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Swarthmore in a Box

Four years of Swarthmore found in Alaska

For the amazingly low price of $83.06, I recently had a Swarthmore education delivered to my door. 

It came by mail, in a reused brown cardboard box about the size of a footstool—surprisingly small, given all that was inside.

The box had 16 colored folders fat with course materials—syllabi, handouts, handwritten notes on the readings, blue books from midterms and final exams, along with 16 notebooks full of surprisingly legible class notes. Also inside were thick notebook binders for six honors seminars, with tabs separating each week’s materials, including all those seminar papers we had to write.

I’d lost track of my Swarthmore papers somewhere during my 30 years in Alaska and found them on a trip back there last year. In that box was my transition from somewhat-intimidated Swarthmore rookie in 1975 to confident student on the path to graduation in 1979.

Early on, I knew where I wanted to focus my course work, but Swarthmore had a distribution requirement that forced us to take a few courses outside our comfort zone.

I had no idea what I was talking about in my first paper for Art History I, a look at Rubens’s Prometheus Bound in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It was a challenging assignment that I still remember, having been told from the start to analyze a painting, with only skeletal guidance. I was lost in that freshman French literature seminar—I tracked down English translations of our readings and rejoiced when we were told we could write our paper in English. 

Thank goodness for the pass-fail option we had that first year. I eventually hit my stride with courses in poli. sci., economics, and philosophy but not before scoring a C-minus on my public-finance term paper, which the prof described as “often confused.”

I remember how much my writing hand hurt after a class trying to keep up with lectures from history professor Bob “Machine Gun” DuPlessis, who fired bullets of knowledge at us faster than mere mortal ears could absorb. I filled 87 pages of a notebook for that class.

The box is full of information I’ve never used and had long forgotten. After taking linear algebra, I never once inverted a matrix. In intro to meteorology, a notorious gut course, I must have learned what the “adiabatic lapse rate” is, but don’t ask me to explain it now.

Of course, a Swarthmore education is not a mere body of knowledge that fits into a box. Swarthmore taught me to think critically, evaluate evidence, and write clearly—perfect training for the career I had in journalism.

I got the grounding I needed to spend more than two decades writing about politics, economics, and history. Many of the challenges I studied long ago—economic prosperity, inequality, energy costs, protecting the environment, justice in the courts—are still with us.

In writing for work, I often felt like I was writing a seminar paper but with a few key differences: The end product was typically shorter, more readable, done on a quicker turnaround. Most important, I was getting paid to do it.

I’ve often had dreams that, as a mature adult, I have enrolled at Swarthmore again, seeking a second college degree. Even though in real life I eventually graduated with highest honors, in my dream, I’m always running hard to keep up academically. I mastered the body of knowledge in that box once, but in the dream, I’m left wondering if I could do it again. 


Matt Zencey ’79, recently retired as deputy opinion editor of Penn Live and The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., lives in West Chester, Pa.