Swarthmore, PA: When I visited Swarthmore College last year, it had not yet been rated the number one liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News and World Report. But I’m not surprised it won this honor. Swarthmore is located just outside of Philadelphia and, hence, is not far from Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and Penn, all of which share a common list of activities, and a bus system that carries students to those campuses – in fact, students can cross-register for courses at the other schools. (It is not unlike the five college consortium of Smith-UMASS-Amherst-Hampshire-Mount Holyoke, in Massachusetts.)

I was in Philadelphia to visit my sister and we decided to combine the visit with a visit to the school. So on a rainy Monday, my mother, my sister, and I set out for the campus. All of my ideas about the school up to this point had been influenced by my aunt, my cousin, and my mother; the latter of whom did not even attend the school but often went there in the late ’60s for concerts and to visit her sister.

The campus was gorgeous, and even in the rain, it was lush and green. Swarthmore, the tour guide said, is also a national arboretum. For each entering freshman, they plant a tree or shrub on the grounds. Our first stop on the tour was the library, which was appropriately quiet and heavily populated. The guide said this was typical, and mentioned the library hours, which I must say were extensive. Our guide also mentioned that Swarthmore was founded by the Quakers and, as we exited the library, she pointed out their large peace library, another section of the main library. In fact, Swarthmore has a Peace Studies major.

A large portion of the campus was being remodeled and rebuilt, but in every building, in every corner, were students involved – and sometimes over-involved – in the act of studying. (In fact, I saw many students asleep with a book on their lap, head, or knee.) This was a bit shocking to me, especially as it was not exactly exam time.

In the computer lab, every student was absorbed in typing; yet, outside great expanses of trees swayed unvisited. I began to wonder if Swarthmore was perhaps too academic for my taste. Then we went to the dorms.

My cousin, who was a freshman there, had decided he’d like to take a year off and visit Chile. However, by some twist of fate, the tour guide brought us to his dorm. On the wall, just inside the door, was a huge sheet of paper where an active sort of debate was written, in the handwriting of the inhabitants of the dorm. In fact, I found some of my cousin’s arguments scrawled in the blue pen he’d been using to write letters from Chile. Here, I thought, was something I could like about Swarthmore: involvement in ideas.

When the tour was over, my mom went looking for an old Russian professor she’d known. The neatest thing was, she found him. He had bright eyes and a white beard and he talked animatedly about how much he loved teaching at Swarthmore. I told him about the paper on the wall of the dorm and he laughed. “That,” he said, “is why you should come to Swarthmore. If you like ideas, and you like to explore them, to talk about them, if you can truly get excited about them, do not hesitate to come here.” f

Reviewed in 1997