Welcome to the 5th installment in my series on American educational institutions. Thus far I’ve talked mostly about large universities, but the United States also contains hundreds of superb liberal arts colleges which can be excellent choices for international students. We call those tertiary schools “colleges” because they primarily offer undergraduate degrees in arts and sciences and don’t have post-graduate professional schools (such as medicine and law).

Today I’ll be featuring one of those intimate liberal arts powerhouses, Swarthmore College, located in my birth state of Pennsylvania.

To me, the defining characteristics of Swarthmore are small size, huge reputation, academic excellence, and intense community spirit.

Turning to size first, the school has fewer than 1,550 students total. Just over 93% of the students choose to live on campus, which creates a vibrant, warm community atmosphere that enhances the educational experience.

Engaging with students is a faculty of approximately 165 professors teaching more than 600 separate courses per year, with an average student-to-faculty class size of just under 8:1. The extraordinarily small average class size is coupled with a deep tradition of open discussion which encourages student entrepreneurship, creativity, and discovery. You can’t get lost at Swarthmore. In fact, you can engage directly and in a meaningful fashion with the entire faculty over your time as a student.

Residing on 400 acres (more than 1.6 square kilometers) in the charming town of Swarthmore (population 6,100), the campus is a stunning mix of heritage buildings, award-winning modern structures scaled to the site, wide green spaces,  lush gardens, and tracts of forest. The environs are so salutary that classes are frequently held outside. Moreover, the pastoral campus is only about a half-hour drive (and an even shorter train ride) from the hustle and bustle of center city Philadelphia, creating a great mix of options and opportunities for students.

Parrish Hall.

Parrish Hall, Swarthmore’s oldest building.

The Scott Arboretum

The Chapel rises from one of the College’s greens.

Swarthmore was founded in 1864 by a committee of Quakers intent on creating an institution of higher learning dedicated to the cause of equal rights. At the insistence of none other than iconic abolitionist and women’s rights activitist Lucretia Mott herself, Swarthmore was co-educational from inception. In Swarthmore’s first graduating class was Helen Magill White, who went on to become the first woman in the United States to earn a Ph.D.

Swarthmore’s origins continue to infuse and enlighten its approach to education and student life, helping make it an academic powerhouse despite its small size. The school regularly places near the very top in rankings of American colleges and universities. For example, in 2010 Forbes Magazine ranked Swarthmore 7th, ahead of the undergraduate programs of much larger universities including Harvard and Yale. For the past three years The Princeton Review has named Swarthmore the #1 “Best Value” school in America.

One of the many quiet corners of campus.

A quiet courtyard for study and contemplation.

Widely known as one of the “Little Ivies,” Swarthmore has six times been named the #1 liberal arts college in America. I was particularly impressed that a recent study ranked Swarthmore #3 among all colleges and universities in the country in terms of percentage of graduates who ultimately earn Ph.D. degrees, a great testament to Swarthmore’s commitment to academic excellence.

For those of you interested in attending a professional school after earning your undergraduate degee, I should note that Swarthmore is reputed to give you a head start on the competition. The Wall Street Journal ranked Swarthmore 10th among all American colleges and universities as a successful feeder school to elite law, business, and medical schools.

Scott Arboretum.

One of my favorite spots on campus.

From what I’ve already said, you can probably guess that Swarthmore’s faculty is an exceptional lot. The most recent data that I’ve seen indicates that 100% of the faculty has a “terminal” degree, i.e., the highest academic degree available in one’s field of study. The faculty is kept fresh, focused, and energized by the school’s generous 4-year cycle of travel and research sabbaticals for professors.

Small class sizes and the absence of graduate and professional schools keep the highly credentialed professors fully engaged with undergraduate students, by design. Swarthmore’s educational environment is carefully calibrated to stimulate ongoing discussion and debate, to motivate students to challenge themselves and others intellectually, to involve students in academic research early in their education, and to build student confidence in reasoning and expression. Because of that emphasis, many Swarthmore students and alumni refer to Swarthmore as “an endless conversation.”

The physics & astronomy building.

A typical class session outside the physics & astronomy building.

I would suggest that you browse Swarthmore’s website for detailed information about the strengths and focus of the various fields of study available. Political science is one of the most popular options, with almost 10% of all students majoring therein.

International relations is also popular and particularly noteworthy, with Foreign Policy magazine ranking Swarthmore 15th on its list of the best places to study that subject, the highest ranking of any undergraduate-only institution.

Heading to class on an autumn day.

Heading to class on an autumn day.

Among the other notable Swarthmore programs that caught my eye are peace and conflict studies, interpretation theory, cognitive science, and engineering. The last one was a bit of a surprise because liberal arts colleges tend not to offer engineering degrees.

Swarthmore’s engineering program, though, aligns well with its core academic philosophy. Engineering students are accorded significant flexibility in constructing a custom curriculum, with fewer required engineering courses to obtain the degree, a Bachelor of Science in General Engineering (rather than in a particular engineering discipline such as mechanical or civil). More than 80% of Swarthmore engineering students go on to graduate school.

Swarthmore courses aren’t always held in classrooms.

An honors seminar in session.

Whatever their majors, students can participate in their junior and senior years in 8 honors seminars in addition to their normal course load. The honors seminars are research intensive, oriented around independent learning, and very small, usually 3-6 students.

At the end of each honors seminar the students are examined by outside scholars from other universities, in order to insure independent judging of research findings and knowledge. The outside scholars not only evaluate the students but engage in  discussion with them, further enhancing the unique learning opportunity.

The Amphitheatre is a central meeting point for many of the campuses organizations and events

The College’s amphitheatre is a favored spot for student meetings, special events, and quiet study.

In part as a result of its Quaker heritage, Swarthmore has a strong commitment to public service, social responsibility, and peace. The College’s library hosts the Peace Collection, a renown archive of papers, books, and other materials from pacifist activists and organizations focused on disarmament, nonviolent change movements, and conflict resolution.

Swarthmore’s Lang Center for Civil and Social Responsibility helps foster public service attitudes as well as productive connections with surrounding communities by organizing volunteer service options and community-based learning opportunities for students. The Lang Center also funds social change projects.

The heart of Swarthmore’s idyllic campus.

The heart of Swarthmore’s idyllic campus.

Swarthmore is a “need blind” school, meaning that it makes its admissions decisions before addressing financial considerations. If admission is offered and accepted, the school will cover 100% of the incoming student’s financial need through grants. Such generosity is made possible by Swarthmore’s endowment, which exceeds US$ 1 billion, or almost US$ 1 million per student. That’s one of the highest such ratios in the United States.

Approximately 13% of Swarthmore’s student population is international, and half of those international students receive financial assistance. Unlike domestic applicants, overseas applicants submit financial aid forms before admission decisions are made. As with successful domestic applicants, however, Swarthmore meets the full demonstrated need of any international students admitted to the school.

One of the school’s award winning residence halls.

One of the school’s new award-winning residence halls.

Among the ranks of Swarthmore alumni are 8 MacArthur Foundation fellows, several Pulitzer Prize winners, and 5 Nobel laureates (in the fields of chemistry, physics, and economics), the second highest proportion of Nobels to graduates among American undergraduate schools.

Many of Swarthmore’s alumni are household names, including author James Michener, former Governor of Massachusetts (and Presidential nominee) Michael Dukakis, NASA’s Nancy Roman (known as the mother of the Hubble telescope), U.S. Senator Carl Levin (of Michigan), former World Bank president Robert Zoellick, philosopher David K. Lewis (ranked by his peers as one of the 15 most important philosophers of the past 200 years), New York Times theater critic Ben Brantley, and Save Darfur founder Mark Hanis.

Roughly three-quarters of campus doubles as Scott Arboretum with lush gardens, paths, groves, and seating areas containing more than 4,000 different ornamental species.

Three-quarters of the campus doubles as the Scott Arboretum, with lush gardens, paths, and groves containing more than 4,000 different ornamental species.

Extracurricular activities are a core part of the Swarthmore experience, and Swarthmore students are reputed to participate therein in higher than average numbers and intensity. There are more than 100 chartered clubs and organizations from which to choose, as well as a large number of unchartered activities organized directly by students themselves.

As you would expect in an environment that incentivizes challenging discussion, the school has championship Mock Trial, Debate Society, and National Academic Quiz Tournament (College Bowl) programs, as well as two student newspapers and several literary, humor, and research magazines.

There are several performance groups. As at my alma mater Princeton, a capella – singing without instrumental accompaniment — is particularly popular at Swarthmore, with 5 organized groups and an annual Jamboree.

The Dean Bond Rose Garden

By tradition each graduating senior picks a rose bud from the garden adjacent to Parrish Hall to pin to his or her gown en route to the graduation ceremony.

Perhaps the most well-known of the student organizations is the Swarthmore College Computer Society, no surprise at a school ranked #4 on PC Magazine‘s list of “Top 20 Wired Colleges.” The Society runs servers that host email accounts, storage space, more than 100 mailing lists, and more than 130 websites for students, faculty, alumni, and other student organizations.

The Society also maintains an innovative Media Lounge, was the early home of the weekly War News Radio, and produced two papers published at the USENIX Large Installation System Administration (LISA) Conference. One of the Society’s LISA submissions was selected as the Conference’s Best Paper.

Hicks Hall, one of the dormitories on campus

Hicks Hall, one of the College’s heritage dormitories.

Again illustrating the highly engaged, participatory culture at Swarthmore, more than 40% of the total student population is active in intercollegiate or club sports.

At the varsity level Swarthmore has teams in 22 different sports, competing in Division III’s Centennial Conference (a grouping of elite private colleges in Pennsylvania and Maryland). Among the many club sports, rugby and ultimate frisbee are particularly popular.

The Swarthmore rugby team

The Swarthmore rugby teams (men’s and women’s) are among the most popular club sports on campus.

Swarthmore does not have an official motto. Many students and alumni will tell you, though, that the unofficial motto is Mind the Light, reflecting the belief of the school’s Quaker founders that each person should tend and follow (“mind”) his or her own conscience (“light”).

Swarthmore’s official colors are garnet and gray, and the school’s athletic teams are known as The Garnet. Students refer to themselves as Swatties. The official school mascot is a red Phoenix, named Phineas in a student vote.

Freshmen students in orientation week, holding their candles in anticipation of being formally inducted into the Swarthmore tradition.

Freshmen students at the traditional First Collection during orientation week.

Among Swarthmore’s most solemn traditions is First Collection. Held one evening during orientation week at the start of each academic year, First Collection assembles all new students in the College’s outdoor amphitheater for a traditional Quaker ceremony. Swarthmore’s president, a professor, and a member of the senior class speak about the history, culture, and values of the College. The new students then light candles and take part in bonding rituals.

My favorite of Swarthmore’s less serious traditions is the Crum Regatta. Students work in teams to build rafts or other flotation devices, some of which are wildly inventive, flamboyantly designed, or simply odd. The teams race each other down Crum Creek, competing for prizes and the cheers of fans assembled along the banks.

Students paddling on a raft made of taped together recycled bottles

A duo contests the Crum Regatta on a raft made of recycled plastic bottles.

As I noted at the outset, Swarthmore College is only a short train ride from Philadelphia. That close proximity presents an enormous variety of cultural, entertainment, recreational, social, and educational opportunities for students.

And once you get to Union Station in Philadelphia, you can catch a train to a large number of interesting and exciting destinations along the East Coast including Boston, New York City, Washington, and Florida.

The campus train station.

The Swarthmore train station, gateway to Philadelphia and beyond.

Both the city of Philadelphia and the colony of Pennsylvania were founded in 1682 by William Penn, who was granted a land charter to the vast territory by Charles II in payment of a £16,000 debt. A persecuted Quaker, Penn wished to establish a society based on religious tolerance and peace. He quickly negotiated durable treaties with the native tribes in the territory, and selected a Greek name for his seat of government meaning “City of Brotherly Love.”

Because of its central location, excellent riparian access, and industrious culture, Philadelphia rapidly grew into the largest and most important city in the British colonies. It also became a center of colonial intellectual life, in meaningful part due to the civic and scientific efforts of American icon Benjamin Franklin.

Independence Hall.

Historic Independence Hall, the birthplace of the American Nation.

A hotbed of revolutionaries, Philadelphia hosted the two Continental Congresses as well as the post-war Constitutional Convention. Both of America’s founding documents, the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution, were debated, drafted, and signed in the city. Philadelphia served as the capital of the new Nation for more than a decade after the Revolutionary War while Washington, DC was being constructed.

Today, the Philadephia metro area contains a highly diverse population of approximately 6 million people, 1.5 million of whom live within the 143 square miles (369 sq.km.) of the city itself. The Philadelphia economy has evolved and reinvented itself several times over the past 3 centuries, and the city is now a vibrant, diversified center for biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, financial services, legal services, tourism, food processing, and manufacturing.

The Philadelphia skyline

Center city Philadelphia at night, along the banks of the Delaware River.


At the heart of the CBD, City Hall is capped by a monumental statute of William Penn.

My hometown in Schuylkill County was only about a two-hour drive north of Philadelphia. My Uncle Leon, Aunt June, and cousins Lisa and Erik lived in the Philly suburbs, and my family drove down to visit them many times when I was a kid. Over the course of those trips I came to know the city and its environs quite well.

Coming from a small coal town, I experienced Philadelphia as a mindblowing adventure of the first magnitude. I still remember my first visit to Independence Hall … the Liberty Bell … the Franklin Institute (with its two-story replica of the human heart that you could walk through like a blood cell) … the great Philadelphia Zoo … and much more. I could extoll the city’s pleasures and virtues for pages, but I don’t want to tax your patience. I’ll just skip lightly over a few highlights.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art

The Philadelphia Museum of Art dominates the main axis of center city.

Philadelphia remains famous for art and culture, including the huge Philadelphia Museum of Art … Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts … Rodin Museum … Barnes Foundation … Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts … Academy of Music (the nation’s oldest continually operating opera house) … Walnut Street Theatre (America’s oldest theater) … numerous other theaters and concert halls … and world-class symphony, opera, and ballet companies.

Philly is equally impressive outdoors. It has both more murals and more public sculpture than any other city in America. Fairmount Park is the largest landscaped urban park in the world. The Philly municipal park system comprises 63 parks covering 9,200 square acres. There are many miles of bike and jogging paths. In 1872 Philadelphia established the first association in the country devoted to integrating public art and urban planning.

Fairmount Park

Along the Schuylkill River, in Fairmont Park.

When you’re in the mood simply to be entertained, you can sample a few of the city’s many hundreds of clubs, bars, and cafés, … the regular stream of headliners who play stadium and arena concerts … the numerous film festivals, street fairs, and cultural festivals including my favorite, the New Year’s Day Mummers Parade, which I find impossible to describe (so you’ll just have to google it).

A key aspect of Philly culture not to be overlooked is its unique and highly satisfying local cuisine. Hoagies … iconic Philly cheesesteaks … stromboli … scrapple (don’t ask) … tomato pie … pork roll … soft pretzels … cheesecake … funnel cakes … Tastykakes … water ice … cream cheese … Hires root beer … and the original soda pop. My weakness is cheesesteak, and I can personally recommend both Pat’s and Geno’s as the Rembrandt and DaVinci of that particular art form.

Genos Steakhouse

Pats Steakhouse

For sports fans the options can appear unlimited. Philly is passionate about its big four professional teams — the Eagles (football), 76ers (basketball), Flyers (ice hockey), and Phillies (baseball). You can also find a blizzard of high-quality collegiate matches in dozens of sports … a professional ultimate frisbee franchise (the Spinners) … professional soccer franchise (the Union) … horseracing … and elite and amateur rugby league, rugby union, and cricket.

Within easy drive of the city are historical parks such as Valley Forge and Gettysburg … the beauty of Amish farm country … artsy gallery towns such as New Hope … antiquing in villages across Lancaster and Bucks Counties … great hiking, biking, boating, and kayaking … and the hunting and fishing for which Pennsylvania is well known.

Valley Forge

At Valley Forge, where General George Washington wintered his army during the Revolutionary War.

A final point worth noting about the Philadelphia area is that Swarthmore is not the only superb educational option available. The metro area is an academic powerhouse with a large number of liberal arts colleges, universities, law schools, medical schools, business schools, and other research institutions.

For example, Swarthmore is joined in what’s known as the Tri-College Consortium by nearby Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College. The three schools are similar in size, reputation, and environment, and the Consortium agreement allows students at each school to enroll in classes at the others. If you like what you’ve read here about Swarthmore, you should probably take a look at Bryn Mawr and Haverford as well.

Also nearby you’ll find the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania (with its world-renown Wharton School of Business, Annenberg School for Communication, law school, and medical school), as well as  La SalleTempleDrexel, and Villanova universities, among others.  The intense concentration of intellectual and research activity feeds the dynamism of the metro area and creates not only social, educational, and cultural but also employment opportunities, whichever school you attend.

Philly Countryside

Just outside Philly, in autumn.

For more information about Philadelphia and how to plan a trip, take a look at the Visit Philly website. For more information about Swarthmore College and how to apply, visit the school’s website or contact the Embassy’s Educational Adviser, Drew Dumas, at DumasAG@state.gov.

And of course, stay tuned. In a couple weeks I’ll be heading west again to highlight the University of Hawaii. Also, keep sending me any suggestions that you might have for future features. I focused on Swarthmore this week because of a request from a reader interested in liberal arts colleges.

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