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College Community Gathers to Re-Imagine Student Experience

Re-imagining the Swarthmore Student Experience panel


An effort is underway this fall to help the College think more holistically about both the nature of students’ lives beyond the classroom and the types of spaces that might support those experiences, both now and into the future. This process is meant to complement and further develop some of the core findings and recommendations related to student life on campus that first emerged in Strategic Directions released five years ago and in the subsequent Campus Master Plan, both after extensive consultation with faculty, students, staff, and alumni. An advisory group, comprised of students, faculty, staff, and alumni, is helping to lead this effort and, along with Brightspot Strategy, a firm that specializes in helping higher education institutions and other organizations improve work and learning experiences, has met with students, faculty, staff, and alumni on campus to conduct interviews, surveys, and workshops.

In October, the conversation continued as students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Lang Performing Arts Center for a culminating workshop, "Re-imagining the Swarthmore Student Experience." Panelists included Swarthmore staff, faculty, and alumni, and included a discussion facilitated by President Valerie Smith along with question-and-answer sessions with the audience.

“This exercise [is] designed to help us do two things,” said Smith in the event’s introductory remarks. “First, to articulate a clear vision for how best to support our students' engagements and activities on campus, and second, how to create the types of spaces that will enrich these experiences both now and into the future.

“Space is not simply the location where events take place," she continued, "rather, the configuration, size, types of spaces that we use all contribute to the quality and nature of the programs and interactions that occur within them. At this moment in the College’s history, and in our national and international context, it’s critical that we provide students with the types of communal spaces where they can think, learn, and grow together, where they can make connections between their in-classroom and out-of-classroom experiences, and where they can begin to formulate how they want to make a positive difference in the world after they graduate.”

All community members were invited to lunch and to attend part or all of three sessions focused on the guiding principles that have emerged from this visioning process. Approximately 200 community members participated throughout the day. During the first panel, Smith moderated a discussion on community and belonging among staff members who are relatively new to the campus community: Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development T. Shá Duncan Smith, Health and Wellness Services Director Alice Holland, Assistant Director of Student Activities, Leadership, and Greek Life Andrew Barclay, Title IX Coordinator Kaaren Williamsen, Head Swimming Coach Karin Colby, and Sophomore Class Dean and Intercultural Center Director Jason Rivera. One topic raised in their discussion is Swarthmore’s need for a central campus space for student life.

“Of course, individual achievement is absolutely part of what we want to foster here, but I think many of us talk about valuing that within the community, within a community of communities," said Williamsen. "People are going to be successful individually, but how are we going to foster this idea that they’re also responsible to a community? And how do we suggest that through our buildings and spaces?”

A second panel, focused on cultivating ideological diversity on campus, included Assistant Professor of English Literature Gina Patnaik, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Christy Schuetze, Executive Director of the Lang Center Ben Berger, and Associate Professor of Political Science Keith Reeves '88. Their discussion and the subsequent question and answer session raised many questions, including the role of conflict, the importance of a healthy social discourse, and how increasing empathy builds community across groups.

“I was moved by the desire for frank and open discourse,” Berger says, “for spaces and opportunities to break down silos, that I heard from faculty as well as students.”

The third and final panel, on growth and development, featured a presentation by University of Maryland, Baltimore County Professor of Psychology and American Council on Education Fellow Anne Brodsky and panelists Kelley Meagher '89 and Jackie Helene Bailey-Ross '12. Brodsky opened the session by speaking about balance and presented a model illustrating how the concepts of resilience and empowerment work together and play a role in education. Together and with the audience, they examined how to integrate and balance one's life and work, how achievable and desirable that may be, and how to vigorously pursue one’s passions without putting a hold on the things that bring joy.

"The principles drawn out [by Brightspot's] work on campus seem ones that nest well with the values and goals of Swarthmore and seem a great next step to creating an even better Swarthmore experience for the whole community," Brodsky says. "Swarthmore is uniquely poised to provide students some of the resources they need to explore the possibilities and find the right balance for them now and into the future."

As noted in a recent community message from Vice President for Finance Greg Brown, “we plan to engage faculty more fully in the process in the coming weeks, and to share our findings to-date at the All Staff meeting on Nov. 10. We will continue to engage students and hope to consult further with SGO at an upcoming meeting.”  He also noted that findings and recommendations arising from this process are now being formulated and encouraged any member of the community with thoughts or ideas to write to The steering group anticipates sharing a report with the full community early in the spring semester.

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