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A Balancing Act

­How do students achieve and maintain balance while developing their intellectual and personal potential? For many, it involves active and intentional membership in community—both on and off campus.

By Alisa Giardinelli

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"I feel like I’m getting a better sense of where the line between happily busy and overwhelmed busy is, for me," says Alex Cannon. "Each week seems to drag, but looking back—whoa, my freshman year is almost over. It’s freaky. And it makes me want to make the most of my time.”

David Opoku ’12 credits the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility with helping bring his dream of starting a library in Ghana to fruition.

Sable Mensah ’11 is proudest of the literary magazine she produced with students she tutored in Chester, Pa.

Charles Tse ’13 says the opportunities he’s had to meet with alumni in the finance industry will help him prepare for his future career.

And highlights of Shelly Wen and Morgan Bartz’s first year on campus include putting together ambitious events that wouldn’t have taken place had it not been for their decision to make them happen.

No matter their class year, major, or background, Swarthmore students are driven by their shared passion for fully developing and exploring their academic interests. They are also equally motivated to fitting—make that cramming—as many opportunities and extracurricular activities into their lives at Swarthmore as they possibly can. While some pursuits are purely for fun, others are, perhaps not surprisingly, intimately tied to their intellectual pursuits and achieving their future goals.
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How do they do it? How do they keep their energy up in the face of Swarthmore’s daunting workload? How do they achieve—and maintain—balance while developing their intellectual and personal potential? How do they establish and build on their shared experiences in a community that is diverse in so many ways? And, in an environment that so highly prizes intellectual rigor, how are they getting the skills they need to prepare them for fulfilling lives and to take leadership roles in the world?

These are among the questions being asked at Swarthmore this year as the College continues its year-long strategic planning process and engages alumni, faculty, students, and staff in conversation about its mission, traditions, present strengths, and future challenges.

Within that context, members of the working group on the Evolving Mission, Values, and Goals of the College have been delving deeply into the quality and characteristics of students’ lives, both in and out of the classroom.

“It’s very clear to us that the power of a liberal arts education lies in students being fully immersed in an incredible learning laboratory,” says Dean of Students Elizabeth Braun, the group’s co-convenor. “At Swarthmore, students learn a style of leadership that is grounded in community, Quaker values, and civic engagement. It’s a core part of our identity and, in many ways, our work is to lift up those positive aspects of life here and build on them.”

Three common themes have emerged from the group’s in-depth conversations and those of others across campus, and beyond: the need to provide outlets for achieving greater balance and resilience; opportunities to develop leadership and life skills, and the means to affirm and enhance a sense of
community.

“The aspects of the Swarthmore experience that we want to reinforce,” says working group chair Koof Kalkstein ’78, “will be informed by—and will validate—the core mission of the residential liberal arts college.”

Achieving Balance
Making the transition to Swarthmore from high school can be intimidating for many students, even though the change is almost always a welcome one. For Haydil Henriquez ’14 from the Bronx, coming to Swarthmore was a relief after being with peers who didn’t take academics seriously. “Half of my senior class didn’t graduate,” she laments. “The change in social atmosphere here was profound. People care about grades. They’re hardworking and super diligent.”

Yet Henriquez struggled. “To be honest, I found myself silencing myself in class,” she says. “I was afraid to sound dumb. But there’s a huge support system.” Establishing a bond with her academic adviser, Assistant Dean Rafael Zapata, she says, has been critical. “I see him weekly, and he’s more like my life adviser,” she admits. “Enlace and SASS [cultural groups for Latino and African American students, respectively] also did a great job of welcoming the entire class, telling us there’s a place for each of us here.”

Another key facet of the academic experience that smoothes the transition to Swarthmore is a first semester in which students need not worry about grades—courses are ungraded and counted as either “credit” or “no credit.”

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Theater major Eva Amessé (right, with Nell Bang-Jensen ’12) in Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. The acting honors thesis play is just one of Amessé’s many “roles” at Swarthmore. She’s also a writing associate, resident assistant, and senior class vice president.

“I can’t stress enough how important that was for me,” says Alex Cannon ’14 from Essex, Conn., who found himself last fall in two plays that were performed on back-to-back weekends. “Given the rehearsal hours needed for each one, my schoolwork suffered.”

The takeaway? “Doing two plays at once is probably not the best idea in the future,” he says, smiling. “Without pass/fail, I would have learned the same lesson, but at a much higher cost.”

Despite an increased focus this semester on his studies and a conscious decision to cut back on his extracurricular activities, Charles Tse still made time to attend a campus business mixer hosted by Alumni Council member Rob Steelman ’92, senior credit analyst at Commercial Industrial Finance Corporation. Tse, an honors economics major and math minor from Hong Kong, regularly seeks opportunities to meet with alumni, especially those in the financial industry. This year, he spent time with research analyst Julian Harper ’08 at the campus Lax Conference on Entrepreneurship as well as with Deutsche Bank’s Karan Madan ’91 during an externship in New York City during winter break.

“My time at Deutsche Bank was fabulous and definitely got me more exposure to the industry,” says Tse, who also interned at the Hong Kong Monetary Authority last summer. “I mainly shadowed his analysts in sales, trading, and structuring, but just being in the environment benefited me. And I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I’m on Wall Street. It’s the American dream.’”

In response to student interest, campus efforts are underway to provide additional opportunities to promote greater balance in their lives, including Pilates classes, nutrition workshops, and yoga, qui gong, and aerobics sessions. These and other programs are planned by Worth Health Center nurse practitioner Suzie Long and students on the Swat Wellness Awareness Team (SWAT).

“The energy and effort that I have invested in promoting health and wellness among my fellow students ultimately stems from my interest in medicine and my sincere desire to help improve people's quality of life,” says Zheng Zheng ’11, an honors biology major and English literature minor from Wynnewood, Pa., who has been involved with SWAT since its founding in fall 2009.

“I think it’s important for SWAT to provide these healthful opportunities and wellness programs to promote relaxation and stress-reduction among Swatties, and to really give students the opportunity to attend to their overall sense of well-being.”

Learning the value of time management and of balancing commitments is perhaps one of the biggest lessons first-year students are introduced to on campus. Given their propensity to become involved in every group and activity they find interesting, it can be a steep learning curve. Often, hard choices are impossible to escape.

“It was awesome coming here, knowing I wouldn’t have to give up lacrosse,” says Morgan Bartz, a potential cognitive science and film and media studies major from Bethel, Conn. Ultimately, she passed on the team’s training trip to Colorado Springs during spring break in order to accompany her documentary filmmaking practicum to the Dominican Republic.

“Even taking the [film] class, I had to decide to be late for practice once a week,” she admits. “It’s a learning experience to juggle both, and in the future I probably will schedule things differently. For now, the class wins out.”

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“When I applied to Swarthmore, I thought, ‘I’ll focus on my academics, run track, and join SOCA (Students of Caribbean Ancestry)—that was it,” says Kenyetta Givans ’12 (center). “But all these amazing opportunities came up. And I realized that if I used my time well, then I could do it.”

Upperclassmen confirm Bartz’s suspicions that, with better planning, things do improve.

“As a freshman, I did everything—and you learn you can’t do that,” says Eva Amessé ’11, a theater major from Staten Island whose “roles” on campus also include resident assistant, writing associate, and senior class vice president. “I couldn’t continue in the College Chorus or Rhythm n Motion, which I adored. But they just didn’t fit in my schedule. I think the biggest challenge we all face is knowing when we’ve taken on too much.”

“In life, that’s also true,” agrees Camilia Kamoun ’11, an Islamic studies special major and pre-med student from Wynnewood, Pa., who played key roles in establishing the Global Health Forum and the Middle Eastern Cultural Society. “It’s another skill you learn. My choices of where to spend my time are based on my future goals. I hope to engage with these issues throughout my life.”

Establishing those close connections between their academic and extracurricular lives is especially meaningful for students and often helps sustain them. Spring is the favorite time of year for Judy Diep ’13, a chemistry major from Brooklyn, because of all the events planned for Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Month organized by the Swarthmore Asian Organization (SAO).

“SAO is a great resource that provides motivation to work harder in your classes,” says Diep, a co-president of the group. “When you have an organization that excites you, the energy and pride you invest in it starts spreading to everything you do.”

Diep also credits an SAO-sponsored panel of women faculty members last fall with helping her in class. “They talked about speaking in public and how they dealt with self-silencing,” she says. “That helped me reflect more on the ways I can approach speaking up in my classes, as well as when I share my opinions and ideas in my extracurricular activities.”

Of course, not every activity has to, or even should, inform or reflect academic interests. Some are just for fun. Ben DeGolia ’11, an honors philosophy and political science major from Palo Alto, Calif., has played guitar for years, a practice he continues both in the Swarthmore Mariachi Band and informally with hallmates in Wharton. When they can get together in the dorm, the threesome—two guitars and a fiddle—plays mostly folk and a little bluegrass.

“Guitar, exercise, meditation—they are all sources of stress relief,” says DeGolia, who transferred to Swarthmore as a junior. “It’s a paradox: The more stressed you feel, the more inclined you feel you should be in McCabe. But in general, Swarthmore students are better than we tend to think at balancing work with extracurricular activities that help them de-stress.”

Still, the pull to combine the two is strong. Shelly Wen, an SAO member from Mesa, Ariz., played violin in the orchestra last fall, but decided this semester to form a trio with a couple of friends—for credit.

“We really wanted outside criticism from a qualified coach in order to be better,” she says. “So we approached the music department and are now part of the Fetter Chamber Music Program. But I still see it as extracurricular, sort of like how I see my work in SAO as academic. There isn’t a clear one or the other.”

The academic experience of many students—between 40 and 45 percent—includes a semester or more of study abroad, coordinated by the College’s Off-Campus Study Office. On their return, they are often rejuvenated and loaded with fresh perspectives—both on life in general and on how to approach life on campus.

Sable Mensah, a black studies major and history minor from the Bronx who studied in Brazil, acknowledges that she was overextended as a sophomore, most notably for combining her most academically rigorous semester to date with her work in a Swarthmore Foundation–supported literary magazine project pursued through the Dare 2 Soar tutoring program in Chester.

“It was incredibly rewarding but intense, and it consumed a lot of energy and emotion,” she says. “I was at class, then in Chester, then at class. Constantly moving between the wealth and resources of Swarthmore and the lack thereof in Chester had a profound impact on me.”

By the time she returned from Brazil, Mensah had a better understanding of what she wanted from the College. “I’m really interested in building a relationship with the frosh and mentoring them so they can learn what I know now,” she says.

Kenyetta Givans ’12, a biology major from Conshocken, Pa., also returned from her experience abroad—a field study program in a remote section of Australia’s subtropical rainforest—with a renewed outlook.

“This semester is the most relaxed I’ve been,” she says. “I’ve adopted the Queensland lifestyle. I used to stress before every exam, but I realize now that’s counterproductive. Going abroad and coming back helped me reassess how I prepare. I’m doing more than I’ve ever done, but without stressing.”

All of that activity, however, still can leave precious little time to socialize and hang out with friends. So perhaps it is no surprise that, with their highly developed time management skills, students often find themselves planning their “free” time.

“Rhythm n Motion is a really great way for me to forget everything,” says David Opoku, a biology major with a minor in computer science from Ghana who dances with the group every week. “In the studio, I just allow my body to move and relax. It’s my ‘organized’ fun.

“People understand it’s healthy to balance everything,” he adds. “I don’t know how they do it, or how I do it, but somehow we get it done. Academics or having fun—whatever it is, it’s always driven by passion.”

Learning Leadership
For generations, Swarthmore alumni have assumed leadership roles in society, fulfilling a raw potential that likely already existed when they arrived at college. Opportunities to develop those skills exist in numerous venues across campus, sometimes in not such obvious places.

For Opoku, who is close to bringing to fruition his dream of starting a library in Ghana, this is especially true. Opoku credits applying for—and not getting—support from the Lang Center for helping him learn this lesson. “When I didn’t get the Lang Opportunity Scholarship or Davis Project for Peace grant, I felt boxed in and wanted to give up,” he admits. “But it’s not really about me getting a grant. It’s about helping other people. So finding other ways got my hopes up again.”

Instead, Opoku started a group—African Development on Organized Reading Education—that recently received its charter from Student Council, making it eligible for Student Budget Committee (SBC) funding.  “The plan is to hold book drives every year, expand to other colleges, and have a conference for students interested in African development to tackle these issues,” he says eagerly. “It’s slow going, but ideas are becoming more solid, with more potential than I thought of.” After a successful campuswide book drive and raising money for the shipping, Opoku plans to send his 1,000-plus books to a school in Techinan, Ghana, in May.

According to authors Steven Koblick and Stephen Graubard in their book on the subject, the residential liberal arts college is a distinctively American invention. And although fewer than five percent of the baccalaureate degrees granted in the United States each year come from institutions like Swarthmore, a disproportionate number of liberal-arts graduates find their way into the ranks of America’s political, professional, economic, social, artistic, and intellectual leaders.

Is it something in the water? Or do residential liberal arts colleges, by creating full-time communities of learning, educate the whole person in ways that help them grow not just intellectually but as human beings? From its founding, Swarthmore has been a residential college where men and women live and study together—a radical idea in the 1860s, but one that has stood the test of time.

“It just happens to us,” says Chris Geissler ’13, an honors linguistics and religion major from Maple Shade, N.J., who as a member of the fencing team handled logistics for the largest collegiate fencing tournament in the world when Swarthmore hosted the USACFC National Championships his freshman year. “Taking something and running with it seems to be something we’re good at,” he says. “The culture here—so intellectual, while also socially aware—is one in which we see, look for, and find connections with other people. And as we chug along, there’s often some point when we run into a situation where we can choose to take action—and we often do.”

As a member of the environmental group Earthlust, Bartz says she mostly just observed last semester. “But then I saw the documentary Gasland [about hydrofracking gas drilling],” she says. “I was so angered by the blatant disregard for the environment after seeing it, I agreed to plan an event that brought the director to campus.” An attempt had been made the year prior to have director Josh Fox visit, but it never panned out. After two months of planning, Bartz arranged for multiple campus screenings leading up to his March visit this year, during which he discussed his film and met with students.

“I’m definitely not an expert on Marcellus Shale drilling and hydrofracking,” Bartz says. “But I’m passionate about learning as much as I can on the subject, and I want other students to learn about it as well.”

Collaboration and Trust
Leadership takes many forms in a residential college—and many natural leaders gravitate to campus jobs designed to help their fellow students. Three such positions—resident assistants (RAs), student academic mentors (SAMs), and counseling advisers (CAs)—may seem quite different but, during orientation, work together in teams.

“This approach not only benefits the new students, but gives the RA, SAM, and CA a chance to learn from each other and their unique leadership styles,” explains Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head.  “At the same time, we also encourage leaders to become followers, depending on the issues being dealt with.”

Additional positions in which students directly serve each other are found all over campus and are also known by their acronyms. As a science associate (SA), Givans attends every intro Bio 2 lecture and meets regularly with the professor to discuss his goals for the given week. She also meets with fellow SAs to talk about effective ways to teach. “It’s not about ‘telling’ students what to know,” she says, “but working on how they can come up with the answers themselves.”

Eva Amessé does similar work as a writing associate (WA), working with students in one-on-one conferences. “Writing a paper doesn’t have to be something scary you do by yourself in your room,” says Amessé, who has also worked as the program’s outreach coordinator. “It’s okay to ask for help.”

For Amessé, theater provides another opportunity to use her leadership skills, also within a collaborative model. Each fall, senior theater majors must be involved in a production with limited involvement from the faculty. It’s known as Senior Company and by design is different every year.

“We were five actors, so we collectively directed by doing a lot of table work and assigning scenes to each person to develop,” says Amessé of her class’s decision to produce Ovid’s Metamorphoses. “In the beginning, we weren’t sure we could do it successfully, but we drew on everyone’s strengths and talents—music, movement—and spent a lot of time solidifying our common vision. And it’s one of the productions I’m most proud of. We decided what to put on, how to spend the budget—it exemplifies Swarthmore’s commitment to doing things nontraditionally and letting students lead.”

Similar leadership and skill-building opportunities for students abound—whether in working closely with their faculty mentors, presenting their research at campus poster sessions or national conferences, or in allocating funding for groups through SBC or the Social Affairs Committee (SAC). At their core is trust.

“We help students find their own definitions of leadership,” says Dean Braun. “One way we think about it is sort of non-traditional—collaborative in many ways, non-hierarchical, and group-based.”

That approach fosters an environment in which all students have the opportunity to pursue leadership roles in well-established programs—or create new ones. After Shelly Wen and a friend noticed they had both stayed on campus during fall break, they thought “it would be cool” to do “something special” during spring break.

As a result, they planned a science outreach project and, with a grant from the Swarthmore Foundation, conducted a series of experiments with children at a Dare 2 Soar site in Chester. “We heard later from people there that students would ask, ‘When is science time going to start?’” she says. “This was the first time I coordinated something that had never been done before. I created the template, and it was really great.”

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David Opoku ’12 enjoys his work at Cornell Library, not just for the views of the woods it provides, but for the chance to learn how to manage such an important campus space. “Students close the library at night,” he says. “The librarians train us well and that sense of responsibility is really great. I’ve gained the skill of taking charge of a building—it’s a really good skill.”

Even when the template exists, as SAO co-president Kevin Li ’13 has found, help from the administration can play a much-appreciated role. “Dean Braun is coming to APIA events this month and is talking about how to build leadership among clubs on campus,” he says. “It’s also hard to find funding at other schools, but we’re well funded. Here, they let students decide where the money goes.”

For Bartz, who had never organized a major event at Swarthmore before, successfully bringing Gasland’s Josh Fox to campus helped expand her thinking about the role she imagines playing here in the future.

“Now I know I can have an impact and can have a say in helping different groups on campus,” she says. “I feel like his visit and the Gasland screenings could be the beginning of something. There’s no group yet on campus that deals with hydrofracking, but who knows? The whole point of the event is to be a catalyst for something.” [An anti-fracking group has since formed and now meets weekly.]

Living in Community
For many students, the desire to seek leadership positions is directly tied to their decision to actively and deliberately contribute to the community, both on campus and off. It’s their way of giving back.

Li, an honors economics and computer science major from Columbia, Md., puts it plainly. “I care a lot about the SAO community and I want it to succeed,” he says. “If I don’t do my part, it won’t. We are a well-oiled machine in some ways and other groups come to us for event planning advice, or help in how to run board meetings. So I’m driven to keep it that way.”

For Lang Center intern David Opoku, having a bird’s eye view of the projects his peers are involved in is a perk of the job.

“As an intern, I get to learn what other students are doing in Chester, Philadelphia, and all over the world,” he says. “There are so many opportunities to take lessons from class and try them out. It doesn’t always have to be successful, but it gives you the confidence to try.”

Camilia Kamoun’s work with Global Health Forum is one such project. As a freshman, she helped successfully apply for the Project Pericles grant, administered by the Lang Center, that the group needed in order to expand. Reflecting on her last four years with the group, she sees the cyclical nature of the work and how it pays off.

“We made an impact,” she says, “not just in collecting insecticide-treated bed nets in Uganda and distributing them, but also in preparing ourselves to be effective agents for change in the global health field. I came in and learned a lot. Now, as new members jump in, it’s exciting to see them reach new levels of understanding.”

Amessé is also in the position of seeing her work as a WA come full circle. “Three of my freshmen are applying to be WAs next year, and they’re texting me about the process,” she says excitedly. “It’s all about passing the torch and being encouraging. It’s the reason I wanted to be a WA—because I had great conferences. So if I can inspire others, it will sustain the community.”

Community, of course, takes on many forms, applies to many spaces, and is fostered in many ways. That is perhaps most literally true in residential life.

“I love how the halls are organized at Swarthmore,” says Li, who will be an RA in Willets next year. “They’re close, with all classes represented, and the RAs are really the glue that holds them together. I like event planning and for people to have fun with something I planned. So I’m really excited and looking forward to making sure my hall is cohesive.”

Kenyetta Givans is also a “rising” RA and will live in Wharton this fall. “I really want to help freshmen make that transition into college,” she says. “It was really helpful to me when I was a frosh. And I was surprised—there’s no distinction between the classes here. You could be in a class with seniors, eat with them, it doesn’t matter. I learned a lot from the upperclassmen I met.”

Sometimes, though, those cross-class conversations can be challenging, as Morgan Bartz found out on her trip to the Dominican Republic. Travelling with a number of seniors, she had to learn to adapt.

“People in the documentary class represent a lot of majors—soc/anth, poli sci, econ—and each one brings a different lens,” she says. “When we talked about state formation of the Dominican Republic, each brought in outside information. When I’m a senior, I hope I can bring whatever I decide to major in into the conversation.”

For Sable Mensah, who has made that transition, feeling comfortable in seminar is a hard-earned accomplishment. “I spent three and a half years getting to know my own voice,” she says. “You also still need to make sure you’re comfortable with pushback and to be cautious and real. But it’s nice to say something with no disclaimers. It’s taken me a while to get there.”

Additional community-building opportunities have been proposed in the conversations prompted by the strategic planning process. “My RA wants to bring Collection back, and it could be of use to enhance the sense of community on campus,” says Sam Sellers ’11, a political science major and public policy minor from Bainbridge Island, Wash. “If done the right way, it would slow people down and get them to appreciate the amazing, diverse community we have. That awareness is often lost when students are busy doing what they do.”

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Haydil Henriquez ’14 recently performed at an open mic sponsored by a new spoken word collective, OASIS (Our Art Spoken in Soul), she helped co-found. The group’s board equally distributes work among its members.

Indeed, Sellers’ RA is Will Hopkins ’11, an honors psychology and English literature major from Newark, Del., and self-described “somewhat-lapsed Quaker” who believes there is value in a return to how the College historically institutionalized its Quaker heritage.

“Quakerism has a lot to offer that doesn’t require you to affiliate,” says Hopkins, who last fall helped rekindle interest in a student-led weekly meeting. “A reconstituted Collection keeps popping up in my mind as a way for the campus to come together and reflect on how we can be stronger as a community. As a tool to encourage contemplation and to promote discourse that is face-to-face, reasoned, and civil, it would be useful.”

As much as community is deliberately fostered among students, both by the administration and by the students themselves, it’s clear to students that the Swarthmore community also extends well beyond campus. The more they interact with alumni, the more they see how real those bonds are.

Ben DeGolia experienced this first-hand when working last Alumni Weekend. “Talking to alums, you definitely feel there’s something you share,” he says. Chris Geissler sees it when giving admissions tours to alumni who bring their kids. “There’s definitely a sense,” he says, “of ‘we are of the same stock,’ we are ‘of Swarthmore.’”

Recent alums often also provide much-appreciated perspective. “My friends tell me the madness of Swat does end, but don’t run out the door, you will miss things,” says Mensah, who externed this winter with Elizabeth Vogel ’07, a New York City middle school teacher. “Talking to her and seeing how her Swat sensibilities are balanced with her lived experience as a teacher in the landscape of educational reform—it’s an inspiration to me.”


Alisa Giardinelli is associate director of news and information at the College and a longtime contributor to the Bulletin.


Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series that will highlight four areas of inquiry in the strategic planning process. Conversations around these topics, which are intended to be as wide-ranging and inclusive as possible, will culminate in a draft planning document in summer 2011. After this draft is presented to the Board of Managers in September, it will again be the subject of community discussions. It is expected that a final draft will be presented to the Board in December.

All members of the Swarthmore community are encouraged to participate. The College’s strategic planning website contains questions, documents, links to resources, and updates on the thinking of the various working groups charged with creating the plan. The site also presents many interactive opportunities to contribute to the thinking going on at the College. Find it all at http://sp.swarthmore.edu.

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