Defining a “Swattie”

Something I always preach to prospective students at the end of my tours is to pick the college that gives you an intangible, visceral feeling of belonging and home. It’s a feeling that is hard to place and isn’t necessarily encompassed in any statistic, campus building, or tour guide catch-phrase. It also likely feels different for everyone, but, I think in most cases, students pick a college because they can envision themselves as fitting into that community.

Whether that means as an athlete, scholar, activist, artist, or otherwise certainly changes from person to person. However, with regard to Swarthmore students, I think that most of us pick this school because, while we value our own development, we also value embodying what it truly means to be part of the Swarthmore community, or in other words, a Swattie. 

A Swattie cannot be described as simply an athlete, scholar, activist, artist, or otherwise because not every student at Swarthmore is each of those things. Yes, Swatties are intelligent beings, but when someone says “You’re a true Swattie”, they are likely not just pointing out your intelligence. Pinpointing what exactly a Swattie is can be challenging, even for a student like myself who has been at Swarthmore for three years. However, it is important for any prospective student who is looking at Swarthmore to be able to see themselves as having potential for becoming a Swattie. Despite our vast and diverse student body’s differences, we are all “Swatties” at the end of the day. 

Someone reading this might simply say, “Aren’t Swatties just students of Swarthmore?” and they’d be completely correct. In fact, the sole Urban Dictionary definition of a “Swattie” is a “student of Swarthmore”. However, while being a student of Swarthmore is a necessary and sufficient criteria in being a Swattie, it unfortunately doesn’t say much about who Swatties actually are. Using Professor Andrew Ward’s words when talking about the field of evolutionary psychology, this description “explains everything but predicts nothing”, meaning that while being a Swarthmore student explains whether or not someone is a Swattie, it predicts nothing about what a “Swattie” is actually like. So, ruling out the term Swattie simply meaning “intelligent” or “a student of Swarthmore”, it is time for us to embark on the quest of finding the common denominators of all Swarthmore students. 

A quick google search of “Swattie” will bring up the following image of a poster Swarthmore used in recruiting prospective students during my college search days back in 2016. 

This flow chart does a nice job of highlighting the amount of routes a person could take to becoming a Swattie, but has an ultimate flaw. No matter what you answer to the previous questions, the determining factor in whether or not you are a Swattie is “Have you enjoyed reading this?”. If yes, you might be a Swattie. If no, you are likely not. While this method may perform at an above-chance level at predicting future Swatties, it is by no means a comprehensive definition of a Swattie.

There are certainly Swarthmore students who have not particularly enjoyed reading that poster (Exhibit A: me) but still consider themselves a Swattie. On the other hand, there are probably students who have pored over that poster over and over again, but have not ended up at Swarthmore, thus not fulfilling the necessary requirement of “being a Swarthmore student” in order to be labelled a Swattie. 

Perhaps a more useful resource would be the people who actually determine who becomes a Swattie. The Swarthmore Admissions Office cites the following characteristics as those they look for in Swarthmore students:

  • Intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm for learning 
  • Creative and proactive problem solving 
  • Generosity towards others 
  • Civic engagement 
  • Willingness to work hard and seek help
  • Able to make potential contributions to campus life 
  • Sustained commitment 
  • Open-mindedness in general and to the liberal arts

However, the same Admissions Office also admits that it is impossible for one Swarthmore student to embody all of these characteristics, so if you are only finding yourself checking off a few of these qualities, don’t fret. While there are students who might come close to fulfilling all eight traits, there are certainly students here who only identify with two or three. So, while this was useful in discovering some contributing factors in being a Swattie, it is by no means definitive. 

While the administration and admissions office of Swarthmore certainly have a good handle on what qualities a Swattie has, I think that the best people to ask for a complete definition of a Swattie are Swatties themselves.

“Swatties are dedicated and inquisitive — they are invested in growing to be better students and better community members”

Li Dong ’22

“A Swattie is inquisitive, open minded, and in perpetual pursuit of free food.”

Atinuke Lardner ’22

“A Swattie is definitely not a monolith, but I think what ties us together is our dual commitment to education and social change.”

Anna Suh ’22

“Swatties give shape to the diverse ways in which we invest ourselves in the things we care about; encourage, support and celebrate each others’ and our shared efforts, challenges and successes; and do not limit ourselves nor others to learning about, pursuing, or embodying any one thing.”

Janet Barkdoll ’22

What this little exercise makes clear is that even Swatties themselves cannot agree on their own defining traits. Additionally, it appears that in the past, Swarthmore students could not even agree on what to call themselves. Phrases such as “Swarthmoreans”, “Swatters”, and even “Swarthmorons” have circulated the archives of the Phoenix until “Swattie” was first mentioned in 1988.

Further utilizing the Phoenix (Swarthmore’s independent on-campus newspaper), I stumbled upon an article written in 2014 that reported that 90% of Swarthmore students used the words intellectual (or nerdy), passionate, or quirky when describing a Swattie. Of those three, responses regarding “intellect” were the most popular, with 75% of Swarthmore students using that description. Oddly enough, and in true Swattie fashion, about half the responses mentioned “homework” as a component of being a Swattie. 

Another Phoenix article might yield some insight into being a “Swattie”. Written in 2017, a graduating senior talks about whether or not they would choose Swarthmore again (spoiler: they would). I really liked this piece because they talk about a feel for “Swattie-ness”, or something that was unique about Swarthmore that they identified with and valued. It was this feeling that set Swarthmore apart from other schools and is what ultimately tipped the scales in favor of them choosing to go to Swarthmore.

The article goes on to talk about what actually makes a Swattie. Similar to me, the author talks about how he constantly heard the words “intellectually passionate” and “quirky” to describe Swarthmore students, but felt that these did not necessarily suffice in describing what all Swarthmore students are like. Through a poignant anecdote about his late grandfather, who was a person that inspired him to become a Swattie, the author describes “Swattie-ness” as individuality. A fundamental principle of “doing you”, as well as an inherent respect for people “doing them”.  And I think that this is the most beautiful definition of Swattie there is. 

At the end of the day, Swatties are displaying their intellect, quirks, social consciousness, and all of their other descriptions because they are simply “doing them”. Going to a school like Swarthmore does not just allow this individual expression to happen, it amplifies it. Swatties will vigorously defend the small school, liberal arts education they received here.

There is an inherent pride in going to a school with a small student body that is filled with brilliant people who are going to (literally) change the world someday. Even amongst the talented student body, each Swattie stands out in their own unique way, something that might not be possible at large schools. Of course, the individuality of Swarthmore students, their desire to be unapologetically them, to express their opinions and defend them, to speak out, to work hard, etc. does not take away from the collaboration and sense of community among Swatties. We help each other become the best version of ourselves. In other words, our individuality doesn’t separate us, it unites us. 

Looking back at my own college decision and my own experience of the intangible, magical pull of Swarthmore, I used to only be able to say that it was a feeling of home and belonging. Now I think I know what I felt I could belong to: A community of people constantly expressing themselves. As I walked through the campus and listened to what my tour guide had to say, I think there was some subconscious thought inside of me like, “Joe, this is the place where you can accomplish whatever you want.” As cliche as that sounds, the opportunities that Swarthmore offers in all aspects of the college experience really make that statement true.

 So, as a proud Swattie, I would say that if you are someone who wants to “do you” in college, whatever that may be, I encourage you to look and see if you feel that same pull towards Swarthmore that I did.

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