Student to Student Guide
Most students on campus have a Franklin Mint Federal Credit Union (FMFCU) Visa debit/credit card. FMFCU will contact you over the summer asking you to open up an account with them and send them a check deposit. Since mailing checks internationally is not a good idea, you might want to wait until you get to campus. We have scheduled a meeting with the bank manager, who will walk you through opening an account.
Your account will have no service charges. The Visa you will get can be used as a debit card when withdrawing money from the campus ATM or as a credit card in stores and online (whatever you charge on it will be deducted from your bank account). With that card you will also get a checkbook. In addition, you may want to apply for a FMFCU credit card with a credit limit of $500. Generally, an account with FMFCU is a good choice, since they offer online account management, they don't charge any fees whatsoever, and they have an ATM on campus and one in the nearby mall, both of which have no transaction fee.
Sometimes you might have problems with FMFCU like the ATM overcharging you, and your card acting funny with online purchases, but the local branch very helpful in resolving all these issues. The other bank nearby is PNC Bank in the Ville (described below), which should offer the same benefits.
This is how Swatties refer to The Borough of Swarthmore, the little town that adjoins the campus. Highlights include: the Co-op (the local grocery store), the Swarthmore Post Office (there's one on campus as well, but this is the official one), and The Co-ed Hair Salon/The Hair Studio (which will charge you $10/$15 for a simple guys' haircut). Eating options include Renato's Pizza, Vicky's Place (open from 7am to 2pm, has great pancakes), Cheng Hing, and Occasionally Yours. The Ville is really not the most terribly exciting place ever. Basically, you will be eating and maybe shopping there. Aside from that, if you are staying on campus over one of the breaks, then you probably will be renting a place there.
Sharples is a comparatively nice dining hall, you get to have as many servings of whatever you want every meal. It is true that sometimes the food gets repetitive, but don't listen to the people who say it's unbearable, they're dramatizing. You will get to appreciate Sharples if you are staying on campus during one of the breaks and have to cook for yourself.
Essie Mae's provides a break from the routine with sandwiches and other yummy foods. It is great for when you miss dining hours at Sharples or have an extra meal and want to get some snacks.
There are two coffee bars on campus; one in Kohlberg and one in the Science Center. The one in the Science center offers sushi! In addition there are two student run restaurants: Paces (menu changes weekly) and QUB (Asian).
Usually you wouldn't need to get additional food during the semester, but if you need to shop for food during breaks, Giant is definitely the best place to do that. It is a giant store where you can find pretty much all you would ever want to eat (well except for food from home, but...). It is much cheaper than the Co-op in the Ville. The only problem with it is that is on the Pike, about 25 minutes walking distance away from campus. However, the school runs shuttles to Genuardi's and Target. When you shop there, make sure you get a Giant Club Card, which gets you an average 10-20% discount on whatever you buy. We will show you how to get the place during Orientation.
There are two locations nearby where you can shop for clothes, shoes, CD's, electronics, cooking utensils, and household items: Springfield Mall and Target department store. The school runs shuttles to Target and Giant. The Mall has many different shops and a Macy's department store (the shops sell items of a particular brand, where as the department store sells everything).
The difference between Springfield and Target is price and quality. If you want to buy good clothes and shoes, you would go to the mall. If you need some household items, detergent, undergarments, socks, Target is probably a better and cheaper idea. You will see many of these places during International Orientation.
If you are planning to buy a computer in the States, it is better to consult an upperclass-person. There are many ways you can get discounts, at Compaq, Dell, and Apple for example. Just ask and we'll show you how you can save big time.
When it comes to new books, the College Bookstore does offer very cheap books. You can also get very cheap second-hand books from www.allbookstores.com, www.half.com, or www.bn.com. You could also look for upperclassmen who may be able to lend or sell their books. In the beginning of the semester usually many flyers and notices are put up by students selling their books, and emails also circulate on the International Club forum.
The Pike refers to the Baltimore Pike, a main highway that is located about 20 minutes away from campus. Many of the local highlights are located on it: Springfield Mall, Giant, Target, Bed Bath & Beyond, a variety of restaurants and diners.
As you probably are aware, Swarthmore does not officially offer housing during winter and summer breaks. Don't worry, though. During winter, all international students on financial aid can get a room for free starting around the first week of January. There is a gap of about 10 days in late December, when the school closes down all dorms. This may sound a little daunting, but it's easy to find a place to stay for these 10 days, sometimes it turns out being fun to hang out with your friends around Christmas. During the summer, you can get school housing for about $700, or you can look for a housing option of your own.
If you need to stay off campus (which I don't recommend), you will probably have a choice between The Barn (a big political activist place, small rooms, around $250 per month, quite dirty), an apartment above the Cheese Court (somewhat nicer and cleaner, more expensive), or some other place that you arrange for on your own. By far the best solution to staying off-campus during breaks is house-sitting for a prof where you get to live in their house while they're away in exchange for looking after their property/plants/pets. Personally, I was quite freaked out when it came to finding an apartment to stay in over summer, but it turns out there isn't much need to worry. There are plenty of people who will be happy to have you stay at their place, at least for a few days.
Many people come to Swat with the idea that students here will be all cool and dressed up like in TV ads, but let me assure you that this is far from Swat reality. Nobody will care about what you are wearing, and dressing awkward and funny is a very common thing here. You will see that kind of attitude in all aspects of campus life - nobody will treat you differently based on what you're wearing or how much you have in your pocket. So just relax and stress on other things that matter.
Campus shuttles run pretty much all the time, so going around campus is very easy and convenient. However, problems can arise when you have to get off campus. To go to Philadelphia, you have to take the train, which turns out to be around $14 round trip. To go shopping in the mall or Genuardi's, you need to walk for about 30 minutes, to go to the movies, it's a 1 hour walk one way. This is really not such a great idea, unless you have a lot of time to spare. However, once the school year starts there are shuttles to Genuardi's, Target, and the movie theater.
If you are trying to get around the States, it is a good idea to talk to some upperclass students before choosing your means of transportation. If you are trying to get to New York, Washington D.C., or Boston, the most sane choice would be local rail. Unless you have an expensive taste, you should avoid Amtrak; even though it is easy, fast, and comfortable, the price can be two-three times higher than what you would pay otherwise.
Using a calling card is the best option. CVS and the Bookstore sell cards, but online cards are much much more convenient. GoogleTalk and Skype may be reasonable options as well. Consult an upperclassmen about the cheapest rates for the country you intend to call.
Swat offers many lucrative employment opportunities. When you arrive you will be briefed by the Student Employment Office, about jobs on campus. Jobs are open to anyone at Swat, you don't need to be on financial aid to be allowed to work.
Being an international student, you will have to file a tax return, even if you made no money at all. Many people didn't know about it before, so again, you have to file a tax return even if you didn't work, even if you made $0. That shouldn't worry you, because the school offers assistance with your taxes: the Financial Aid Office hosts tax help desks. It couldn't be any easier, just get an appointment and show up. The school will also pay any taxes that you owe if your scholarship exceeds your tuition fee (i.e. if your scholarship covers room and board). In addition, the U.S. will reimburse you for any federal taxes you ended up paying; you will get a check for that from the Financial Aid Office. It is important to do your taxes, even the state ones, because in theory, failure to file all the required forms can jeopardize your immigration status. In practice, that has never happened, but you should still do all the paperwork, just to be on the safe side.
Some people feel uneasy coming to the States because they think they will be treated differently because they're not from here. Swat has a very open society, where any background differences make you a more unique and interesting person to others. Nobody here will look upon you differently because you're international. That may not be true for the U.S. itself - you have to realize Swat is a bubble that isolates you from what's out there. But it is very unlikely that you be mistreated based on your nationality, whatever that may be.
This is very broad issue that you should probably start to get used to from now on. Swat is full of wonderful, interesting, gifted people like you, but those people tend to be quite eccentric at times. So don't be disturbed if you see people walk, talk, and act funny. It takes some time to get used to but, in the end, it becomes a unique part of your college experience.