My Swarthmore, in 150 Words or Less

Collage of Faces
In honor of Swarthmore's sesquicentennial, alumni from the '30s to the '13s speak about the significance of the College in their lives. Have a memory or testimony to share? Please write to

Swarthmore is imbued with what I think of as intellectual activism - an appreciation of ideas not as abstractions but as applications meant to undergird ethical actions and interactions. One emerges from Swarthmore enlightened but certainly not lightened; understanding entails an obligation of sorts, and Swarthmoreans tend to carry the weight of radical responsibility in a way that many other college graduates do not. This is more of a blessing than a burden, as it enables us to achieve extraordinary things - and to be extraordinary people. Sanda Balaban '94

In addition to my formal education, Swarthmore gave me two important things: one, knowing that I am part of a special group of people gave me much-needed confidence in myself. This allowed me to take risks, break out of the mold, and work on certain economic and social problems in what might be called new ways. Two, Swarthmore gave me a sense of community and a sense of purpose: that whatever I do, I need to work toward improving society. Iqbal Quadir '81

The community of purpose that Swarthmore was and is, the set of values it represented, and the willingness to hold tough conversations is really one of the things for which I am most grateful. Ellen Schall '69

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Over four years, Swarthmore nurtured a sense of unshakeable purpose at the heart of my personal life and my professional aspirations. Ultimately, I found the two to be indistinguishable from each other. The lessons I learned in the classroom about gender inequalities, race, post-colonial tensions, and body/image ownership were about myself, which made me strive for the equitable representation of women in my health communications career. Swarthmore gave me lifelong tools on how to think about and assess the world critically, while encouraging me to brainstorm solutions to make it a better place. Maki Somosot '12

My high school taught me what a preparatory education should be. My graduate school gave me the skills to build a business to deliver that education to poor children. But Swarthmore taught me why I should devote my life to such a project. Like so many of us, I became who I am at Swarthmore. ... First and foremost, it was the focus on academics. Swarthmore allowed me to see that concentrating on the life of the mind is important. Second, it was the lack of grade inflation. In a world all too accepting of poor quality, it is exciting to have been nurtured by a place that calls mediocrity to account. Swarthmore helped me to see that if I am to accomplish anything important in life, it will not be by coasting. Eric Adler '86

Swarthmore was the place in my life where I felt most comfortable and most at home – but at the same time the most challenged. It was the only place thus far that I could engage in every sort of conversation, about anything. It could be something in pop culture but it was more often about religion, politics, and literature. My friends and I would challenge each other, and we were very critical about everything. But we were supportive of each other as well and very open to other opinions. ... It was a bit of a shock in medical school, then residency – and even now working – to find that certain kinds of conversations are not so welcome. A lot of my Swarthmore friends have said the same thing. We haven't found that anywhere else. Trini Truong '04

Swarthmore is the kind of school you choose if you want a really big challenge. Not the superficial challenge of climbing the ladder that's been put in front of you, but the more difficult challenge of figuring out which ladder is worth climbing, or building a ladder to a place no one has imagined before. Will Saletan '87

"Use well thy freedom" raps our knuckles, calls us to our senses. And yet, and yet . . . It is that message from Swarthmore that most remains with me. Read in a different light, it reminds us that the shortness of life is not inconsistent with the fullness of life. In fact, it doesn't really even caution against reckless abandon, if that's what the moment calls for. What it does demand of us is that we continue to ask ourselves the kind of difficult questions of which a Swarthmore education consists and for which a Swarthmore education has prepared us. Self-reflection - without self-absorption - is, to my mind, at the core of Swarthmore. But Swarthmore is also more than this. It demands a looking in so that we may better go out. T. Alexander Aleinikoff '74

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Starting at Swarthmore as a political science major, I have learned to value academic freedom, the thrill of ideas, the challenge of friendships across cultures, finding in the connectedness of this whole global society of wonderful people who share enthusiasm and optimism. What I have come to understand about myself, personally, is that I like to keep my learning curve steep. Marcia Grant '60

I absolutely loved my time at Swarthmore. That experience and the memories accompanying it will forever be with me. The College challenged me intellectually while nurturing my spirit. It also cultivated my global and social consciousness thanks to the Quaker traditions that remain and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility. Swarthmore enabled me to have mentors in my life who modeled the kind of professor I hope to become. I also treasured the friendships I made that are poised to last a lifetime. Whenever I think of the amphitheater, the rose garden, the Wharton courtyard, and the Intercultural Center, it warms my heart. Having come to Swarthmore from Palestine, the College was my home away from home. I felt safe and welcome at Swarthmore and found my voice there as well as my calling to devote my life to the pursuit of human rights and social justice. Sa'ed Atshan '06

I can only say that Swarthmore opened the doors to the rest of my life in ways in which the admissions officer who took a chance on my application could never have envisioned. ... I owe much to Swarthmore that I can never repay. It taught me about myself and about the world community in which we all live. It taught me to appreciate the joy of learning and provided me with the tools to succeed. It taught me how to be a leader among my peers and how to advocate for our interests. Sherry Bellamy '74

At Swarthmore, I learned that a life that marries the intellectual and the moral is a productive and satisfying one. All around me were role models of such lives, in my professors and the alumni that I knew. In my classes and seminars, and the opportunities for community service that I had, I learned how to pursue such a life. For me, this marriage has led to a life in education and leadership. Dulany Ogden Bennett '66

Swarthmore taught me how to learn. While my major was technically art history, the subject matter itself was much less important than the core skills I developed. At Swarthmore, I learned to read critically and write persuasively, to synthesize large bodies of information from disparate sources, and to identify and react to bias. This foundation has enabled me to do more, faster, throughout the rest of my life. Justin Belmont '05

Swarthmore chronicles my journey to self-discovery. I mark many milestones by my occupation of its historical facilities. Wharton Hall was where I spent my first summer away from home as a high school student in the College's Upward Bound Program. During intense summers on Swarthmore's campus, I was introduced to the intellectual prowess and generosity of spirit characteristic of Swarthmore students. I became an artist in Old Tarble. During my years as a student, I learned how to create dances that narrate my North American African existence. In those years, I found a family in the Black Cultural Center, a support system that I continue to utilize well into my adult years. Upon graduation, I started my career as an arts educator in the LPAC. For 20 years, I have taught African dance to generations of Swarthmore students, empowering them to find agency and beauty in their dancing bodies. C. Kemal Nance '92

Five years removed from commencement, I am convinced that I have yet to scratch the surface of the ways in which Swarthmore prepared me to find purpose, embrace challenges, and effect change in the world. My journey has just begun, but I have taken the many Swarthmore lessons I have learned and tried with all my might to adhere to. R. Keith Benjamin '09

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Swarthmore was and is a huge influence on my life. It laid the ground work from my grandmother, who lived in town, to my mother, Class of '24, to my own beliefs of Quaker simplicity, intellectual curiosity, individuality, acceptance of different viewpoints, and much more. I am really the person I am today at age 83 mainly due to my Swarthmore background! Sylvia Hand Pott '52

I don't think anyone comes to Swarthmore because they want to breeze through their four years of college. I liked that everyone around me was willing to take on challenges, whether they were academic, personal, or social. Honestly, I liked the bit of discomfort associated with the fact that I could always do better - refine an argument better, support a friend better, organize better programming for a club. Swarthmore taught me to never be complacent. The discomfort might have been tough, had I also not felt as though I was never alone. Regardless of what challenge I was taking on, there was always a friend, or professor, or dean to support me. I always felt encouraged, such that I felt that my challenges helped me to grow, instead of limiting me. I carry that same attitude toward the challenges I face today. Andrea Pien '08

As an applicant, I believed Swarthmore to be out of reach financially. I was wrong. I thought I might be a decent student. I was wrong again. At Swarthmore, I exercised and stretched newly discovered intellectual muscles. The faculty, deans, and coaches pushed me beyond my limits, but they also cared deeply. Ed Dunning, Jerry Frost, A.J. Levine, and Jerry Wood come to mind, as do Bob Barr and Janet Dickerson. They stood ready to challenge me, to provide needed support and humor, and to remind me of the endless possibilities ahead. Their passion for and practice of their collective crafts was infectious. Still, I never dreamed that Swarthmore would be both my educational and my vocational home. It is an honor and privilege to be a part of Swarthmore's past, to shape its present, and to care for its future. Jim Bock '90

The individualism that Swarthmore exemplified, and the fact that it gave you such a broad education in such a personalized way, where classes were so small and intimate, was a spur for me – in leaving the field of law, in starting out on Wall Street, and, within Wall Street, taking the risk of finding a new niche and building it up. Jerome Kohlberg '46

Swarthmore gave me confidence that I could handle whatever would come before me, and the knowledge that teaching and expertise matter. It gave me a grounding in lifelong learning, addressing reality, and empathizing with the cast of characters that are at the core of being a doctor. My patients crowd my head as I try to figure out how to help them. We all are the products of a complex web of genes and environment. I wish all young adults could share in the nurturing provided by Swarthmore. My sense is that the gift of a Swarthmore education commits us to sharing what we can of the talents the College fostered in us. Joann Bodurtha '74

What originally attracted me to Swarthmore was the fascination with ideas ... Once I started Swarthmore, not only was that urge satisfied but I learned – painfully at times – what was considered evidence, what constituted an argument. The Quaker influence, the warmth of the faculty, the Honors Program, and the friendships I made with my fellow students stood me in good stead the rest of my life. ... Swarthmore provided me with a standard for myself, not only intellectually, but in terms of integrity that proved to be vital. Walter Blass '51

At this East Coast bastion of liberal thought, this Missouri girl found a home. Upon hearing of Swarthmore, I envisioned a group of hipsters, sitting around smoking and discussing generally depressing stuff. I applied anyway. Upon being accepted at Swarthmore, I quailed at going so far away where I knew no one. I went anyway. Upon meeting classmates who had studied in Europe and spoke several languages, I cried. I stayed anyway. My reward for going against my better judgment has been memories enriched by Friends and friends. I no longer had to downplay my curiosity or knowledge – even on dates. I found like minds from very different worlds who shared their lives and only occasionally made fun of my accent. The campus greenery soothed my soul, and the '60s turmoil made me think about what justice really means. I will always cherish my time here. Glenda Rauscher '69

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Swarthmore meant being part of a community that humbled me, pushed me, and helped me grow up. I've met friends, professors, and coaches who continue to be important influences in my life and who have taught me countless things. I value the experiences I had at Swarthmore, and I'm glad to continue to be a community member to this day. Swarthmore introduced me to a set of amazing people and ideas, and has shaped who I am. I don't go a day without using something I was taught there. I am extremely grateful for my time there. Emily Bryant '12

The first thing that struck me about Swarthmore was that I was surrounded by people who had all been the smartest people in their high schools – most in the top 10 percent. Now we were in a place where everyone was on that level. This combination of intelligence, confidence, and decency was exciting to me, especially since nobody seemed arrogant about it. ... In terms of the knowledge I absorbed, learning to persuade and to be persuaded, the constant give and take, coming to Swarthmore was the best decision I could have made. David Cohen '77

From the first week that I was on campus, I have felt a deep connection to the place and the people of Swarthmore. The beauty of the campus was immediately incredible. My bond with the people through our shared commitment to intellectual curiosity was not as outwardly obvious, but became clear intuitively just as quickly. My initial connection has endured through academic struggles, adolescent uncertainties, and the decades since graduation. Swarthmore is one of the few communities that I have found where I feel that I belong, where my values are congruent, and where I am expected to reach for my highest self. I know that my experience is not unique, but I also know that it is not universal. Swarthmore was the perfect place for me to be as a student and continues to be an anchor in my life. I am grateful. Linda Bovard '72

Swarthmore was the place I learned I could have an extraordinary life. Not that I would make a lot of money or that I'd be elected president. Rather, it taught me about the richness of the world and how to savor it as I passed through. At Swarthmore, I learned about the nuance and complexity that made life richer. Part of that was in the College's intellectual life, but much of it came from my classmates, whose intelligence and diverse world views opened up my mind in ways neither family nor high school ever did. Moreover, Swarthmore did more than expand my internal world. It is a living example of giving back, underscoring the importance of being an active and caring part of both your community and the larger world. One might say these things about many schools, but our college's intense and genuine belief in its mission makes it stand apart. Hal Kwalwasser '68

Swarthmore is where I first felt completely able to be myself. It nurtured me not only academically but also socially, culturally and politically. 500 College Avenue is where I met my best friends. It is also where I pinpoint learning to think laterally; to be unafraid of asking questions; where I worked harder than I ever had before, got things wrong, and recognized I wasn't the smartest person in the room. I wouldn't have the career I find so fulfilling today without the Honors program having taught me to think critically, shape my ideas fully and express them passionately. Zoe Whitley '01

More than anything, what Swarthmore fed was my hunger to learn, almost indiscriminately. It never stood in my way, and it excited me to do more. Critical to a life of success is a passion for learning new things, and Swarthmore gave me that. Rebecca Bushnell '74

I didn't appreciate the value of the Swarthmore quality of mind until I went to work at the Studio Museum in Harlem. ... What sustained me, in large measure, was what I learned in the classroom at Swarthmore. Whether those classes had been in physics or political science, they all taught the Swarthmore quality of mind: comfort with massive amounts of new material and complexity; the capacity to probe deeply and persistently with purposeful focus; the insistence on excellence and integrity. I had never run anything, but Swarthmore had equipped me to learn quickly and learn deeply. Mary Schmidt Campbell '69

Swarthmore fostered a sense of intimacy with ideas, nature and, most importantly, people. In four short years, I forged remarkably strong bonds with classmates, resulting in both a family – I was a "matchbox couple" – and friendships that have lasted a lifetime. Unexpectedly, the family has included a second-generation Swarthmore couple, my niece and her wife, and the friendships have expanded to include perfect strangers simply because of the shared experience. The education offered by both professors and friends instilled in me not only confidence but also humility. How wonderful to be part of a community of extraordinarily talented people who recognize – and celebrate – the talent in others. How inspiring to absorb the Swarthmore obligation to do the right thing and to try to make the world a better place. Not my plan, but no surprise that I teach law and ethics in a business school... with Swarthmore-inspired zest and optimism. Anita Cava '75

I arrived at Swarthmore scared (by a well-meaning high school counselor) that I would "no longer be the top," which I'd interpreted as "I'll fail." Perhaps my most significant lesson of the four years was that not only did it not matter where I was on some yardstick, but that the yardstick was irrelevant. Swarthmore was populated by profoundly interesting people, and no one path, or vocation, or level of academic standing was the critical determinant of whom I respected or admired. I made close friends, fell in love for the first (and the second and third) time, worked hard, and enjoyed life. I grew up, grew into new, increasingly liberal, values, and learned to argue about things that concerned me. I learned to be a scientist, my initial career, but also came to understand what I valued in myself. In this, Swarthmore has never ceased to influence me. Ellen Daniell '69

My mother always did her best to give my sisters and me the world, but she was often relegated only to the piece of the world she could afford. As a single parent, she made countless sacrifices so that we could dare to dream of the world she only experienced in the abstract. When I entered Swarthmore, it was the first time in my life my dreams had no bounds. If I had a dream or a vision for my future, I was not only given the tools and resources to nurture them into reality, but also encouraged to dream even bigger than before. When I graduated, I left filled with an unrelenting commitment to realize my dreams but simultaneously encourage others stifled by inequality to do the same. Swarthmore undoubtedly changed my life and I will be forever grateful for such an opportunity. Marissa Davis '08

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At my company, we employ a lot of Swarthmore grads. I can teach business process - the skills we need to do to get our work done - but I can't teach what Swarthmore teaches. Swarthmore alumni excel in business because of their critical thinking and writing skills. Plus they bring a social awareness, soul, and creativity you don't find in other folks at the same pay grade. Those are skills we need. Ted Chan '02

When I think about how I learned at Swarthmore, what comes to mind is problem solving in all contexts. ... It comes down to a sense of being willing to take risks and a resilience when things fail, and coming out of that process with a real sense of optimism that with enough effort and enough creativity and conversations, you can do anything. That was really my take-home lesson from Swarthmore. Sean Decatur '90

Four short years at Swarthmore turned out to be a far deeper and lasting source of influence than my 18-year old mind could have ever understood when I sent in my college application. The academic rigor; the excellence of faculty, not only as scholars, but also teachers and mentors; and above all, Swarthmore's values – the deep rooted pursuit of justice, service, equality, and community. I am now increasingly recognizing how these messages have shaped the core of my world view, not always the most popular, but one I feel proud to commit to. In an era of ever shifting winds, the ability to stand firm is priceless, and I am grateful for the gift – one that keeps giving, from the day when I stepped into Parrish Hall. Elizabeth (Yingjie) Li '01

I know that I am not alone in believing that Swarthmore helped me achieve more than I ever thought possible when I was at the College. When I am asked why, my response goes like this: 'At Swarthmore, I felt I had to run to keep up with everyone there. After I left Swarthmore, I kept the same pace and discovered I was running faster than just about everybody else.' I am grateful. Mary Murphy Schroeder '62

The Swarthmore faculty transformed me from a student who just wanted the 'A' into a scholar who sought to ask important questions and delve deeper into issues. They taught me that education is not just about credits and grades but also about imagination and insight and passion. They taught me to be bold as a thinker. Thanks to Swarthmore, I like to think that I have become a lifelong learner. Tori Haring-Smith '74

Swarthmore was, and is, a magical place to me, filled with diverse, inspiring, brilliant people connected by a commitment to making a difference. If you take the time to be present with other students, it will often broaden your entire perspective. I saw several people do this really well at Swarthmore; I saw how much they got out of listening. That helped me to become a better listener, which has proved very important in my life since. H.G. Chissel '96

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Photo by Kat Clark '12

Senior year, my window looked out on Sharples and Magill Walk. If I looked to the left, I could see the train station, and to the right I could see the front of Parrish. I saw a lot of sunrises through that window, after a marathon of essay writing or studying for an exam. I saw a sunrise in the amphitheater, one from the middle of Crum Creek, one from the rugby pitch, and too many to count while hurrying down the hill from Beardsley. There was always someone else up at sunrise, too: the friend huddled in front of a laptop, the classmate waiting in pajamas for breakfast to begin. Those sunrises told us, "You made it through the night, and you're not alone out here!" I've thought of those mornings every sunrise since — and more importantly, I've thought of them in the middle of some sleepless nights. Kat Clark '12

These days, I do a lot of teaching, seeking to inspire young people to become deeply and actively involved in the politics and public life of their communities, states, and country. In a sense, I guess, I am trying to do for them what Swarthmore did for me – help them to understand that making a difference in the lives of one's fellow citizens is the most satisfying and the most fulfilling thing one can do during his life on this planet. Michael Dukakis '55

It's an important part of Swarthmore: the discourse, the challenge. You got ideas? You want your ideas challenged, and you want to be able to defend them. And if you can't defend them, you need new ideas. Frank Easterbrook '70

I learned not to be afraid of being stupid. I refer often to the experience of being in an honors seminar on the mathematical foundations of quantum mechanics with three students and two professors and getting to a point where we were all stuck on page 74 of a book ... That experience of working really hard ... was really humbling. So I think it left me in retrospect being somewhat fearless intellectually, and that has really stood me in good stead. It's made me unafraid of being outside my intellectual comfort zone and excited at the prospect of taking on issues, problems, and subjects about which I know very little, if anything. Christopher Edley Jr. '73

I think of Swarthmore as a union of equal parts tranquility and fervor, a community that introduced me to the beauty, pleasure, and challenges of intellectual curiosity – my own and that of all the fascinating and engaging people I came to know there, students, faculty, and staff alike. Swarthmore was the spark that ignited my future. Eugénie Isbrandtsen Gentry '77

The community of people I had at Swarthmore was really special; in other places, people weren't necessarily as intellectually curious just for the sake of being curious. Beyond that, it was difficult to realize that in "the real world," the people around me weren't quite as quirky and humble – really humble. I think that was the quality I missed a lot after Swarthmore. Mara Hvistendahl '02

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At Swarthmore, I found an intellectual life that was like a giant version of the dinner table at home. ... At the time, some schools did laboratory demonstrations. Others would provide lab equipment, along with instructions on how to do an experiment. At Swarthmore, we were given the apparatus and told to fix it. In retrospect, this is one of the most important life lessons that I learned at Swarthmore. Neil Gershenfeld '81

It was at Swarthmore that I learned that the humanities and the arts are not decorative embellishments; they are at the heart of any complex attempt to understand and appreciate our world. Marjorie Garber '66

Swarthmore taught me the strength found in an empowered community. While I learned to express myself, I also learned to listen. I carry the Quaker tradition of consensus with me, nurtured by Swarthmore. Will Hopkins '11

I majored in economics and minored in political science. The honors seminars were the defining aspect of the College for me. Being up close and personal with six to eight students and a professor, and having to write a paper or two a week was an excellent training ground for thinking and communicating. The ability to think on one's feet - to always have a logic, a story, for what you were focused on - was a skill Swarthmore instilled in me. And being able to argue vociferously with friends and then let it all go is a wonderful way to learn that friendship and community are not based on shared views but, rather, on shared values. Harold "Koof" Kalkstein '78

When I look at the "selfie" I took in my stifling room in Mertz, on that very first day I arrived at Swat, I see a completely different person than the one on the day I graduated. How did living in such a tiny room expose me to such a magnificent and mystifying world that I never even knew existed? It is Swarthmore's capability to squeeze all the amazing professors, remarkable students, unparalleled opportunities for artistic expression and substantive personal growth, infused with the commitment for positive change on this planet, into a petite, primordial, self-contained wonder of a campus that makes four years here like no other experience in the world. I will never again be shepherded through a more transformative period in my life, but I've come away with the knowledge that it is now my responsibility to create positive transformation for myself and my fellow humans. Ariel Finegold '13