SEPTA Winter Pause Impacts FLI Students

Swarthmore’s pilot program with the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) has largely been a success, marked by high registration and usage rates. The SEPTA “Key Advantage UPass” program, which debuted in Fall 2023, gives students up to 240 free rides per month on all rail, subway, bus, and trolley lines. To use up all rides, a student would have to take eight trips every day. A one-way ticket from Swarthmore to Center City costs up to seven dollars; the fee is now avoided by all registered students. Swarthmore is the first school to participate in the program and SEPTA will use data from Swarthmore to determine if it should continue and expand. While the program has largely improved accessibility to public transportation, issues arose for students staying on campus over Winter Break. 

“So far, the overall reception of this benefit to students has been super positive,” said Anthony Condo, Director of Campus Services. “Most of the feedback we get is how excited and grateful they are for this program. This program has created a way for students to have an easy means of travel into Philly and the other surrounding areas, whether it be for an internship, to travel to and from home, explore the local areas, or have some fun.”

But students staying on campus over winter break, as well as students who returned to campus by Jan. 22, were affected by the program’s pause in January. Because of the pilot nature of the program, the college’s contract with SEPTA covered full months during the academic year and had to be purchased as such, which meant excluding January, according to Condo. The January pause was announced to students in August when the program was launched. 

Aashish Panta ’26 planned his Philadelphia trips to include the pause for his stay on campus over break. Until Dec. 31, he had used the pass more than usual due to extra free time. On Jan. 1, that stopped. 

“I didn’t really go to Philly at all in the month of January, not even until Jan. 31, even after school resumed,” Panta said. 

Devin Freeman-Robinson ’25, a First-Generation Low-Income (FLI) Office student intern working to centralize resources for students, believes the halt had a reduced impact due to the later start date of the spring semester, but will become a larger issue to address if it continues. He felt the pause also happened at a hard time given students typically have more free time to travel early in the semester. According to Freeman-Robinson, the FLI office has only had one group meeting so far this year, where the issue of January SEPTA accessibility was not discussed. 

“I think the office has probably the most leeway [to address the issue] given that we do work with the administration,” Freeman-Robinson said. “It’s easier to get something from Dean [Karen] Henry to Anthony Condo, versus the [FLI] council which is not so direct. We’re definitely open to hearing more about what students felt during that two week period.”

Gaven Green ’24, another FLI Office intern and member of FLI Council, was excited to see the UPass program, but felt the previous work of FLI students in providing individual passes and advocating for accessible transportation was not acknowledged. Before the UPass Program, FLI Council took a lead in purchasing and distributing day passes through a raffle. Additionally, the FLI office or council did not get official notice of or say in the program.  

“We [FLI students] are 1/4 of campus. FLI Council is one of the largest affinity groups on campus. It’s tough to not hear that be included in a lot of campus policy and a lot of campus initiatives. But they’ll continue to post what proportion of the first-year class are FLI each year, with or without us,” Green said. 

Aside from the lack of acknowledgement, Green has found overall success with the program, especially considering that it has a campus-wide effect. Panta has also found the pass successful in making travel to Philadelphia more accessible and allowing him to freely travel with friends. However, the pause led him to consider other ways the school does not serve students remaining over break, who are primarily FLI or international students. 

A major concern over breaks continues to be food accessibility. The FLI Council stocks a pantry for use over winter break, but it depletes within days according to Panta, forcing students to buy and cook their own food. As a Residential Assistant, Panta checks in on his peers but has discovered that they primarily eat microwavable or unhealthy options during the break. 

“It just makes me think deeply about how the college is not thinking critically about the impact it [pausing services] might have on students staying on campus,” Panta said. “I feel like there should be a sense of responsibility because a lot of students who are on campus belong to low-income backgrounds. [International and FLI students] are almost like a diversity card for this college.”

Condo says Swarthmore is in conversation with SEPTA to expand access to partial school months in future years. For now, he encourages students to check with the FLI Office to see what resources are available. 

Green also asked the college to focus more on how it is impacting “365” students who stay throughout breaks, especially as FLI Council faces a declining budget to fund its pantry. While securing year-round SEPTA is not a main priority for FLI Council or office, he hopes to see it reached through work with the administration.

“We would love for students on campus to receive summer SEPTA, especially FLI students if we could just start there,” Green said. “But that means that administrators on this campus actually have to reach out to students which I think is rare for them these days.”

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