First Collection 2013: Naudia Williams '14

Naudia Williams '14, a political science major from St. Mary, Jamaica, joined President Rebecca Chopp, Associate Dean of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development Liliana Rodriguez, and Associate Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves in welcoming the Class of 2017 to Swarthmore. Evoking the College's Quaker roots, this student-designed tradition is held during each new student orientation in the Scott Outdoor Amphitheater. 

When I was asked to do this address, I had a minor panic attack. I was asked to think about the things I wish I had known as a freshman that I know now. My initial reaction was to reflect on how little I still know as a senior and to worry seriously that if I did not tell some earth-shattering story of enlightenment, that everyone here would judge me harshly. You would see through my persistent doubts and insecurities, realize quickly that after three years, I still haven't figured out how to navigate every single minuscule detail of Swarthmore's environment.

What a solemn way to start an inspiring First Collection speech. I promise it picks up.

To aid my efforts, I came up with a list of things to share with you, a kind of 10 Things To Do Before You Graduate.

First Collection 2013
"Rethink that one-dimensional conception you have of learning," says Naudia Williams '14. "Seek out opportunities to volunteer, join a student organization, attend a dance recital or take a walk in the Crum."
  1. Exhale. You have proved your worth on tests, essays, and personal videos that no longer matter. Release all the anxieties that you now have even as you are holding your candle in this strange new place. Release all the anxieties about recreating yourself, finding friends or proving to your professors, your peers and yourself that you belong here. You do!
  2. Do say hello to and meet people. It is easy to want to come to Swarthmore and become so focused on your tight knit circle of hall mates or soccer team mates that you never get the chance to talk to that awesome girl from Jamaica who is graduating next year. That's me by the way. But seriously, don't become so invested in completing your major by sophomore year that you ignore the people around you such that you become an excellent scholar, but get poor grades on emotional intelligence.
  3. Don't keep calm. A few months ago I wrote a Facebook status that said quote, "Staying out of Swarthmore's politics. Keeping my head down until June 1, 2014" end quote. Don't do that. Keeping your head down and remaining on autopilot until you graduate is a natural, rational, lazy, and awful thing to do. It is the setting you acquire after dealing with the monotony of distribution requirements, perfunctory meetings with your advisers, Sunday/Wednesday pasta bar at Sharples, and RA-led study breaks. Be purposeful about how you choose to think and act every day. That means you should check your privilege. Make a concerted effort every single day to consider the value of someone else's opinion/beliefs/sexual orientation/class and all the other layers that make us who we are. Take a class/get involved in the things that motivate you, excite you, frustrate you, and make you so uncomfortable that you actually learn something here.
  4. Use thy freedom well. That line is actually written somewhere on campus. The first freshman to find out where it is gets a Pass/Fail semester...which leads me to my fifth point.
  5. Make use of this Pass/Fail semester. In fact, this point should be number one. Go to Reading Terminal Market. Go to a museum in Philly, when it's free, of course. Get your fill of all-nighters with that random girl on your hall who you will label as your best friend because after that first conversation with her in one of those cubbies that you were so lucky to snag in Sharples, you realize that she, too, carries hot sauce from home and that she, too, thinks that the Beatles have the final word on good music.
First Collection 2013
"I invite you (and advise you) to celebrate, embrace, experiment, and practice the Swarthmore ethos of community building, counter-culturalism, and social responsibility," says Swarthmore President Rebecca Chopp.

The Fall of my freshman year, I took one of the most difficult courses of my Swarthmore career, CS21: Introduction to Computer Science. When I say I was terrible in that class, I mean I was bad. After Fall Break, I was so utterly dismayed by my inability to grasp the concepts that I reached out to my professor, and he immediately told me to join him in his office for additional help. Over chocolate-covered coffee beans that he kept in his office, we labored over those CS21 problems.

And guess what? I got better next midterm and passed the class, but I still suck at computer science. (Remember when I said you should make use of this pass/fail semester?) After I got my final grade, I unsubscribed from the department's emails mostly because those emails remind me of my shame.

But when I was spending an hour a week in Charlie Garrod's office working on those horrible Python problems, I was also working on a pride that was tightly wrapped in fake modesty. That course challenged me so much that I was forced to reconcile with the fact that there are some things that I will not get an A on to validate my work, to acknowledge how many hours I put in, or to reassure me of my intellectual prowess. CS21 helped me to form connections with students and professors in the department that I would have never engaged with but for my struggle in that class. CS21 taught me how to be comfortable in the uncomfortable state of silence that accompanied tough questions posed by my Ninja that I could not provide the quick, assured Wikipedia-ready answer that you will no doubt encounter in your classes here. But I would like to believe that I am a better writer, a better thinker, tutor, and hopefully a humbler student because of that experience. I am more acutely aware of struggle (academic and otherwise), working something out painstakingly and helping someone get through that.

So in that one anecdote, I have almost covered the remaining five things you need to do before you graduate.

First Collection 2013
  1. Talk to your professors. Go to their office hours. They usually enjoy when students take the initiative to talk to them. Plus, you will need those recommendations.
  2. Ask for as much as help from as many sources as you can as often as you can. A few days ago, a friend of mine said something that I thought was both eloquent and profound. She said, "Tell the freshmen to 'lean into their fears.'" Let me just put this out there. Swarthmore is a tough environment to be in, and so acknowledging that you are struggling in a course or that you are struggling to maintain your sanity on any given day is often a difficult thing to do. However, as Tricia wisely said, when you acknowledge your personal struggle, you will often find that you are not alone. I would like to add that instead of shaming, you will often find compassion and support. So I encourage you to recognize right now that there is so much you don't know and that asking for help is a sign that you are mature enough to manage that ego that will cripple your efforts here.
  3. Rethink that one-dimensional conception you have of learning. Seek out opportunities to volunteer, join a student organization, attend a dance recital, or take a walk in the Crum. Embrace the cliché that learning does not begin and end in the classroom.
  4. (This one is difficult so brace yourselves.) Take care of yourself. It is fashionable here to report how little you sleep. Make a fashion statement and sleep for more than two hours per night. Be adventurous and take some ME time to exercise, eat more than one meal a day, or have a conversation with your friends outside of a planned Sharples meal.
  5. I should take some of my own advice. Take a second to acknowledge your responsibility to contributing to a safe, inclusive, and diverse community, and take more than a few moments to affirm that responsibility every single day. 10a: Oh, and Class of 2017, welcome to Swarthmore College.