A New Sense of Belonging and Fulfillment within the Swarthmore Chemistry Department

Coming to Swarthmore, I knew that I had completely and fully intended on pursuing a degree in English Literature. I had always known that writing and reading complex literature was one of my passions–and quite frankly it was something that I had been consistently praised for in high school. Thinking forward with my advisor during my Freshman fall semester on what NSEP classes I would take to fulfill that graduation requirement, we decided that taking an introductory Chemistry class, CHEM 010, would be a good idea. I had taken some Chemistry in high school, but I was never really that great at it, nor was it ever something that I had considered fun. Therefore, I was nervous and scared, but there was something inside of me that told me it would be a good experience regardless of (and even possibly due to) the challenges that I would face, and so I was also slightly excited.

Showing up to the first day of lecture, I was presented with an energetic and extremely comforting individual: Professor Riley. Needless to say for most Swarthmore students, Professor Riley is one of the most beloved and genuinely understanding professors at Swarthmore (however most, if not all of the professors at Swarthmore are). She made it abundantly clear on that first day that she was there as a resource for us throughout the journey of learning Chemistry, however she also made it extremely clear that she would also be challenging us throughout the semester to grow into the best students that we could be. As a Swarthmore alumni, she understood a lot of what we needed and what would be required of us in the present and in the future. 

I know that everyone that I had the pleasure of getting to know in that class felt (and still feels) that Professor Riley was one of the best resources as a new Swarthmore student. Some of the many resources that she provided us with include: recorded videos explaining tricky topics, many office hours which were extremely flexible, deeply detailed and clear notes, and much more. All of these resources, combined with the fact that she really does try and connect with her students, made Chemistry quite fun and fulfilling. Although it was very difficult and I did not always excel at everything, I think that this challenge really helped me develop as a student and a person. Even further, I think that Professor Riley and my classmates distinctly pushed me and allowed me to find a community that I felt included and seen in. For these reasons, and for the fact that I genuinely found Chemistry enjoyable, I chose to switch my major to Chemistry.

Following this course and the consecutive courses in the major sequence, I would meet some of my best friends in Chemistry courses such as Organic Chemistry. Since you do end up spending so much time in laboratory settings and out of the classroom studying with these peers, you become extremely close and knowledgeable of their personalities and individualities.

For instance, I have become really close with another Class of ‘23 student, Carlee. Carlee and I have been lab partners for two semesters in a row and often find ourselves studying together without even planning to do so; our love for Chemistry and for one another always implicitly influences us to work together. Carlee is not nearly the only person in the department who I have become close with and who I genuinely feel like are part of my Swarthmore family.

Instead, I could name many Chemistry students who I consider to be a close friend–someone who intimately understands me and believes in the person that I am working to become. It is this intimate level of connection that I think separates a discipline like Chemistry from other disciplines, even other natural and physical science disciplines. Embedded into the fabric of the department itself (which is relatively small) is the ideal that there will be a nice web of students who can all rely on each other.

Even further from the friends that I have made and the amazing professors that I have had, many of the individuals who I have had the pleasure of working with inside of the laboratories (lecturers, assistants, etc) have all demonstrated a distinct desire to connect with me. One really succinct example of this is this past Fall semester when I was unable to return home for Thanksgiving due to the pandemic complicating my plans. Luckily enough, my lab lecturer at the time, Dr. Gallagher, sent out an email inviting all of our lab to a Thanksgiving dinner at her house with her family! It is precisely these experiences which seem so little to those who plan them that really make Swarthmore College such a bright and inviting place to study and live.

I would like to even extend the ideas within this post to other disciplines and communities at Swarthmore as well–although I have only written about the Chemistry department, I have heard many lovely stories about the way in which different departments also have these experiences! Like when my friend, Kestrel, was asked to house-sit for her Educational Studies professor, or when I saw my friend, José, light up when talking about their office hours appointment with their Religion professor. By no means are these experiences distinct to one single department, but rather they are distinct to the overall scholastic culture here at Swarthmore where connection with one another is a key facet to our degree of learning.

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