“It’s a small liberal arts school outside of Philly, you probably haven’t heard of it.”
I wore this phrase like a badge, proud that I had made it past the insidious allure of the Ivy League and chosen instead this small but quirky gem. I, like many other obsessive new Swatties, had scoured the Internet for tiny details that gave an elusive taste of the Swarthmore culture that I would soon become a part of. I became familiar with Swat vocab: “academically rigorous,” “heteronormative,” even the all-important “hegemony.” I also read about all the traditions, from the Crum Regatta to the sheer absurdity of the McCabe mile, and I even knew to know nothing about Crunkfest. I promised myself that I would fit right in to Swat’s environment.
I also knew there are things about Swarthmore that would be incredible, things that would help me engage the world in all its complexities (or so the booklet I got in the mail promised). Lean into your discomfort. This advice, given over and over by both Deans and students, warned us that being uncomfortable in this transition to college life was only natural. So as I scratched the welts of mosquito bites on my legs, I promised myself that this was all part of Camp Swarthmore. Above all, Swat tries its hardest to immerse us in this camp experience. “Give us your name, where you’re from, and your favorite brand of body wash!” We clumsily introduced ourselves over and over and scrambled to think of soaps that weren’t taken yet, clutching at our trays and shyly addressing the lunch table like nervous summer campers. “Hi guys, I like swimming, tennis, and existential philosophy, what about you?”
As the bites on our legs swelled and our uncertainty subsided, we began to settle into the patterns of a day-to-day routine. Our time was consumed with enough activities to keep us exhausted and too weary to notice exactly what we were spooning onto our plates in Sharples. Many of these activities were infused with small details that let us know that we were finally at home here, that being slightly awkward and incredibly nerdy was celebrated as part of a culture that couldn’t be captured in pictures of our idyllic campus. Animal suits and Harry Potter snacks littered through the library tour lifted the spirits of those who had discovered the tomblike bottom floor carrels of McCabe, and chair massages on Parrish beach relaxed us in preparation for the tense necks that came along with online course registration the next morning.
Weeks pass as I sleep, and I feel as if I’ve never known anywhere but here. I realize that there is nothing in the guide books that can capture what it means to be here, to hear the thunderous applause given to Dean Jim Bock. This culture of enthusiasm is carefully planted in us from the very first time we sit on the grass and exchange names, fed by the late-night snacks in dorm lounge meetings and given strength in the solemn gravity of a shared candle. The blooms that open within us take on refined colors during diversity workshops as we discover a culture of mutual understanding and respect, when we step into the circle together and meet the eyes of a stranger across from us who is not so different after all.
As I sat during the Orientation play, the final activity we were made to attend as a class, I soon gave up trying to pick up every reference that went over my head. I focused instead on the fact that the upperclassmen were cheering and supporting the actors on stage. Three years later, these students were just as enthusiastic to celebrate Swat’s culture on stage, with laughter for the endearing swawkward couple, and with groans for some of swat’s less appealing quirks. I realized that there was no way for me to Google the nuances of Swarthmore’s culture. Orientation was just a sampling of the different attitude and themes that create the vibrancy of Swarthmore.
Becoming a Swattie, I realized, is more than having the most intellectual conversation at the latest hour of night. I believe that the entire campus community came together to gently coax the class of 2016 into accepting the idea that there will be growing pains, but eventually we will be able to define for ourselves what it means to be a part of this culture.