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Why I Chose Swarthmore

Students walk across campus on a fall day

Iris Chan '17 graduated from Swarthmore as a biology major with minors in English literature and psychology. As a student, she blogged for the Admissions Office, including in April 2016 about why she chose to apply early decision. She is now a research assistant in the Zon Lab at Boston Children's Hospital. 


Iris Chan '17Iris Chan '17 was the student speaker at Commencement 2017.

Around this time three years ago, nearly all my friends were excitedly and anxiously deciding what colleges they were going to attend. Now, it’s that time of year again. Some people look for big schools, others look for little schools. Some look for schools that offer specific niches in their field of interest, and yet others look for a school that will provide a broad and enriching academic experience. Although there are many more nuanced reasons than I can write about, these are some of the special things that made me choose Swarthmore!

Learning for learning’s sake

When people asked me why I applied Early Decision to Swarthmore, one of my biggest reasons was that I felt that the academics were focused not on learning to be the best pre-professional student, but how to be a good learner and thinker. This theme of “learning for learning’s sake” is definitely present on campus, and I think that it helps emphasize how to think critically – whether that’s thinking of solutions to exam questions or thoroughly analyzing an author’s argument – and helps create a collaborative (rather than competitive) environment. For example, in my Developmental Biology class, a few of my classmates initiated the idea of SGMs, or ‘study group meetings’, for our class to get together to discuss concepts that we want to work through each week. We also work on problem sets together and discuss things that might have been confusing so that everyone can help each other. Our professor even brings in snacks for us to fuel our brainpower while we study!

A group of students pose for a photo in front of a chalboard Our last day of lab for Organismal & Population Biology (Bio 2)!


Besides being a great community for learning, Swarthmore really emphasizes the importance of teaching, not only by the instructors, but by the students as well! I’ve been lucky enough to be a lab teaching assistant in Bio 2 to get a sense of what it’s like to teach other students and guide them through different experimental techniques. As much as they learn from me, I learn from them, since I often get really good and hard-to-answer questions. The people at Swarthmore are the ones who really challenge me to do my very best in every activity and class on a daily basis. I admire my classmates who ask stimulating questions that I wouldn’t have thought of, or who offer alternative interpretations to the discussion. The combination of my professors’ devotion to teaching us well and my classmates’ intellectual drive motivates me to work hard and be a curious student. Swarthmore might feel intense to some, but I think if you find the right balance, you’ll experience a really special place of learning and teaching that you might not have anywhere else.

A beautiful, peaceful arboretum campus 

“The hills are alive…” with the sounds of birds chirping, students sunbathing, and cherry blossoms blooming! Though the campus is not always flourishing with flowers and plants because winter does happen every year, it is most certainly always well-maintained by the folks who work at the Scott Arboretum. Every tree is labeled with its scientific name. Flowers are meticulously cared for along Magill Walk. And even when I first went on my official tour in the blustery winter of January 2012, the natural landscape of the campus and the surrounding arboretum with its snow-dusted branches drew me in.

Cherry trees in blossom on Swarthmore's campus Cherry blossoms! This is often where the annual Easter Egg Hunt is held.


Living on an arboretum has many highlights. From time to time, I see people playing Frisbee out on the grass or running through the backyard of the Crum Woods. Last year in my Evolution class, we even did field experiments on the Impatiens capensis plant population near the edge of campus. Other times, I see Studio Art students sketching and painting on the white adirondack chairs out in front of Parrish. A note to the allergy-prone: from someone with extreme pollen allergies, don’t worry too much – the benefits of being so near to nature really outweigh the small downsides of carrying around tissues in your backpack.

Meeting people who are humble, dedicated, and seem to do everything!

I first heard about Swarthmore through my piano teacher, Marcantonio Barone. Beginning in 7th grade, I took lessons from him at the Bryn Mawr Conservatory of Music. He would often invite his students to listen to his concerts, some of which were held right here at Swarthmore! I remember very clearly listening with my mom in Lang Music Building and being greeted by student ushers. When I told them that I was a prospective student, they started talking to me excitedly about all the things that Swarthmore had to offer. I’ve since lost track of everything they told me, but I do remember how many different activities they were all involved in – from playing in music ensembles to sports teams, and from being passionate about ecology to social justice.

A group of students stand in front of City Hall in Philadelphia Spending a day in Philadelphia with some of my amazing friends! Our majors (which span psychology, biology, linguistics, anthropology, computer science, and theater) are as diverse as our heights.


I can tell you that Swarthmore is a great school, with a lovely campus and fantastic professors dedicated to teaching. These factors are all important. But really, what’s most important is that my experience so far has been incredible, and it’ll probably only keep getting more awesome as time goes on. Right now, I know that I love studying biology and nerding out with lab-mates about zebrafish development. I love playing piano and jamming out with my friends during breaks in Chorus. I love discovering new approaches to read and write poetry. And I love the feeling of becoming friends with people to the point that you decide you’re probably long-lost twins from another life. All the tiny interests and big passions that I had in high school are only being brought out more. All these things are things that I once thought I might have to give up to do something “serious,” but now, I realize that each of these small things are what make each of us tick a little differently. Swarthmore is a place that can help you dust off old hobbies, strengthen new ones, and perhaps give you something totally new to be passionate about. This is the first time I’ve found my community – people who are excited about changing the world, one small step in the arboretum at a time.

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