College Comunity Gathers to Re-Imagine the Student Experience

Swarthmore students, faculty, and staff gathered in the Lang Performing Arts Center on October 17th for "Re-imagining the Swarthmore Student Experience: A Visioning Workshop."

The workshop was developed by the college in collaboration with Brightspot Strategy, a consulting firm focused on enhancing experiences in higher education, and was meant to open a dialogue about the lives of Swarthmore students outside the classroom and how campus spaces can help enhance student experiences. Panelists included Swarthmore staff, faculty, and alumni, and the workshop included 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,” Smith said, kicking off the workshop. “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.”

The workshop opened with a facilitated discussion with the theme of “Community and Belonging.” The participants in this section, all staff members who have come to the College in recent years, were 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 of the central themes of discussion was Swarthmore’s need for a central campus space for student life.

“The most glaring thing for me at Swarthmore is the lack of collaborative spaces,” said Smith, who has previously worked at the Business School at the University of Michigan, where she says the collaborative spaces on campus are more defined. “There were so many different spaces … to sort of find people, and at Swarthmore the only thing I can liken it to is the Science Center, that’s the only place that I can see that’s more of a collaborative space.”

Williamsen built upon Smith’s comments, adding that when the undergraduate institution she attended was struck by a devastating tornado, the first thing to be rebuilt was the student center.

“They said, ‘we need to come together as a community, and we need the space to do that,’” Williamsen remembered. “Of course individual achievement is absolutely part of what we want to foster here [at Swarthmore], but I think many of us talked about valuing that within the community, within a community of communities. 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 do that, and suggest that, even through our buildings and through our spaces?”

Another common thread of the discussion was the need for more communication, both among student groups and between student groups and staff.

“One of the things that I was really struck by was the lack of infrastructure for student organizations,” said Rivera. “I think the difference I see at other institutions is that there’s more coordination. And that coordination, I think, is fostered through things that I haven’t seen at Swat, which is really surprising to me.” He noted the academically rigorous environment at Swarthmore, proposing that student activities staff work more closely with student groups to plan events, taking some of that weight off of students’ shoulders.

“I think that definitely comes down to some accurate records, communications between those organizations, their student leaders, and the rest of the student body,” Barclay added. “I think we’re well on our way to improving a lot of that, as well as easing the way that organizations can find space on campus, how organizations can kind of acknowledge their existence. [That] is at least going to chip away at some of the issues that we’ve identified.”

During the question and answer session, Brittni Teresi ‘19 a psychology major from Las Vegas, Nev., added to the discussion of the apparent segregation of student groups, while Kevin Murphy ‘19, of Media, Pa., raised questions about enhancing the presence of student activity in the Crum Woods. The workshop continued with two subsequent panels, one on the theme of “Exploration and Curiosity” and the other “Growth and Development.”