What I Wish I Knew at Swarthmore

Aah, spring. The time of cherry blossoms and couples everywhere. And the time for most students to pick next year’s courses and for some seniors to freak out about what they’ll do outside of Swarthmore. I graduated Swarthmore almost ten years ago now (ugh), and on an alumni panel at this year’s SwatStruck, aka Ride the Tide, I spoke about my own Swarthmore experience and where it’s taken me. Here are some thoughts on what I wish I knew at Swarthmore, both my own and crowdsourced from a few friends.

Sleep, friends, and academics: choose two. On my first day of freshman orientation, the Dean of Students Bob Gross said this to us. So how do you choose? Start with sleep! The other two are useless unless you’re well rested. And then, in true Swattie fashion, figure out a way to do the other two as well.

Wear flip-flops in the shower. You can still get plantar warts even when you’re sharing your bathroom in Mary Lyons with only three other people.

There will always be more work. Don’t skip an [insert favorite band/musician name] concert in Philly because you have too much work. You will remember your mistake and tell friends about it almost a decade later, in anguished tones, when they ask you about your greatest regret at Swarthmore. I should have never missed that Vox Trot show.

There’s a lot of learning outside the classroom. Swarthmore has a wealth of events – lectures, film screenings, conferences, extracurricular activities – that are great sources of knowledge and wisdom. Take advantage of them while on campus – outside the bubble, you actually have to travel to another location from your office and home to do all these things. At Swarthmore, every event is in the next building.

Don’t put your swim test off until senior year. It’s just an unnecessary stress, especially if you really don’t know how to swim, and it’s senior spring. Take the swim class early on, or make friends with someone on the swim team and get them to teach you. Added bonus: you now have a lifeguard friend who can save your life.

Explore the campus, there’s a lot of it. Make time to walk around all the paths. Check out buildings other than the ones you usually frequent for classes. As one Swattie wrote, “I don’t know what the interior of Old Tarble looks like (I never made it inside).” Lie on the grass, stare at the sky, and do nothing sometimes. You’ll be busy enough once you graduate. Enjoy the gift of greenery and quiet space that’s around you at Swarthmore.

There is studying, and then there’s studying. Staring at a chem/physics problem set for three hours does not necessarily equal studying. Nor does trying to win misery poker by saying “I spent the whole evening in the library yesterday” when 50% of that was hanging out with friends in the lounge area or watching funny videos on YouTube (trust me, I’ve done it). Learning how to do work efficiently is one of the ways to get everything done at Swarthmore, and in the world after. Isolate yourself or work with select friends you know will keep you accountable.

There is no perfect major choice – keep trying things and keep learning. Like many students, I struggled with the choice of what to major in. I came in as a potential Economics major, chose Political Science, added an English Lit double major, then ended up dropping Political Science and graduating with an English Literature major and a concentration in Creative Writing. Along the way, I took classes in French, studied abroad with the Swarthmore program in Grenoble and  Oxford, and took classes in History, Classics, Music, and so many other areas. Especially in the world after Swarthmore, when you are developing your career and trying for new jobs, there will be a lot of uncertainty about what the right choice is. Learning to trust your gut, and accepting that you will make mistakes is key to being happy and fulfilled.

Have a ritual that you enjoy. Sundays through Thursdays in my sophomore year, I took a walk around campus every night before going to bed. It was a great way to let go of the academic stress and get a good night’s sleep. A friend from my year suggested treating yourself to pancakes, bacon, and eggs at Sharples on Friday mornings to get yourself through the week. Whatever floats your boat… As long as it doesn’t get Public Safety involved.

It’s okay to ask for help. This was a big topic of discussion at the alumni panel. Yes, Swarthmore is hard – it has a high bar for the academics, combined with the choice of so many different activities to throw yourself into. It can get overwhelming at times. But there’s also a lot of support around you – RAs, academic advisors, professors, fellow students, CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). If you can get yourself to open up to someone and talk about the struggles you’re facing, you’re on the path to feeling better.

Take the class you’ve always wanted to take. My one regret from Swarthmore is that I never explored a studio art class because I was afraid I might be a shitty artist. Don’t do that – it’s like having a crush on someone and never having the courage to talk to them (been there, done that, too many times). Try out that class you’ve been afraid to take; you might not be great at it, you might even suck at it, but at least you’ll find out what it’s like.

It’s okay not to drink a lot of alcohol or go to parties. My Swattie friend’s mother (who also went to Swarthmore) said “No one’s going to listen to that, they’re in college.” I know I certainly didn’t – when I was at Swarthmore, and for a good while after in my work life, I went to loud bars and crowded parties and drank a lot of alcohol and didn’t really enjoy it: some of it was to escape stress, and some of it was to be part of the norm. It’s not until very recently that I’ve felt okay with declining invitations to some parties or to bars for happy hour drinking, and being comfortable with who I am – someone likes small groups, drinks a bit on occasion, and avoids loud bars, i.e. most bars. Alcohol and parties are a big part of college culture and work culture as well but if it’s not for you, you can always find other things you enjoy and can better spend the time on at Swat. You’ll thank yourself later on.

Meditate. One of the most impactful changes I’ve made in my life recently has been meditating daily, on the advice of a very wise current Swarthmore sophomore. If you’re at all stressed or anxious about things happening in your life, try it – Headspace is a great free app with short guided meditations. Meditation won’t give you the answers to all your questions, but it will help you feel less anxious about figuring things out and connect you with your own core and gut instincts.

Find another Swattie to marry, preferably one with complementary skillsets (and get a fellow Swattie to play matchmaker to save you time). This will save you a lot of hassle when you get out into the real world and are learning how to be a grown-up, not to mention the time and energy spent on dates and dating apps as an adult. You’ll also save the Alumni Office money on postage. Potential drawback: overly nerdy offspring.

You’re going to be okay. If you’ve made it to the end of your time at Swarthmore, and you’re getting ready to graduate but still haven’t quite figured out your next steps (or the rest of your life), relax. You’ll be fine. Talk to friends, reach out to alums, keep exploring. Until two days before graduation, I didn’t know what I’d be doing the year after Swarthmore. And yes, I was a nervous wreck, which is why I’m writing these words to you.

And finally, if you learn nothing else from this piece, remember this German proverb: Everything has an end, but only a sausage has two.

Rahul D’Silva ’08 is a writer, career coach and business consultant in the tech industry. He is a former Fulbright Scholar to Ireland, and has lived, studied and worked in the U.S., France, England, Ireland, Japan, and India over the last ten years. Follow him @RahulDiSilva or sign up for his monthly email newsletter

Thanks to Alyssa Lawson ’08, Tristan Lawson ’08, Ishita Kharode ’08, Kira Grennan ’08, and Lily Ng ’08 for contributing personal bits of wisdom and regret to this article.

Featured image courtesy of Swarthmore.edu.


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3 comments

  1. 2
    Ian G '18 says:

    Advice from a current Swattie:

    –Don’t go to parties. I don’t, I’ve still got friends and do fun things. It’s not necessary for a healthy social life and it’s better to avoid the temptation of alcohol.

    –Find your crowd. We’ve got student organizations for pretty much everything, find your group and geek out over music, sci-fi, birds, whatever. Trust me, everybody wants to do that, but someone’s gotta break the ice–be that someone!

    –Don’t get married. Married couples are statistically more likely to have children, and overpopulation is a major problem, probably second behind global warming. It is our duty as citizens of the world to not have children.

    –Have a couple of close friends who you can trust to help you out. I’ve got a close friend group of about half a dozen and a wider group of about a dozen more. The close friends group, well, we’ve all got our individual problems, but we have DIFFERENT problems so we can help each other out when we need it.

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