When I embarked on my college tour, my mother set down only one rule: I had to approach and talk to at least two students on each campus we visited about their real feelings about the school, and the tour guide didn’t count. This seemed to me a cruel and unusual punishment, or so I told her several times on the plane out (my wording owed a certain debt to the U.S. Constitution, not due to any real legal inclinations, but probably because I was in AP U.S. History at the time and therefore EVERYTHING I disliked suddenly was cruel and unusual). The truth was, I was afraid to do it. I spent a lot of time in high school daydreaming about when I would arrive at college and find myself embraced by a bunch of like-minded, cool, intelligent people. And when I did start touring, everyone did seem really cool! The only problem was, I just felt like a huge dork.
My mom, however, didn’t care about how uncool I felt in comparison to the masses of real live college students walking around campus discussing Joyce or Derrida. She understood something that I, at the time, hadn’t quite caught on to: it was completely worth feeling embarrassed or nervous for a few minutes if it meant I’d get a better idea of what the college where I might spend the next four year of my life at was like. At the first few schools, I was too scared once I started a conversation to ask much. But once I got the hang of it, every visit became an adventure. I learned to ask questions that weren’t just about the curriculum, study culture, or anything you might be able to get from a guidebook. Instead, I wanted to hear the secrets.
“What’s your favorite thing about this school that you feel like not everybody knows about?” I’d ask, and the adventure would begin. At a large midwestern university, two girls in bright silk skirts who I’d almost been too afraid to approach snuck me into the chapel where a lot of alums get married, took me off-campus and bought me a Mexican hot chocolate milkshake, and then brought me along to a seminar on Lolita. Suddenly, I had access to a world that felt hidden, something that couldn’t have been found in any guidebook, something that perhaps I could have missed even if I’d graduated from the school myself! But when I came to Swarthmore, first on my college tour, I had only talked to people as I left the class I had visited. Swat’s secrets were unknown to me until I got here. So I thought I’d tell you about a few of them that I’ve found in my time here, and we can go on an adventure together.
Swarthmore Secret #1: You can study in the Underhill Music Library and gaze right into the Crum Woods. When I was a freshman, it took me months to begin studying in Underhill, as I was under the grave misapprehension it was only for Music and Dance majors. I walked in, and right away realized what I had been missing: the view was amazing!
There’s something very calming about being able to look up from your reading and see the woods stretch out in front of you. On snowy days in the winter, you can see the flakes flutter down in great gusts, and watch the trees slowly become coated in white. Come spring, it’s once more a dense mass of greenery, bobbing and swaying in the wind. It’s easy to get lost in papers, readings, and problem sets, but it’s impossible to feel unhappy in Underhill. The trees stare back at you, and as their leaves flutter with the breeze it gives you a certain perspective, makes you breathe a certain grace, and for a moment you feel like someone who makes the time to mediate regularly. Swat challenges us, but it also makes sure there are places and events on campus that let us clear our heads and just be present in the beauty of the moment (we also do really love our trees because it’s an arboretum; when I got here all the trees were labeled even though they hadn’t yet put the labels on the buildings).
Swarthmore Secret #2: The Classics Department has a Happy Hour at least one Friday a month, at which you can find an actual, amazing cheese plate and a variety of gourmet delights that range from miniature pulled-pork sandwiches to smoked salmon spread with those fancy little toasts.
But even though I rank brie and crackers pretty darn high in terms of life priorities, they’re not even the best thing about Happy Hour: at Happy Hour, all the Classics professors come hang out with you and you can talk with them about anything from what went down in seminar on Tuesday to summer funding opportunities to Monty Python. Last week, Professor William Turpin even brought in his gorgeous dog Sister to visit, which caused a minor riot as we all deserted the food to descend upon her and begin petting (when you’re away from home long enough, a dog will begin to trump food). Anyone who’s enrolled in a class within the department is invited to attend, though really any student is welcome. The real reason I ended up with a Classical Studies Minor beyond my interest in the subject was that from the first Happy Hour I went to, I felt totally and completely at home. No matter if you’re interested in Roman architecture, Greek poetry, or the evolution of myth: the professors are eager to talk to you, catch up, and encourage you to both try the mini-sandwiches and take their upcoming classes in the next semester.
Swarthmore Secret #3: When you get arrive on campus as a freshman, the college gives you a plant to keep you company and brighten up your new room. You get to go to the arboretum, pick from a variety of different flowers and ivies (those of you who are diligent green thumbs should pick the peace lilies; if you’re lazy like me, pick the devil’s ivy), and then pot it. You can also return as a sophomore and upperclassman on the day they hand out plants and they will still give you more plants!
When I got my first plant (the looker on the far right in the above picture, light of my life), I was pretty disoriented. I didn’t know a single person at the college, and didn’t know that very soon I was going to meet some of the best friends I’ve ever had. All I knew was that I was in a strange place and needed somebody to talk to, so even though it felt crazy and I definitely waited until my roommate had left for dinner, I started talking at my new plant. I told it all about how excited I was to be here, how worried I was about not being able to keep up with classes once orientation ended, and how different the muggy August weather was from where I’d grown up in California. By the end, I felt ready for whatever Swarthmore held. So I named him Horatio, because in that moment I was rash and tormented like Hamlet, and he was my friend. You can see in the picture that he has a little name-tag on him, because during breaks, my friend Mira takes him home with her to New York and waters him while I’m on the west coast. The plant in the picture that sits back left is Ophelia, who I got the next year. She’s a peace lily, which are supposed to have flowers, but hers never grew back after she became extremely parched during the period I forgot to water her and then decided it would be the height of dramatic irony if my plant named Ophelia died of drought…luckily for Ophelia, my roommate intervened.
If the story of my Shakespearean plants has taught you anything, it should be this: first, I have a strange and perverse sense of humor. Second, there are points in this whole college search and journey where human beings seem completely overwhelming and you end up confessing you problems to a plant in total earnest. And that’s okay, you can indeed talk to your plant or other inanimate objects so long as you make sure nobody is there…but talk to people, too! When you’re touring, just try to find the courage to go up to a few people and ask a few questions. It may seem scary, but you’re stepping into a different world and trying on a new adventure. So if you can make it out to see campus, please do shake down somebody else for their Swat Secrets, since they’re bound to be different than mine. Swarthmore may be small, but to be very Walt Whitman about it: we contain multitudes. I still make new discoveries every week or so even though I’m going to graduate next year! So, report back to me if you find out something particularly juicy, and we can continue to adventure together.