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That Powerful Sense of Hope

Jennifer Rickard '86

When I speak with prospective Bryn Mawr students about the importance of their college decisions, I'm reminded of the randomness of my own college search-and of the unexpected consequences of choosing Swarthmore. There was something in the easy way that my acceptance letter from Dean of Admissions Robert Barr Jr. '56 conveyed the importance of Swarthmore's values of intellectual pursuit, tolerance, community-and the use of education to help others-that made me feel hopeful that I could accomplish anything in my life. That hope faded a few months later when a high school classmate told me of my chosen college's nickname, "Sweatmore." During that long summer before my freshman year, neither my extracurricular nor my academic accomplishments in high school reassured me that I was college material.

Having grown up in California's hotbed of intercollegiate sports competition, I had abandoned any notion of continuing my athletic pursuits in college. After watching high-powered teams representing such schools as Stanford, UCLA, and Berkeley, I knew I was not "college" caliber as an athlete. And since Swarthmore was a "college," I was sure I would not be playing there. Nevertheless, thanks to the urging of one of my roommates who had arrived early for field hockey, I decided to try out for the basketball team my freshman year. To my surprise, I made the team as a "walk-on." 

I learned that there existed a Division III in NCAA athletics. At that time, Division III was about playing on a Swarthmore team with people from New York, Kuwait, North Carolina, Mexico City, California, and Delaware County, Pa., who were engineers, philosophers, biologists, and political scientists who wanted to play basketball simply because they liked it. Sophomore year, when I returned to campus early from winter break for basketball practice, I realized how much being a part of a team meant to me. I was enjoying the heightened athletics challenge of intercollegiate play, but, more important, I was enjoying learning how to balance my life and how to work with others very different from myself. I belonged at Swarthmore.

I remember a similar sense of belonging at Swarthmore while researching a paper in the Cornell Science Library during my junior year. I was a political science major and a denizen of McCabe. What on earth was I doing in Cornell? I was taking a cross-listed religion and physics course called Issues in Arms Control and Disarmament taught by Jerry Frost and Rush Holt, and I was writing a paper on the effectiveness of nuclear-free zones. I was excited about the opportunity to do research on both the politics and the science behind nuclear proliferation and about the fact that, for the first time at Swarthmore, I felt a sense of mastery not only over how to do the research but how to frame my analysis. I definitely belonged at Swarthmore.

As dean of admissions and financial aid at Bryn Mawr College, I talk about the value of a liberal arts education on a daily basis. My Swarthmore education taught me how to analyze; how to write; how to research; how to solve problems; and how to support my arguments as a humanist, a social scientist, and a scientist. That academic foundation, when combined with my equally influential extracurricular experiences, has enabled me to work as, successively, a financial accountant, a college admissions officer, a systems-implementation consultant, a software developer, a business executive, and now a college administrator. It has also enabled me to see how all of these seemingly different roles are interrelated. What I found at Swarthmore was more than rigor. I also found hope.

So how did any of this lead to what I call my obsession with college admissions? I think it has something to do with the fact that through my experiences at Swarthmore, I developed that sense of hopefulness. At age 18, I entered Swarthmore an idealistic and intellectually undeveloped young woman. I graduated from Swarthmore still idealistic but intellectually prepared. Added to that idealism was a sense of hope that I really could make a difference in the world and that communities with the values of tolerance and mutual respect really could exist. I am truly grateful to Swarthmore for giving me that powerful sense of hope. It has empowered me to aspire to and accomplish things I would never have thought were within my reach-from playing NCAA basketball to feeling confidence in my intellectual ability. And I think that is why I do what I do now.

Every day, I have the opportunity to expose young women to a community very similar to the one I experienced at Swarthmore. They come to us at a time in their lives when they have no idea what lies ahead for them, and they have no idea what impact college will have on their lives. All they can see is an admissions world fraught with rankings, test scores, media hype, and information overload that often obscure the core of what college is really all about. In my own way, I'm here to give them hope.

Jennifer Rickard is dean of admissions and financial aid at Bryn Mawr College.