Time away from Swarthmore is an inevitable part of the college experience. Whether it’s during breaks, the summer, taking a semester off, or going abroad, most students at some point experiencing coming back to Swarthmore. The transition to and from Swarthmore always teaches me something. Each time, I get a better sense for what I appreciate about Swarthmore or what shortcomings exist. For some, there is tension between who they are on campus and the person they are becoming in their home world.
This January, I returned to Swarthmore for the spring semester after four months away from campus. I studied abroad in Vietnam, South Africa, and Argentina with a program that taught in an entirely different way from how I’ve learned at Swarthmore. Upon returning people keep asking, “how does it feel to be back?” My arsenal of answers ranges from jovial to more serious. Let me try and provide some insight.
Swarthmore is cold! I spent a semester below the equator, essentially chasing spring as I traveled east to west. The cold is easier to adjust to than the short winter days. At one point in Chile the sun rose around 4:30 a.m. and set at approximately at 10 p.m. The darkness and cold exacerbate the feeling of being cooped-up.
Swarthmore is stressful. The stress is not necessarily all bad. Certainly there is nowhere else that I’m as productive and learn as much in such a short span of time. The information at Swarthmore is incredible. Yet, the classes, readings, attempts at maintaining a social life, getting sleep, exercising, and extracurriculars add up so fast. While I was abroad, I prioritized exploring the places I was in. Being back, I would love to explore Philly more, but somehow the cost-benefit equation always leaves me feeling like I’m better off taking advantage of the opportunities on campus and staying on top of my work.
Swarthmore constantly changes and is always the same. There is familiarity in returning. I know how my life functions here. Class, clubs, friends, repeat. The details that make Swarthmore home to me change constantly. I was away during an especially large period of change it seems. Beyond the typical change of people (new professors, mentors on sabbatical, new class) we now have the OneCard system with entirely new meal plans, we have a renovated library, and Essie’s was updated. A new dorm is under construction. Yet, Swarthmore as an institution that upholds certain values (such as being a sanctuary campus) is a vehicle for change and conversation—that hasn’t changed. It’s true you can take the Swattie out of Swarthmore, but you can’t take the Swarthmore out of a Swattie.
So how is it to be back? It is perhaps the only time in my life I will return to a place and a lifestyle and have to restart. It is familiar to the point of obscuring that I’ve known anything other than life as a student at Swarthmore. It is constant in how much it is always changing. Back from abroad has helped me learn how much more of the world there is beyond Swarthmore, but appreciate the complex world inside the bubble as well.