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College tour impressions: Swarthmore

The second liberal arts college on our itinerary is the one that offers an engineering degree among its majors. Doesn’t that make their “liberal arts” designation invalid? Not that it matters to us, as already mentioned in the past.

The college grounds are simply gorgeous, worthy of a royal residence, with a long tree-lined alley running across the green meadow up to the main hall. That main building, in its colonial palatial splendor, stands out from all other structures on campus. The rest of the buildings, both academic and residential, are almost understated in appearance, predominantly contemporary in design, and most importantly harmonious in presenting a well-thought-out and agreeable pattern. Leafy pathways, green lawns and common spaces, lots of natural light inside – beyond attractive.

It should be noted that we happened to visit during the short fall break, with majority of students leaving campus for trips home. The serenity of the place surely must decrease on a normal school day.

The school is small. The smallest of all we are visiting, in fact, with only 1,500 undergraduates in total. I admit that my perspective is skewed, since I have never lived on campus in my life and cannot really imagine what it is like to spend nine months of the year living in a fairly closed community. Is two thousand people, faculty and staff included, enough a population size for a person not to feel constricted in their choice of close acquaintances? Or do you need at least five thousand to be able to make your picks? Ten? Me, I am not overly fond of crowds and strangers; a small community where everybody knows your name and you know everybody not just by sight would be perfect for me. Becky is not that different from me in that aspect, even though she goes to a huge public school nowadays. Part of what she liked the most about her comparatively small private school in London was that she got to know everybody there.

Location is a consideration, though. The campus setting is rural and, while it is not exactly in the middle of nowhere, going someplace outside campus requires a fair amount of walking along not exactly pedestrian-friendly streets. Or you can take a train into Philadelphia – the station is right at the edge of campus, the ride is 25 minutes long, the trains run about as frequently as you would expect a commuter train to run. In all probability, once the novelty of hopping on a train to Philly or taking a walk to the nearby mall wears off, Becky would spend most of her time on campus. The question of a small population morphs into “not only it is small, but you cannot readily take a break from it either”. She assured me that it would not be a problem for her. I have my reservations, but I am possibly over-analyzing it.

The guy leading the info session was a comparatively recent graduate of Swarthmore. He talked seemingly without much of a structure on a range of topics, providing us with snippets about campus life and his insights of what made the college different from others. At first, I did not think the session was very useful, not the speaker was any inspiring, but upon reflection, I realize that we did hear a number of things that allowed us to compose a rather unique opinion about the institution.

Among the ideas that I heard that stuck with me were the emphasis on collaboration between students (to the point – which I hopefully misunderstood – that individual brilliance was not worth as much praise as a collaborative effort that generated only an average outcome); a policy of not calculating any GPA or rankings across the student body (which, to me, reduces the long-view incentives for the best students to remain on top, even as it may be masking the realization for lower-rung students that they are not doing well overall); and even an absence of any grades in the first semester of the freshman year where all classes are graded Pass/Fail (which totally removes incentives for the brightest and makes the mediocre appear just as good in comparison). Suffice it to say, I am not entirely on-board with those concepts. Maybe, I am missing the fact that every student at Swarthmore is so brilliant that any attempts to incentivize their academic performance are inherently futile.

Becky, on the other hand, had not much of a problem with those. She’s just not much into competing anyway.

The campus tour was lovely. We were given a choice of a tour guide, and the girl we randomly picked was very natural and charming, who quickly won us over by talking to us, interacting rather than presenting. She took us into a student center, a library, an academic building, and then used her own dorm room to illustrate residential accommodations. Sounds a bit silly, but seeing a messy room that someone clearly lives in gave us a better impression of the living arrangements than pristinely made up “show” rooms elsewhere. Coupled with all the other tour highlights, we came away feeling that we learned quite a lot about Swarthmore.

A different college from all of the other places we’ve seen. A definite “yes” to apply, in Becky’s book.


  1. John

    I went to a small school in a crappy town in a crappy state, and it worked fine for me. Rose-Hulman is about the size of Swarthmore, there is no train staiton anywhere, and the nearest city was Indianapolis, about 90 minutes away. We called Terre Haute “Terrible Hole”, and my fraternity was the only one in the hkistory of the school to call the cops on its own party due to a Hautian gate crasher.

    That said, my friendships were strong because I saw the many of the same people in the same classes. Classes were taught by professors, not TA (and I was a TA, and a good one, but I know first hand how spotty TAs can be).

    There were only 10 people in my major (it’s an Engineering School, I was pure science). I highly, highly recommend small schools simply because of the TA issue. I changed majors once (actully I dropped one of a double major), but I had lots of friends in unrelated majors who took the same elective classes becuase of the small size of the school. If Beck’s going to bonuce between majors a lot, a small school might be better in that regard.

  2. Dr. Phil

    The year I taught at Hope College in Holland MI was one of the great professional and teaching and campus experiences of my life. My own program at Northwestern started with 30 and dwindled to 6 over three years — it was great to work with the same people class after class. Mrs. Dr. Phil is an Earlham College grad — combine liberal arts & sciences college with a Quaker background and you have a marvelous community.

    Swarthmore is a great school. Love your series of reports.

    Dr. Phil

  3. Ilya

    Thanks for the advice, gentlemen. It seems counter-intuitive to me that smaller school provides more opportunities to switch around majors in comparison to larger institutions, but since my own experience is very minimal, it is invaluable to get a point of view of someone with such experience. Thanks again!

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