First Collection

First Collection by Jess Engebretson '09

Jess Engebretson '09, an Honors English literature major from Washington, D.C., is a senior producer at War News Radio and co-founder of the Darfur Radio Project who worked this summer for the ENOUGH Project, which works to end genocide and crimes against humanity. Write to her at jess.engebretson@gmail.com

nlike most of you, I didn't start my freshman year with First Collection in this lovely amphitheater. In fact, I didn't spend my freshman year at Swarthmore at all. I came here a year late, as a sophomore and a transfer student.

But, like all of you, I showed up at the end of August for orientation, met my CAs, saw The Graduate for the first time. And, again and again, people would ask me why I had transferred. So pretty soon I got it down to a quick little four-sentence story. It went like this:

Well, in the spring of my senior year I ended up choosing between Swarthmore and College X. And I had good reasons to like both of them, but in the end I went with College X because it seemed like the more practical choice. But as it turned out, I wasn't very happy there, so I applied to transfer in the spring. And I was lucky enough to get a second chance to come to Swat, and that time I made the right choice.


Listen to Jess' welcome to the Class of 2012, in which she encouraged the students to reach out to each other and search out their different gifts.

And that little spiel seemed to do the trick; whomever I'd been talking to would take it at face value and we'd move on to other, more interesting topics.

But that's not quite the story I want to tell tonight. Because two years on, I can't dismiss that first choice - the choice not to come to Swarthmore - as just bad judgment or lousy decision-making. It's true that when I first came here I kind of wanted to forget my freshman year. (Probably some of you transfers feel the same way.) I wanted to move on, to brush off that past year as an awkward little gap between high school and my real college experience.

But the longer I've been here, the more I've realized that life doesn't work that way. Though I couldn't see it at the time, a lot of good came out of what was, for me, a difficult first year. I built friendships with people whose religious and political opinions were very different from my own, and from the prevailing wisdom here at Swat. I got a chance to travel abroad for the first time, to Bosnia - an experience continues to shape how I think about the world. And, most painfully, I learned to see some of my own weaknesses more clearly than I ever wanted to.


"I am delighted and proud that each of you is a Swarthmore student," said President Bloom, "and I look forward to seeing the impact this College will have on each of you, and you on it."

Don't get me wrong. I am so, so happy to be at Swarthmore. It's exactly where I ought to be right now. But I would not have learned the things I've learned or asked the questions I've asked at Swarthmore if I hadn't taken the particular, convoluted path that I took to get here. And you know what? That's not unique to me, or to transfer students, or to any of you. We've all taken our own complicated paths to be here today, paths that will shape our time together as much as they've shaped our pasts. We are - all of us - wonderfully improbable mixtures of geography, family, education, and culture, of the accidents and choices that have shaped our lives. Each of us - first years, transfers, tenured professors - is here today with unique histories, plans for this year and next, visions of the world we'd like to live in.

Those of you who are new to Swarthmore probably came here to learn from your peers and your professors, to have your opinions challenged, and your thoughts hammered into better shape. I hope you have all of these experiences. But keep in mind that the rest of us will also be learning from you. You are going to enrich this campus with your humor, your compassion, your curiosity. We are so glad that each of you is here.


Listen: political scientist Rick Valelly '75 shared the prophecy, and caution, he brought with him to Swarthmore when he transferred to the College, why he was - and remains - so happy here, and his top 10 list of things to do that he says will guarantee the happiness of undergraduates.

The flip side of that coin is that you are surrounded by some pretty spectacular people. So take a look at who's sitting next to you. These are the people with whom you are going to spend the next two, or three, or four years--people who will challenge you, laugh with you, frustrate you, inspire you. Some of them are extraordinary in ways that will be very obvious: the classmates of yours - and there will probably be several - who will found their own NGOs to fight genocide or improve our public school system, the ones featured in the New York Times and on NPR. And then there will be others whose compassion and strength of character are no less remarkable for being understated and sometimes unseen: the friend who goes home each weekend to be with a mentally ill parent; the classmate who works a summer job he hates to help pay his younger sister's college tuition. Theirs is not the sort of courage that makes great headlines - but how much richer we are thanks to that quiet strength!

So reach out to the people around you; search out their different gifts. Listen. Talk. Argue. Laugh. You are all here because you're thoughtful and intelligent and determined, but - no matter how good you are - there will come a time when you can't do it all, when the strongest thing you can do is ask for help. And when that time comes, when it's four in the morning and you have bronchitis, and a broken heart, and two papers to write, know that there will be someone - probably several someone's - to remind you that you don't have to be perfect, you only have to be you.


CAs volunteered to hand out candles before the event...

And so as I begin my final year here, I've made myself stop and think: who am I now, and who would I have been without the two years I've spent here? How would my life be different if I hadn't come to Swarthmore? It's probably true that I'd know a lot less about Sufi poetry and neurobiology and Romanian nationalism. I wouldn't have discovered the joys of pasta bar or Protools, and I wouldn't have gotten my CA group lost in the Crum during the trust walk. I would never have known the stillness of Quaker meeting or the craziness of Screw, and I wouldn't have spent nearly as much time agonizing over Kant and Catullus. But most essentially, I would have missed out on getting to know some truly remarkable people - teachers who have been friends to me, and friends who have been teachers. The people I know here have shaped, in a very real way, who I am today. They've pushed me to think and feel more deeply; they've challenged me to be more fully the person I want to be.


... which culminated when students passed the flame to each other one by one.

Because the fact is, no matter how much we like to think of ourselves as rugged individuals who chart our own courses in life, we are all, inevitably, changed and shaped by the people and places we've known. And not everyone gets the chance to be shaped by a place like Swarthmore. Because this college, after all, isn't Parrish Hall or Sharples or McCabe (no matter how many hours you spend there!). Swarthmore is you, and it's me. It's everyone gathered here tonight, and it's the connections between and among us.

So whether you have four years here, or three, or two - or like me, just one - recognize that you have a rare opportunity ahead of you. Whatever the paths that have brought you here, whatever the worries, the struggles: you're here now. You have days and months and years ahead of you - choices to make, and questions to ask. You have so much to learn here, and - remember this most of all - you have so much to give. Welcome!