As a first generation college student, I didn’t know what college would be like. All I really had to go on were disjointed stories my friends told me, most of whom attended large state institutions, and the blockbuster movies that showed crazy parties and very little schoolwork. As the Swarthmore move-in date inched closer, I was getting increasingly nervous about making friends, finding classes I liked, and finding a rhythm that would allow me to enjoy college as much as possible.
Freshman orientation lasted about five days, and they were a hectic five days. It’s been almost four years since, and I remember that week as a blur, during which I met most of my class, made some friends, and managed to sign up to classes. Orientation was when I started to learn how to live with three roommates, and when we began to figure out each other’s schedules so we could live comfortably with each other. My parents and I found a good schedule for calls, so that we wouldn’t lose touch but we also wouldn’t overwhelm each other. Those five days were five days of learning and growth, and though they don’t really distinguish themselves in my mind, First Collection stands out as the best, clearest memory of orientation.
From the moment I arrived at Swarthmore, I felt welcomed. My parents pulled our car up to the back of Wharton Hall, and orientation leaders immediately started cheering and welcoming me with bright smiles and helping hands. Although I have to admit I was embarrassed by this very loud display of excitement, it also remains cemented in my mind as the moment the Swarthmore student body welcomed me as one of their own. A few days later, when First Collection occurred, I finally had the feeling that the entire Swarthmore community had welcomed me in officially, and that I was able to fully welcome them into my life as well.
My class was told to file into the amphitheater, which I guided my friends to, as we were still having some trouble figuring out our way around campus. We sat down with our respective halls and RAs (Resident Assistants), and waited for our class dean to begin the collection. As the dean started talking, she welcomed us to campus once again, and then began to talk about the core values of Swarthmore. As she spoke, candles and small slips of papers were passed out, on which was written Swarthmore’s alma mater. She ended her speech, and then explained what our first collection asked of us – true to our Quaker roots, we were asked to sit, quietly, and speak if we were moved to do so. A wave of whispers hit the student body, but she quickly quieted us down, and began collection.
No one really spoke at first, and even though the silence had descended so suddenly on us, it felt comfortable. Slowly, some students started volunteering to share their thoughts, and the rest of us listened with rapt attention. While some shared quick remarks about their Swarthmore experience so far, others shared deeply personal stories. As the sun started setting and night began to fall on our gathering, I shared my thoughts with the class, and felt deeply grateful for the opportunity to push my comfort zone, as big crowds are not my favorite places. But more importantly, I felt deeply grateful for the fact I was able to share my thoughts with my class and be listened to, without judgement. It was a foreign experience for me, but one I hold very near and dear to my heart.
Once night had fully set in, President Val Smith called our meeting to an end, but reminded us we were still holding candles. Our dean lit her candle as Val told us we would all be lighting our candles with the light of the person next to us, and lit her own candle with that of the dean. She then shared her flame with the person next to her, and this kept happening until the entire amphitheater was lit up.
As the years have worn on, I have heard many interpretations of the candle. One is that we must all work together for a common good, which in that situation was creating a glowing atmosphere in the amphitheater. I’ve heard it’s just for aesthetics, although that doesn’t seem true. But my favorite interpretation is that by lightning each candle, we visualize the Quaker idea that each human has a light inside of them, and no light shines brighter or dimmer than the rest. This is an idea that has carried me through much of my time at Swarthmore, and I hope to carry close for the rest of my life. I cannot imagine a better welcome to the community.
About the Author:
Hi, I’m Giorgia! I’m a senior in the class of 2020, born in Italy and currently living on Long Island, NY. I am a double major in Peace and Conflict Studies and Environmental Studies here at Swat. I spent three years working with the Phoenix, our student run newspaper, in different capacities, am a Residential Assistant (RA), and work in various on-campus offices. In my free time, I love training for long distance events, and just finished my first marathon in Philly in November! I also love a good book when it rains and podcasts when walking around campus.