Roger Youman '53
How do you define a place that has meant so many things to so many people? One way is to ask an assortment of those people to do it, in the form of brief essays. We asked, they responded enthusiastically and brilliantly, and this book is the result.
When we started this project, we knew this much: We wanted to invite 40 or 50 Swarthmore alumni to reflect on the meaning that a Swarthmore education and the Swarthmore experience have had in their lives. We wanted to hear from a broad cross-section of Swarthmoreans who have, in one way or another, made a difference in the world. We wanted the essayists to venture beyond the predictable nostalgia of a stroll up Magill Walk and down Memory Lane, and dig deeper. We asked them to reflect on Swarthmore's impact on who they are, what they have accomplished, and the way they have conducted their lives.
Since all of our writers would be products of a Swarthmore education, we had reason to feel confident that we could look forward to publishing essays that were thoughtful, lively, and provocative. Beyond that, of course, we had no way of knowing how they would answer the question posed by the book's title. Now we do know. We have a collection of 48 different-and often surprising-perspectives. In the pages that follow, they are presented chronologically (by dates of graduation).
The four dozen authors emerged from a selection process that was enormously difficult-space limitations dictated that we could accommodate no more than 50 essays, and there were too many extraordinary alumni to choose from. Hundreds of worthy candidates were considered before we ultimately settled on a group that was chosen for its balance as well as its strength-for the book itself to have meaning, it was essential to have representation from all Swarthmore generations and from a wide range of backgrounds and life experiences. The invitations went out, the replies came back, and we were gratified to receive a high percentage of acceptances. Even though we were asking accomplished people to take time out from their busy lives to write about their college-and about themselves, never easy to do-this response did not come as a surprise, because we knew how devoted to Swarthmore its alumni tend to be and how positive they feel about the role the College has played in their lives.
The lineup of essayists confirms that we achieved our goal of fielding a multifarious team of contributors. In fact, one way of viewing the book is as a demonstration of the true meaning of diversity rather than the narrow one that is used these days in simplistic political arguments. The authors came to Swarthmore from rural New Jersey and rural Bangladesh; from East Harlem and North Dakota; from Boston and Berlin; from Africa, Asia, Europe, and Latin America; and from every section of the United States. Among them are entrepreneurs, social activists, physicians, journalists, scientists, teachers, musicians, financiers, judges, a theatrical director, an Internet pundit, a U.S. senator, and a former candidate for president.
As they look back on their Swarthmore years, they summon up memories of friends, professors, College presidents, deans, coaches, classes, seminars, study groups, community work, and sports competitions that influenced their lives. And conversations-oh, those conversations! Almost every essayist makes reference to the atmosphere of talk that enveloped the campus-conversations in pairs and in groups, in dorms and dining halls, on walks and lawns, all day long and far into the night-leaving no doubt that Swarthmoreans not only thrived on the verbal give-and-take but found serious and lasting meaning in it. One essayist neatly describes the campus environment: "I was surrounded by trees and opinions."
The authors comment on the ways in which they were affected by exposure to Quaker traditions, by the small size of the student body, by the accessibility and helpfulness of the faculty and administration, by the beauty of the campus, by the sense of freedom they felt there. Underlying all of that is a theme that runs through the entire book. Although the writers find many different ways of saying it, all of them emphasize that they acquired much more than knowledge at Swarthmore, that their College experience inspired them to look beyond academics and find ways of serving not just their own interests but those of others.
The essays span nearly seven decades at the College-from the Class of '33 to the Class of '96-and touch on the most significant events and issues of those times: World War II, McCarthyism, the Cold War, the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, scientific breakthroughs, apartheid, women's rights, capital punishment, world hunger, health care, education, journalistic ethics, even the role of diversity itself.
Swarthmore alumni have been involved in all of these developments and concerns, often in leadership positions, and the specifics in these essays provide ample evidence that they have found effective ways of serving their community and the world, and lending a hand to those who need it the most. At some stage of life after Swarthmore, the values that they had absorbed there came to the surface and led them to devote themselves to moral and social causes-justice, equality, peace, human dignity. And many of them chose unconventional and difficult ways of going about it.
A few excerpts suggest what you will find at the core of these essays:
- "[Swarthmore] was a place where I got to see up close a unique face of America, full of unapologetic idealism and passion about morality, integrity, and social justice." -A Ghanaian member of the Class of '69 who became an international businessman
- "A cast of mind was developed that would serve one well in the years to come: not only to search for hidden truths but, having found them, to assess them in terms of their moral implications."-A member of the Class of '64 who became a federal judge
- "Swarthmore has never been just about ourselves. The campus culture always encouraged the use of one's education to make the world a better place." -A member of the Class of '66 who became an education expert
- "In some alchemical way, the calm contemplation forged iron-like commitments to seek to make the world more just." -A member of the Class of '74 who became a professor of law
- "The sense of responsibility for being engaged with one's own community and the wish to make it better-more just, more compassionate, more open to a wide range of people and ideas-leads me now." -A member of the Class of '67 who became a producer of children's television programs
- "[Swarthmore] has provided me with a model of public service that I have emulated." -A member of the Class of '81 who found a unique way to empower the poorest people in his native Bangladesh
- "Making a difference in the lives of one's fellow citizens is the most satisfying and the most fulfilling thing one can do during his lifetime on this planet." -A member of the Class of '55 who went into politics
- "To the extent that we are able to accomplish good works, the whole world is lucky that we went to Swarthmore." -A member of the Class of '86 who founded a boarding school for inner-city children
That's just a taste of the rich reading experience that awaits you. So eloquently do the essays speak for themselves, nothing more needs to be said about them. The last word belongs to our authors, one of whom (Class of '78) makes an observation that speaks to-and for-all of the Swarthmoreans who so generously contributed their perceptions to the book as well as the many thousands more who will read it: "We, in all our multidimensional diversity, are the meaning of Swarthmore."
Roger Youman, former editor of TV Guide, is a writer and editorial consultant who also teaches at the Columbia University School of Journalism. He volunteered to edit this book.