In the early days of the Learning for Life (L4L) program, Diane Anderson asked her Literacy and Social Identities students if anyone knew basic HTML; there was a staff member who wanted to learn it for a computer business he ran on the side.
When no hands went up, she changed course.
“Well, does anyone want to know it?” asked Anderson, now associate professor and co-chair of Educational Studies.
In that moment, the mission of L4L took hold. Two people learning together with access to all of the College’s spaces and resources. Brainstorms and friendships. Reciprocity.
“We didn’t want relationships between students and staff with unequal power and knowledge dynamics,” says Anderson. “I knew some incredible people from Environmental Services, Dining, and elsewhere on campus, and I knew how much they had to offer.”
That spirit continues to suffuse L4L, whose 20th anniversary the College celebrated this spring. Led by a steering committee of students and staff, this year’s program formed 14 partnerships in which community members shared and created new interests—among them yoga, cooking, embroidery, and theater arts.
Steve Lockard, a supervisor with Environmental Services (EVS), and Rozella Apel ’22, a Rubin Scholar from Santa Maria, Calif., developed a weekly radio show on WSRN. For Apel, “the biggest NPR fan, to the point that it’s really geeky,” and Lockard, who already had a show on the College station, it was a natural fit. But their larger takeaway was the value of building bonds with community members they might not have otherwise encountered.
“Even if you want to reach out and bridge that gap, there’s distinct ways to do that outside L4L,” Apel says. “It’s been really cool having a conduit for that type of interaction.”
“If you think about it, the students are around us more than their families,” adds Lockard. “I see this not as a partnership but a friendship.”
That’s music to the ears of Hussain Zaidi ’22, who led the steering committee. Back in Pakistan, Zaidi abhorred the class divide he witnessed and worked to promote inclusion of maintenance staff members at his and other local schools. He has carried those efforts over to Swarthmore, creating signs and chalkings in Sharples and around campus to boost appreciation of EVS staff.
“We’re in a school that emphasizes diversity and community, and that’s not possible without our students interacting respectfully with staff,” says Zaidi, a McCabe Scholar and Newman Civic Fellow. “They’re an integral element of the school.”
The relationships are the heart of the program, agrees Anderson, regardless of socioeconomic status, gender, race, or age.
“Those boundaries are being crossed in a way that puts a face on real people with real lives,” she says.
Adds Sharon Pierce of EVS, who has participated in L4L from the beginning: “Interacting with the students is a joy. It’s a chance to step out of the usual work, work, work, and puts me in the mind frame of positive energy.”
One of those students has kept in touch with Pierce, sending her letters over the years. That’s not uncommon, says Anderson—“once people have their partners, they don’t want to give them up.” Other staff members have invited students into their homes and communities for parties.
“One year, an EVS staffer had a 50th wedding anniversary,” Anderson adds, “and there was a Learning for Life table of students and staff from the College.”
Among other fond recollections are the bench that Kenneth Whye of EVS and a student built, which remains on campus, and the student who taught a Dining Services staff member how to play piano in exchange for a primer on understanding football.
“He thought it would help him with his dating life,” laughs Anderson.
Another standout is Elizabeth Dozier, who spent 21 years cleaning Hicks Hall and served the L4L steering committee. Over 10-plus years, she learned and taught poetry, algebra, tap dancing, and more. Dozier became such a program stalwart that she presented on it at a conference with Anderson, building confidence in her public speaking that helped her in a leadership role with her church.
“That demonstrates how informal learning can sometimes be more powerful than the actual thing you’re working on,” says Anderson.
Looking forward, Anderson aims to get funding for L4L programming in the summer, when staff members have more time for large-group events such as nature walks, dance lessons, and faculty talks. The possibilities for the program are endless, but its foundation is simple.
“Everyone at Swarthmore wants to learn,” Anderson says. “And they have so much to teach us.”