Swarthmore Expectations vs. Reality

As a prospective college student, I took the college search process pretty seriously. I spent many long hours my junior and senior years of high school researching colleges and building up a list of possible schools. I scoured the internet for any relevant info, combed through colleges’ social media pages, and toured campuses when I could. Throughout this process, Swarthmore shined, and from what I gathered during my ∼research∼ it seemed Swat would be a wonderful fit for me. Obviously though, looking from the outside in only gives a partial view, and while this partial view was more than enough for me to make my decision, many realities of Swarthmore life turned out to be a bit different than I expected. Here is a glimpse into the realities of Swarthmore life I experienced during my first year, presented alongside some of the expectations I had of Swat before I arrived:

EXPECTATION: Swarthmore classes are extremely rigorous and students spend the majority of their time in class and studying. 

REALITY: The classes are as intense as I expected, but there turned out to be a ton of resources available that have made my course load pretty manageable. My first year, I lived right across from my Student Academic Mentor (SAM), who was always more than willing to help me navigate Swat academics. My first semester being Pass/ Fail was also a huge help, because it gave me a chance to orient myself and find a work/life balance that allows me to prioritize self care and my overall well being.  I’ve also found that most of the time, studying ends up being a social activity, with a bunch of my friends/classmates grouped around a table at McCabe laughing and chatting as we work on our assignments, getting looped up in whatever interesting concept one of us is learning about. So yes, Swatties do spend a lot of time doing school work, but a lot of it is stuff we genuinely enjoy exploring and there’s always tons of support available along the way.

EXPECTATION: The food at Swat is mediocre.

REALITY: No one comes to Swarthmore for the food, but at any time, I can always find something to eat that I like. It seems like dining services really makes an effort to accommodate folks with dietary restrictions, which I appreciate greatly.  Sharples has its bad days (like any day they have the “White Beans and Greens” vegan dish), but it also has its good ones (like any day with vegan sesame nuggets and fries)! And although we only have one dining hall, our meal plan gives us the ability to eat at on-campus cafes and even at nearby restaurants in the Swarthmore Ville without spending our own money. Some of my best memories have been made at Bamboo Bistro, my favorite restaurant in the Ville, over comforting hot tea and delicious sweet potato tempura rolls. 

Sharples’ iconic vegan sesame nuggets, french fries, and mei fun noodles.

EXPECTATION: There isn’t a very big social scene on campus.

REALITY: The campus definitely does feel quiet a lot of the time, given our small size, and there isn’t a big “party culture” but I’ve found that there’s always an abundance of activities to do and events to attend. I actually end up having the problem of there being too many things I want to do but not enough time to fit everything into my schedule! I want to go explore Philly but I also want to take the shuttle into Media and hike through the Crum Woods and go to a Paces party or a Parrish Parlor party or an OSE movie night or an MMK with my RA or my friend’s basketball game or a drama department performance…you get the point. 

EXPECTATION: Swatties are “swawkward”.

REALITY: Yep, we’re weirdos, and I love it. On any given day, I’m bound to have some kind of funky interaction or witness a cringe-worthy pun being used. For example, I was surprised to find that the entire campus is obsessed with our Dean of Admissions, Jim Bock, to the point where Swatties regard October as “Bocktober”.

 EXPECTATION: The campus is GORGEOUS and being surrounded by so much natural beauty will be invigorating. 

REALITY: I feel like a forest nymph flying through mystical woodlands when I walk around campus. To put it simply, our campus is breathtaking and serene. I never experienced true seasons before arriving at Swat, so the autumn leaves, flurries of snow, and spring blooms are all the more special to me. Between the stone architecture, the trees (so many trees!!!), the critters, the gardens, the Crum woods, so many hidden nooks… the campus feels magical to say the least.  

A photo I took in the Crum Woods. Light is reflecting off the creek, which is surrounded by lush green trees and vines.

EXPECTATION: The PE and swim requirement will be annoying but a good way to make sure I take care of my body. 

REALITY: Agh, the dreaded PE requirement and swim test. Being from Florida, I guess I had an advantage for the swim test because I’ve grown up surrounded by water, but even still, I don’t consider myself to be a strong swimmer, so I was nervous about taking the test. During first year orientation, I doggy paddled my way down the lane of the giant pool and ended up passing. The whole affair wasn’t anywhere near as terrible as I thought it would be. As for the PE requirement, for me it’s actually been a good way to make sure I keep up with taking care of myself. I know that I feel better when I make time to move my body in some way, but movement is usually what ends up on the backburner when I start to get busy. So, as I expected, having a class that mandates movement has been a good way to ensure I dedicate some time to caring for my body. Plus, there are super cool classes that count towards PE—dance, sports, yoga, strength training, and more. 

The lower level of the Matchbox gym, featuring squat racks and free weight equipment.

EXPECTATION: Liberal arts mean less of a “STEM” focus, so I can just indulge in all my Social Science and Humanities interests. 

REALITY: As much as I would love to just take humanities and social science classes, attending a liberal arts college means exploring a breadth of subjects, and the natural sciences aren’t excluded. So, I did have to take a course in statistics and I’ll have to take a couple more math and science courses too, but fortunately there are teaching assistants for almost all of the stem courses. (They have cool names too–the computer science TAs are known as ninjas!) Plus, statistics actually ended up being sort of fun because it intersected a lot with so many of my other classes.

Students doing math on the outdoor chalkboard outside of the Science Center.

EXPECTATION: Small class sizes mean I’ll be able to get close with professors.

REALITY: The ratio of students to faculty definitely makes it easy to get close with professors. The professors are incredible, and very easy to connect with, but at first I did feel pretty nervous about getting to know them. With reassurance from some of my older friends though, I worked up the courage to go into office hours to ask my profs questions and chat. They were incredibly welcoming, and connecting to them on a deeper level got me even more excited to engage with them in class. Attending office hours even led to an opportunity to work on research with my Social Psychology professor during my freshman summer, which was an incredible experience. Some of my friends have even been over to their professors’ homes!

So, despite there being some subtle differences, so far, the realities of Swat life have mostly aligned with my expectations. Swarthmore really did end up being a wonderful fit for me!

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