First Collection 2012
Ian Perkins-Taylor '13 joined President Rebecca Chopp, Dean of Students Liz Braun, and Professor of Spanish Aurora Camacho de Schmidt in welcoming the Class of 2016 to Swarthmore. During an event that evokes the College's Quaker roots, this student-designed tradition is held during each new student orientation in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater.
I came to Swarthmore three years ago ready to engage. I wanted to meet new friends, learn new things, engage in discussions, debates, silly mealtime chats about who I thought was cute, late night conversations about politics and philosophy, follow my passions, and dive into my newly unfolding Swarthmore experience. As an over-eager first-year, I enthusiastically threw myself into my quickly expanding number of academic and extracurricular commitments, but nothing was quite as thrilling as getting to know more and more about my fellow Swatties. My freshman hall bonded a lot at the beginning of the year, and we would spend many hours just sitting in the lounge and discussing this, that, or the other thing. Topics up for discussion ran the gamut from the morality of economics to the dynamics of claiming a foreign identity at Swat and the challenges of fitting into a social group with such a diverse array of life experiences. I loved that everyone was so opinionated and as eager to participate in these discussions as I was.
These conversations have certainly shaped my beliefs and worldview, even though I can't recall every single detail of every discussion or argument that I've had while here. But, I'd like to share one story from freshman year that sticks out in my mind and makes me smile whenever I remember it. This was a weekend in the spring semester, a Friday evening, and I'm sure that I must have had homework that I was procrastinating on, but for whatever reason I was sitting in the Wharton AB 1st lounge with one of my quadmates and we struck up a conversation about universal morality. At the time, he, a poli sci major who hoped to improve the world through a career in politics, argued that the world must have a universal code of morality, while I adamantly countered that each person understands the world through the lens of their own experiences and therefore it is impossible to concretely define what is always considered good or bad. I should also mention that I am known for my partly facetious and partly egotistical belief that I am always right, and my roommate was known to enjoy making outrageous statements and vehemently defending his positions, so we were perfectly matched to butt heads, and frequently stayed up late nights debating our differences in opinion, whether vast or minute. As people walked by the lounge that night we would absorb them into the conversation, to the point where it must have been at least 2:30 AM and we had ensnared another quadmate, a couple of friends, and even a visitor to Swat into our debate. And I remember that I kept getting very annoyed with the comments that this visitor would interject, not because of his position on the issue, but because they were so canned and unproductive to the conversation; it seemed to me that he just wanted to get his points in and claim victory. But the entire reason that I found the debate to be so engaging was that my roommate and I, even though we had very strong opinions, purposefully listened to what the other had to say so as to better understand the other's perspective and where it was coming from. This aspect of dialogue at Swarthmore is what makes it so rewarding to me, because it is the ability to listen and appreciate a multiplicity of perspectives that enriches us both personally and as a community.
Now going into my senior year, I have found that my excitement over these types of conversations has only grown in my time here, as well as my appreciation of students' willingness to talk and share themselves with each other. It is the late night conversations with roommates, the prolonged chatting over meals in Sharples where we finally have to end because the dining staff is about to close up, the endless discussing, arguing, philosophizing that stand out the most for me from my Swarthmore experience; looking back, these are the moments that make me chuckle and think, “oh Swarthmore.” We all seem to have taken and excelled at Overanalyzing 101 and beyond, and each year I have become more amused by not only our ability to deconstruct and critically analyze arguments, but our fervent desire to do so. To me this seems the purest expression of liberal arts, a combination of deep reflection on issues and a readiness to communicate and take action based on this thoughtful analysis.
As someone raised in a Quaker household and very proud of my Quaker values, I am deeply appreciative that I can live in a community that encourages us to reflect and question and analyze, a community that motivates us to share with each other our own individual truths and perspectives. As the school year goes on we can often get too focused in on the specific details of our own lives, understandably so since Swatties are notorious for over-committing themselves, but I find that nothing de-stresses me quite like a good old fashioned dose of overanalysis. For me, this often involves talking about politics and issues of social justice, but I want to be clear that you don't have to be involved in activism to engage in this type of dialogue. We learn at Swat that critical analysis and communication are important tools in all disciplines, and you will undoubtedly spend your academic career here sharpening these skills. But even beyond the academic realm, I hope that your time at Swat can teach you that curiosity, analysis, and reflection can be wonderful tools for growing personally and enriching the community around us. When we are all thoughtful and purposeful about how we interact with each other, we create a space where all the members of our community can feel supported and valued.
Of course no community, even Swarthmore, can live up to the rosy, idealistic vision that I have just described. There are always ways that we can improve our community, and there will inevitably be times when we drop the ball and fail to uphold the respectful and thoughtful environment needed to allow for open and productive dialogue. I'll admit that I myself have made mistakes while here, being less than supportive of individuals at times or speaking without considering the impact of my words. As I've said, I am a very opinionated person, so I sometimes become so adamant about my beliefs that I attack anyone who doesn't agree without trying to understand why they believe differently. As the year goes on and we move further and further away from these initial conversations about the kind of community that we want, it can become easier to forget the process of reflection and thoughtful analysis that is integral to productive dialogue. As a community full of people with diverse opinions and experiences there will inevitably be conflict and discomfort, but if each of us can actively try to interact respectfully then I do believe that we can become the community that we hope for.
This doesn't mean that we should be afraid to be opinionated, or that we shouldn't speak out to confront the troubles and challenges within our community. Quakers are notorious for the immense amount of time they spend on reflection and discussion when trying to come to consensus, but they are also known for turning reflection into action. To use the Quaker phrase, we should always feel that we can “speak truth to power,” to act to make change in the world despite all the challenges of doing so. I urge everyone to not only think about ways to improve this or any other community, but to put these ideas into practice. This involves speaking up when we believe a change needs to be made, but in our fervor we can often forget that this also involves continuing to engage with one another respectfully even when they don't agree with our beliefs, and continuing to honestly try understanding others' perspectives and how their life experiences have shaped their beliefs. This is a very tall order, but we should not be afraid to make mistakes. I hope that we can all go forward into this school year trying our best to live by this demanding set of values, knowing that those around us will support us if we stumble, just as we will support them in working to bring this vision of Swarthmore at its best to life.