When I finally decided to attend Swarthmore College, a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania, my friends and family were scared that I would become “one of those liberals” and proceeded to gift me with elephant-patterned pillows and other dorm decorations as relics of my political standing.
After all, they knew Swarthmore as the school with crazy liberal students that blocked alum and former World Bank President Robert Zoellick from coming to campus to receive an honorary degree, took over a Board of Managers meeting, and made President Rebecca Chopp resign from the chaos they caused. They didn’t see why, after all the college-related talks about “fitting into the school” and “seeing yourself as one of them,” I would chose such a school as my alma mater.
Perhaps it was my desire to be poetic, sentimental, or philosophical that caused me to want to attend a college to be a more thoughtful and interesting person. From what I saw, I wasn’t going to change much if I decided to be surrounded by people who think similar thoughts, as I had been for the entirety of my life, growing up close to the Navy base in San Diego. What I expected, really, was discourse of ideas. Yes, Swarthmore is a liberal school, but I imagined the Quaker tradition would allow a peaceful exchange of ideas and an open environment for opposing opinions to coexist. What I found was a bit different.
From my first semester, I found Swarthmore’s vaunted tradition of civil discourse had become a rigid and inflexible radicalism. During the first week of school I was overwhelmed with posters, flyers, and students all over campus trying to convince me to sign the petition for divestment, hop on the bus for the People’s Climate March, and join the walk of silence for social justice causes. I received weird looks when I said that I need time to consider it. Only two days before Homecoming Weekend, child-unfriendly LGBT chalk comments covered the front of my dorm. My visiting Korean relatives read these with astonishment, but I also found myself defending their act of free speech to my conservative aunt, to the surprise of my parents.
Even though I didn’t consider myself to be politically active before coming to Swarthmore, I started to become more vocal once my beliefs were questioned by fellow students. I would also question my own political views and sometimes my values, because so many of my friends and classmates believed in something different. I learned about many social problems that I haven’t even heard of, or knew still existed. Often, I was told that my views were the reason that racism and the “hegemonic system” (otherwise known as capitalism) still existed. When I said I was considering going into finance or to Wall Street, people would ask me how I could possibly think of such a career.
To most students, when I oppose a policy such as Obamacare, I become a cold-hearted, soulless person who wants to undermine the oppressed people of America. Some question why someone like me even stays at a college when I do not support the political agenda. At first, I thought conservatives were perceived as a threat to liberals on campus, but I’ve concluded that they are seen as irrelevant and often excluded and marginalized. A post on social media that might have the possibility of endorsing traditional thoughts such as a belief in God gets voted down, occasionally with ad hominem attacks, while remarks pertaining to any social justice-related topics receive immediate praise. I myself stay off posting controversial topics on social media out of fear and to keep from getting picked on.
Once when I told my friends that I had just returned from the Swarthmore College Conservative Society meeting, one proceeded to call me an “almost-Nazi,” while another thought I was just plain joking, as the group is often made fun of at Swarthmore. They asked me if a room is actually reserved for such a group and whether there are enough attendees for it to be a campus club. When I showed them a copy of the conservative publication The Independent, they smirked and refused to even look.
I am not the only one to feel overwhelmed by the campus political culture. Another freshman, Joseph De Brine from New Mexico, told me in a phone conversation that “politics at Swarthmore are aggressive, even when uninformed. People are constantly up in arms about whatever issue they may care about, and while I don’t see anything wrong with passion, I also don’t think that people take the time to analyze a situation from various perspectives. They're always angry and always pointing fingers, often at conservatives.”
My classmate Nikhil Chopra said, “I really wish there was more of a right wing/Republican presence on campus because it seems there is only one way of thinking at Swarthmore: left wing. It is assumed that students’ opinions are aligned with those of the liberal nature of the College. We claim to be a sophisticated, academic place for open discussion and debate, but true bipartisanship is comprised of multiple viewpoints.”
While it is healthy for young people to be politically active, those who wish to remain on the sidelines or express a different view are often socially pressured to become liberals. As second semester begins, I want to stay hopeful that peaceful dialogues and respectful debates can return to Swarthmore’s campus. Only when Swarthmore’s true Quaker values are restored can its potential be realized