyond the campus gates — something that few students have access to and shouldn’t need to in order to do what they love.

Now, before any of this scares you away from ever studying off campus, I’d like to acknowledge that this is only my experience abroad, and not everyone who studies abroad will encounter the same kind of longing for the arts or barriers to group creation that I have. I recognize that not all universities have the same payment or enrollment requirements for performances as the one I am currently attending. There are schools all across the world that offer students plentiful opportunities to make art with others, and I happened to have selected one with fewer resources devoted to the arts than some others.

It is also true that Swarthmore makes it very easy for students to be creatively engaged on campus. For such a small school, there is an abundance of sources to pursue almost any art form — whether it be acting, dance, singing, painting, orchestra, chamber music, fashion, or even crafting — and countless outlets to showcase them if you wish. I’m not saying that Swarthmore doesn’t have its own share of funding difficulties for the arts compared to other departments. But with the resources that are available, it is rare that a student will encounter a financial barrier to involvement (as an example, the music department subsidizes private lessons to anyone on need-based financial aid). Artists at Swarthmore don’t have to spend hours on public transit because it’s all in our own backyard, and we need not stress about lesson fees because opportunities for engagement are made accessible regardless of financial background. Our physical proximity alone — being able to leave our dorm buildings, walk for no more than fifteen minutes, and be surrounded by our friends doing the things we love most — is something that I will no longer take for granted. Frankly, Swat’s simplicity in accessing creative projects is hard to find in the real world — a bittersweet understanding I arrived at very quickly after a relatively short time away.

Another of my main takeaways from this semester is how crucial the arts are to forming communities on campus and how grateful I am that the college removes as many of those financial and administrative barriers as possible. Without such a well-organized, minimal additional cost structure, Swarthmore simply wouldn’t be as joyous a place to live. Think about how often you walk around campus and pass colorful chalk art on the pavement. Or how you stroll through Parrish at lunchtime and hear the most exquisite music floating from the piano. Or how you seem to have at least one friend in every performance ensemble and get to enjoy shows in LPAC, Lang Music or the Amphitheatre — all for free — every weekend for the latter half of the semester. Student art makes our campus beautiful.

As I’m putting the finishing touches on this article, I’m some combination of nervous and relieved to return to Swat in just over a month. Studying in London has been one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I have missed our vibrant, expressive campus more than anything else. After starting college during the near-complete shutdown of in-person arts during the 2020-2021 academic year, my biggest hope is that Swarthmore never becomes that silent ever again. Before I graduate — and after I leave — I want our campus to remain filled with color and sound and movement and community. If you haven’t already, I encourage you to participate in this communal creation process that is so unique to Swarthmore. Take that intro dance class you’ve always wanted to try. Pick up the instrument you haven’t played since high school. Try your hand at drawing or painting, or work on a production that piques your interest. I can promise you that it will make your four years here so much richer, and you’ll likely form some of the most deeply impactful connections of your life.

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