Swarthmore students are very busy. Spend more than fifteen minutes talking to any Swarthmore student, and somehow you’ll get the unmistakable impression that, while he enjoys the conversation, he probably should be doing something else instead. Whether talking with a professor about an important paper revision or shooting the breeze on a Friday night, there remains lingering in the air the slight scent of stress, of other duties, of time being wasted.
I at first imagined that this aspect of Swarthmore was simply because of an intense academic load. I slowly realized that to complete satisfactory work, solid B’s at least, the social sciences and humanities did not require a huge amount of effort (I can’t speak to the sciences). I also began to compare my time spent on my work with friends at schools like Lehigh and Moravian, and realized that there were plenty of students at other schools who worked just as hard, if not harder on their academics. Swarthmore may win on the average, but we aren’t exactly in a completely different world.
What, then, accounts for the difference? I suggest that it lies in the type of students Swarthmore attracts and how they handle work and extracurriculars.
As a salty old senior, I’ve been around this campus a few times and seen a few things. One of my clearest first memories of Swarthmore was coming during Ride the Tide to the club fair. I only remember one club: the solar powered car club. Despite my protestations that I was neither an engineer nor a science person and not even sure if I wanted to come to Swarthmore, the two guys still tried to get my signature. When I arrived as a freshman the next year, they had graduated and the solar powered club was already defunct.
The solar powered car club in many ways epitomizes the problems that we have as highly motivated students. We have come from environments in which we were involved in ten different clubs, and held leadership positions in most of them. Otherwise, we would never have been admitted to a high-caliber college or university in a day and age in which students must be more than simply academic superstars: they must be leaders and active in a dozen different activities.
When we come to Swarthmore, we never shake it off: we have to start our own clubs and run them – partially because we need to show our own worth by putting “founder” or “president” after our names, and partially because we simply are the sort of people who want to realize our own passionate goal, and not follow someone else’s. There aren’t as many not-quite-so-ambitious people who are willing to support our projects instead of making their own. The result is a campus with less than 1,500 students, more than 100 official student groups, a thousand different dreams, and very few activities done really well.
We as students are spread too thin. We try to do everything, and we succeed, but only half-way. We have too many clubs, and rather than combining skills and energy to make fewer clubs better, we waste our efforts in our abundance of variations on a theme.
In the almost four years I have been on campus, I have seen the collapse of this fragile network in two arenas: student literary magazines and a capella groups. When I was a freshman, we had about twelve of each. After the year in which inexplicably they all crashed, we are down to about five each, and it seems that the ones that remain are better for it. The rest have gone to be with the Solar Powered Car club.
The tragedy of these stories is that the clubs died – though each was unique and valuable – but that while they were alive they were not effective. It is this same plague that affects the vast collection of social action groups we have (and they, I suspect, will be the next collection of groups to have many members go defunct), and, really, most of Swarthmore’s clubs. We limp on to the finish line, because everyone is busy with something else too. We achieve something, but nothing great.
There are, of course, clubs that do their jobs well and are models to follow. Nevertheless, when I look back over the years, I feel that Swarthmore could benefit in the future from encouraging a student body that focuses on fewer activities, but achieves excellence in them. In this way we will both accomplish more of which we can be proud. We also will shake off a little of the false burden and guilty feeling that we should be doing three people’s work in one because we signed up for it. We may not be less busy, but it will weigh less heavily on our shoulders, and we can enjoy the excellence of jobs well done.