More than 400 new students arrived to Swarthmore this week, from more than 30 countries and a spectrum of life experiences and socioeconomic backgrounds. But what many of these students have in common, aside from wide eyes, is The Feeling.
“It’s easy to feel like the outsider, surrounded by all these brilliant, high-achieving, well-prepared classmates, who seem like they’re fitting in seamlessly,” says Liz Derickson ’01, assistant dean for academic affairs, recalling her first days at the College.
It’s normal, then, for new students to question whether they belong here, adds Liz Braun, dean of students.
“Our goal is to help to reinforce in every way possible that the answer to that question is a resounding 'YES!'” she says. “The College benefits from the range of perspectives, experiences, and talents that every student brings to Swarthmore."
That message underpins the College’s comprehensive approach to supporting its new students, particularly throughout their first year. From the moment the boxes file out of the cars on move-in day, staff and faculty from all areas of campus are there to help new students feel at home and aware of all the resources available to help them succeed.
“This is our opportunity to say, ‘We’re here for you,’” says T. Shá Duncan Smith, associate dean for diversity, inclusion, and community development. “It’s helping students to take full advantage of a time in their lives that’s like no other.”
The College's support efforts begin Orientation Week. Programming to help ease the transition and help students get acclimated with the College include events geared to international and first-generation students and their families, an academic advising fair, and a First Gathering, where students can reflect on queries of self, community, and transition. Staff from Public Safety, Student Health and Wellness Services, Office of Student Engagement, Career Services, and other departments also hold sessions to outline their offerings.
Along with assistance from faculty and staff, students interact directly with more than 100 of their peers — resident advisors (RAs), student academic mentors (SAMs), diversity peer advisors (DPAs), and green advisors (GAs) — who were recently in their position and are eager to help.
“I have to turn student leaders down,” says Jennifer Marks-Gold, director of international student services. “They want to give back to new students because they had such a great experience.”
First on campus were the 58 new international students, who arrived a week earlier than their classmates to deal with jet lag, cut through immigration and employment red tape, and forge bonds before transitioning into the main group, says Marks-Gold. To help them overcome cultural barriers and homesickness, the College offers social and educational programming throughout the year, as well as a “big sibling, little sibling” program that pairs international students from different areas of the world.
“We try to be as proactive as possible in acclimating them to this environment,” says Marks-Gold, who also sits down to dinner with the international students every Tuesday.
All new students benefit from the academic programming developed by the Office of Academic Affairs, the Office of Learning Resources, including the September workshops on language study skills, effective time management, and how to read in college. Because another session, participating effectively in class, was of particular interest to several first-generation students, its panel features faculty members who were first-generation students themselves.
Also forging personal connections with new students are the RAs, GAs, DPAs and SAMs, who underwent inclusive leadership training and will attend weekly meetings and in-service training sessions on the finer points of fostering community.
“They’re helping to define who we are as a community and how we interact with one another,” says Duncan.
Once students begin to feel at home, though, their attention turns to Swarthmore’s academic rigor. Most are relieved to learn the first semester is, essentially, pass/fail; students are graded, but the grades don’t go on their transcripts. It’s an opportunity to take risks and stretch oneself.
“We want to help students to learn and grow academically and in a range of other ways,” says Diane Anderson, associate dean of academic affairs and associate professor of educational studies. “In many cases, in college, the place where you learn the most is not in the course where you got the best grade.”
New students still experience times of peak stress, though, whether it’s the first week of classes, the first research paper, or final exams. To help them through these rough stretches, the Dean’s Office staff has an open-door policy and collaborative approach to offering support.
“A student can stop into any of our offices and we’ll get them to the right place to get their needs met,” says Karen Henry ’87, dean of first-year students. “And if any of us hears something about someone who needs help, we’ll make sure that the right person reaches out to them in support.”
That collaborative spirit also fuels the Athletics Department, where new students have an extra layer of responsibility on the field.
“Every coach has their own mechanisms for acclimating new students and support systems they’ve been successful with,” says Nnenna Akotaobi, associate athletics director. “But it’s mostly making sure we stay constantly engaged with our student-athletes to understand what their needs are, then connect them to the tremendous resources we have here at Swarthmore.”
Among them, the academic advisors who help new students chart an academic path and offer one-on-one guidance throughout the semester, and the staff of McCabe Library, which provides a road map of its services and prepares students for the intricacies of college-level research.
“But our main message at orientation is, ‘Hey, we’re friendly, come ask us questions,’” says Pam Harris, associate college librarian for research and instruction.
That can be a difficult message to convey to students who were the top performers in their high schools and never really needed to ask for help, says Henry, remembering her own reluctance to raise her hand as an undergraduate. But it’s one they would be wise to heed, to maximize their Swarthmore experience.
"One of the most important messages we give to new students is that asking for help is a sign of strength,” says Braun.
“You came to Swarthmore for that one-on-one support and high-touch environment,” adds Pattie Kim-Keefer, assistant director, internships and technology, Career Services, who works closely with first-generation students. “Take advantage of it. Be empowered by it.”
Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories on Swarthmore's comprehensive approach to supporting its students. The next installment will examine the assistance the College offers students for tuition, research opportunities, international travel, and more.