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Student Story Four

Korean-American Female Student, Class of 2023

How prepared did you feel coming into Swarthmore?

Although the rigor often cited by students and faculty at the College was one of the key reasons that ultimately led me to select Swarthmore as my intellectual home for the next four years of my life, I was absolutely terrified of being surrounded by people of drastically different social backgrounds. I definitely felt as though I had to prove that I belonged at such a elite institution. This challenged my perception of the self I had known before coming to Swarthmore and only made me more nervous about actually taking the steps to be present in the networks that would allow me to challenge my limits and frazzle the comfort of being surrounded by those of similar social capital.

What are some differences and commonalities between your STEM experience in high school and at Swarthmore?

Prior to Swarthmore, I had many teachers who shared similar backgrounds to mine and encouraged me to pursue STEM. Their support was one of the main reasons I was considering a STEM major at Swarthmore. However, as a child of immigrants whose fields of study were in the humanities, telling my family that I wanted to pursue chemistry came as a bit of a shock. Thus, the only place in which I would really explore the field was at school. Early on, I discovered that I desired and enjoyed intellectual challenges and found myself very impartial about my classes. I craved a holistic academic agenda, which made me very open to the idea of liberal arts and, of course, Swarthmore. While my high school cherished the students who were "good enough" to pursue STEM, Swarthmore imbues each and every one of its departments with a kind of magic and relevancy I wish I had seen throughout my socialization before coming to college. However, both my high school and Swarthmore teach STEM courses from an "objective" lens. Neither institution makes an effort to contextualize what we learn with what that material really means in this world, what it used to mean, and what it could mean in times to come. Moreover, the STEM curriculum is not very forgiving. I feel that from what I have experienced in STEM, the field (maybe not always deliberately) trains us to be less human and more machine-like. Both in high school and at Swarthmore, it has been difficult to find individuals to convey these kinds of feelings to, especially since many of the individuals who are in the department tend not to share the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and FLI (First-Gen/Low-Income) students, or they have trained themselves to fit into the socially accepted and required productive being. Grades are also a tremendous priority in the field, which has always been mentally draining. I would prefer not to be graded on a scale from 0-100 or assigned a letter for the small portion of myself I am forced to serve on a platter to those who most often (and understandably) will never truly know who I am or where I come from, nor my plans for beyond their course.

What are some ways in which you struggled with STEM classes at Swarthmore, and how did you find support?

I found so much support in my peers. I participated in the Swarthmore Health Society's Big Sib/Little Sib program, where I was matched with someone from my city and was able to share a meal with them while talking about course selection, summer opportunities, and social life as a pre-med student. I also ended up stumbling upon friends in other completely unrelated clubs, as well as with classmates who were majoring in the social sciences/humanities but were on the pre-med track. There isn't a single person I've met who hasn't had at least some inkling of interest/experience within STEM at some point, which is why I think it's just worth talking to anyone you have the chance of spending even a couple of minutes with. Who knows? That person could end up being the mentor you never knew you needed. There are truly an abundance of beautiful and kind souls at this school.