Ben Berger couldn’t go to a barbeque or birthday party in Swarthmore Borough without running into dazzling professionals.
“Literally, rocket scientists and brain surgeons,” says the associate professor of political science and executive director of the Lang Center for Civic & Social Responsibility.
“And many of them have dedicated themselves to serving the public interest,” he adds. “They’re living the life of the liberal arts right here in town.”
So Berger, who has worked at the College and lived in the borough for 12 years, sought to build a bridge — to create a forum for students and residents to learn from one another and share the “embarrassment of riches on campus and in town, intellectually and culturally.”
The result: the Lang Center-sponsored Collegium, the second of which was held in the borough in March. The networking event brings students together with community members, offering all a chance to mingle, share insights, and forge connections.
“It’s refreshing to see such lively exchange,” says Susan Brake, lecturer in the communication program at Wharton, who, along with neighbor and fellow Wharton lecturer Beth Murray, launched the Collegium with Berger. “These students are mature, engaged, and curious, and the intellectual energy is palpable.”
The second event brought more than 20 students interested in global health together with seven physicians and a public health professor. It drew energy from the College’s budding Health and Society program, fostering a vibrant conversation that ran an hour past the allotted time.
Amy Amuquandoh ’16, a biology major from Millstone Township, N.J., relished the perspectives of community members who had served abroad — particularly Sonya Cheng, a pediatrician who worked with Doctors Without Borders in Sudan and Angola, who advised the students not to be discouraged if they feel like they don't do enough to solve the areas' problems.
“You’re still making a difference, she told us, by interacting with and providing emotional support to even one person,” says Amuquandoh, leader of the Global Health Forum from which many of the student participants were drawn. “That was just one the insights I identified with personally, helping me to envision what global health work is really like.”
She also made a coffee date with pediatrician Esther Chung, who has worked in Malawi, where Amuquandoh will contribute to a global health project next year. Also making a connection at the event was Eleanor Ghanbari ’19, a pre-med student from San Diego, Calif., who went on to shadow pediatrician Lisa O’Mahony for a day.
Nancy Yuan ’19, of New Zealand, made a second-degree connection, after hearing about the effective altruism work of one of the professionals’ sons. Yuan asked for his contact information, which led to emails and Skype sessions with him and others working in the field of effective altruism and, ultimately, her starting a club on that topic at Swarthmore.
“All these years, I’ve been saying I want to do good in the world, but I didn’t know in what way,” says Yuan, who is considering a major in political science and peace & conflict studies. “This was very fortuitous.”
The first Collegium, held in October, focused on the projects of Lang Opportunity Scholars. These projects require vast expertise, says Berger, who connected each student to one or two mentors from the borough, including Lou Boxer, a surgeon with Doctors with Borders, and Tim Kearney, the mayor of Swarthmore, who also teaches at Drexel and works on sustainable architecture.
Beyond its benefits to students, the Collegium responds to the desire of community members to get more involved at the College, says Berger. It paves a two-way street.
“I can envision many other activities where great synergy exists, and great educational activities could be created,” says Helge Hartung, an attending physician at the Children’s Hospital of Pennsylvania, who participated in the second Collegium. “I love the concept.”
For Rinpoche Price-Huish ’18, the Collegium unlocked the vault of resources she knew to be in the borough but felt disconnected from. It was also a chance to connect more deeply with the students with whom she shares interests.
“This connection was super helpful and insightful, as sometimes I can get caught up in my own academics at Swat,” says Price-Huish, a medical anthropology special major from Bountiful, Utah. “It’s easy to forget that there are other students with similar aspirations you can bounce ideas or experiences off of.”
Echoing that sentiment from the borough residents’ perspective was Murray.
“I’ve always known Swarthmore was a special place to live – that people here are extraordinarily interesting and engaged in solving important problems,” she says. “But I’ve been thrilled to see how eager people are to take the time to share their life experiences and passions with students.”
With two events in the books, the Collegium is in its early stages, says Berger. But the program has the support of President Valerie Smith, who is eager to attend one of the networking events, and a wide array of campus and borough community members excited to participate.
“It’s really uncharted territory,” says Brake, “so the sky’s the limit for the value that the Collegium can add to the community and the students.”