Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore’s grounds comprise the Scott Arboretum. The campus is located about ten miles southwest of Philadelphia in southeastern Pennsylvania. It is a coeducational liberal arts and engineering college. It offers a robust and diverse academic program across many different disciplines and subject areas with limited distribution requirements across fields. At the core of the school lies its dedication to the value of a liberal arts education, and a belief in the limitless boundaries of its students’ intellectual capacity.
Upon stepping out of my family’s car on my first visit to Swarthmore, I found myself overcome with the urge to wander its verdant grounds. Rather than head immediately to the Admissions Office, I found myself following Swarthmore’s various circuitous paths that lead through carefully manicured lawns and gardens. As if transported, I stopped at the Lilac Garden, examined the buds of the famous Dean Bond Rose Garden, and sat in the warm summer air in the cloistered and pungent Fragrance Garden. Upon approaching the grand Scott Amphitheater I became aware of a different part of the campus. Enrobing the Amphitheater’s lush grass terraces and stately canopy of branches was the Crum Woods, a rich wilderness through which trickles the Crum Creek. Dotted throughout this idyllic 357-acre campus were dozens, if not hundreds, of spots designed for reading, thinking, and embracing the academic, the personal, and the peaceful. As I trotted back to the Admissions Office with my father in tow, I found myself feeling something I hadn’t yet experienced at the other colleges I visited: I yearned to belong to Swarthmore and have Swarthmore belong to me. It was not until a year later, in my first semester at Swarthmore, that I understood how appropriate its grounds are as a reflection of the broader institution. The juxtaposition of overflowing wilderness with artfully sculpted order is an ideal frame for a school where classes and professors provide intellectual structure, yet also encourage and, indeed, force students into the wilderness of knowledge. For four years, I was constantly pushed into the academic forests with the expectation that I would return and, together with my fellow students, create my own ordered academic garden. Through passionate arguing, furious research, and marathon late-night writing sessions, my peers and I plunged into the tangle of knowledge ostensibly looking for an answer, but learning that the search was equally valuable.
Swarthmore’s student body includes residents of forty-eight states, more than thirtyfive countries, and innumerable backgrounds, traditions, ethnicities, identities, and orientations. Despite these impressive statistics, it is still a small school by any standard, having a student body of approximately 1,500. This small size has its downsides. Although it is an easy twenty-minute train ride into the United States’ sixth largest city—Philadelphia—for some applicants it may be too secluded and suburban. Additionally, the small student body lends itself to an intimate knowledge of many (if not most) of one’s fellow students. The size also has its benefits, however, and most students agree that these outweigh the negatives. The student:faculty ratio, for example, is an almost unheard-of 8:1 supported by 173 faculty members. This lends itself to an average class size of fifteen in regular courses, and an emphasis on small, seminar-style learning built on strong student-faculty relationships. Additionally, Swarthmore has close ties to the nearby colleges of Haverford and Bryn Mawr, creating the Tri-College Consortium. Students are able to co-mingle both inside and outside the classroom with students of these two other colleges, thus expanding the social and academic circles to a much larger population.
Most students choose Swarthmore for its academic reputation: rigorous, high-quality, graduate-level study takes center-stage of life at the college. Yet, unlike large, impersonal research universities, Swarthmore is fiercely noncompetitive. Learning occurs not for ranking or status, but rather for the fun of it; students enthusiastically grapple with their academic work individually and communally, both inside and, importantly, outside the classroom. There is a genuine desire on the part of the student body to help each other learn, the collective exploration and understanding being greater than the sum of its parts.
Swarthmore is a unique place in the fullest sense of the word. Certainly there are other small, rigorous, liberal arts colleges with beautiful campuses and high-quality academic programming. But to conclude, I’ll end where I began: there is a feeling and a sense about the school that is unlike other colleges in its genre. Quaker meetings meditate on what is known as a “sense of the meeting” in which receptivity to both silence and dialogue leads to communally acceptable consensus. In many ways, although certainly not explicitly, Swarthmore embodies this quiet yet powerful dicta. The sense of Swarthmore is one of purposeful enjoyment of academics and of the pleasures, for four brief years, the thrill and freedom of being young, energetic, and ready to broaden horizons.
Of course, what you get out of the school depends on what you put in. By attending Swarthmore you are not guaranteeing yourself four years of purely positive memories and unhindered intellectual growth. Indeed, you are merely choosing the tool with which to learn; how you use that tool is up to you. There will certainly be times when you are challenged, when you are stretched beyond what you imagine is your breaking point, and when you desire more than anything to leave. Yet almost every student stays because there is something in them that synchs with the sense of Swarthmore. They carry on, knowing that when they graduate they won’t have a degree that carries such immediate clout as one from a big Ivy League school. They know that people will often say “where is that again?” or “you’ll never find a job if you major in Religion.”
Swarthmore students know all this yet they carry on because ultimately it is not about how the rest of the world sees us; it is about personal and communal growth, about embarking on a remarkable, if not widely known or recognized, odyssey. And when, in later years, Swarthmore students find each other at reunions or on random street corners, there is an immediate camaraderie and a sense that here stands a kindred spirit.