First Gathering – Emily Anne Nolte Jacobstein ’07

By | September 8, 2019


Good afternoon. On behalf of the Alumni Council and the Alumni
Association, welcome to Swarthmore. In fact, assuming you make it through your
first day of classes on Monday, welcome to the Alumni Association. Technically, all former students are automatically
members. The alumni of your college are an incredible
resource for students, and I hope you take advantage of us during the next four years. During my time at Swarthmore, I enjoyed many
benefits from getting to know alumni, including networking opportunities, support for student
clubs, and a summer of free housing during an internship in DC. Now, as an alum myself, I always enjoy interacting
with students, mentoring them, and sometimes even hiring them to come work with me. But enough about alumni, today we are here
to talk about you, some of the experiences you may face over the next four years and
how you will respond to them. Well, I could tell you about some of the late
night conversations or political debates on campus that challenged my core beliefs. I’m instead going to focus on one particular
core belief, in hopes that y’all can learn from some of my missteps in the past. That belief is we are all in this together,
and so it’s okay to ask for some help along the way. This seems to be a common theme. I hope it’s sinking in. Although 16 years ago may seem like a long
time, I remember sitting exactly where you are today, during my new student orientation,
in August of 2003. I knew no one, aside from my roommate, who
I just met earlier that day, and one other person from my high school. I felt incredibly out of place. To make matters worse, I was recovering from
major jaw surgery, with a still swollen face from the procedure, as well as braces, and
I was on a liquid only diet. Not only did I feel nervous and out of place,
I didn’t even feel like myself. But during those first few weeks of college,
I pretty much dove headfirst into anything and everything that sounded of interest. The Activities Fair, I signed up for everything
from new sports teams to political clubs and community service activities, and only a few
months later whittled down my email subscriptions to the clubs I would really stay involved
with. Campus jobs? I was on the babysitting list and a phone-a-thon
caller for annual giving from the get-go. Academics? I’d never taken a film class, so of course
I had to sign up for Patty White’s Intro to Film and Media Studies. First year seminars? I couldn’t wait to get started on the reading
list for Marge Murphy’s course on gender in America, to this day, one of the best classes
I’ve ever taken. Pretty much the only thing I avoided was the
swim test. It ends up that if the one perk of having
major surgery right before you start Swarthmore is that you are allowed to defer the swim
test for a semester. I found myself well prepared for the rigorous
coursework at Swarthmore and didn’t face any significant academic struggles that fall. I had heard about Student Academic Mentors,
or SAMs, writing associates and other resources available to help you if you were struggling,
but I knew those were not for me. I was doing just fine. At the same time, I was heavily involved in
campus life, and I didn’t beat myself up if I didn’t always get an A. In fact, looking
back on my transcript, there were a lot of times I didn’t get an A. I was a solid B,
maybe B plus student, and that was just fine. I spent my first and my second and then my
third and my fourth semesters exploring any and every course that caught my fancy. Along the way, I distilled three key areas
that I found of particular interest and thus kept taking more and more courses in, film
and media studies, women’s studies, now gender and sexuality studies, and biology. I originally took Bio II just to complete
my science requirement. I liked it so much, that sophomore fall I
took Bio I, and then in the spring I took a two credit biology seminar in ecology. All signs pointed to a biology major. This was great except for one thing, chemistry. I’d always had a bad relationship with chemistry. It started way back sophomore year in high
school, and now I was facing the requirement at the time of taking Chem 10, which is general
chemistry, and organic chemistry, if I wanted to complete a major in biology. I was also planning on studying abroad, the
spring of my junior year, in Prague. Thus, I made the decision to take Chem 10
the fall of my junior year, and organic, which was only offered once each year at the spring
of my senior year. The chemistry faculty here are fabulous, and
I was convinced I could pull this all off without a hitch and still have a wonderful
junior and senior year. After all, aside from that time I slept through
a statistics midterm, I had never really struggled that much. Junior year, General Chemistry started, and
was going well enough, not great, but okay until I got tired. Instead of my afternoon of rugby practice,
or my late night of homework, I was lying in bed exhausted. Then came the sore throat. I’d never felt anything like this, but stubbornly,
I knew that the only option was just to keep chugging along. My best friend, who, incidentally, is now
a pediatrician, had been through this before, saw the symptoms and marched me over to to
Worth Health Center to get checked out. Mono, the kissing disease, to this day, I
don’t know how I got it, but I can tell you with full certainty, I wasn’t kissing anyone
that fall. Mono knocked me out. I spent days in the health center, often unable
to go to class. If I hadn’t been open to asking for help,
I wouldn’t have survived that semester. To this day, I am thankful for the nurses
at Worth for patiently taking care of me, my friends who reviewed lecture notes with
me, and the professors who were generous with assignment extensions. After catching up on problem sets, papers
and exams, I survived the semester and headed off to Prague with a so-so grade in General
Chemistry. After an amazing semester abroad, I came back
to campus for my senior year. While some friends were taking easy classes
to enjoy their last year on campus, and others were cramming for honors exams, I was simply
terrified of Organic Chemistry. I was one of three seniors in the course that
spring and we all needed to pass the class to graduate. Most of the other students were first years. They all wanted to go to medical school and
I felt a little out of my league. Yes, I, a senior, was intimidated by the first
years. I went to every lecture. I did every problem set. I even did all the reading, and yet I was
lost, absolutely, completely lost. I eventually gave up on the textbook, because
it was so over my head, and switched to a copy of Organic Chemistry for Dummies. I went to office hours and worked with the
professor after class. My best friend was a chemistry major and she
tried but it didn’t work. One thing I held out on was a tutor. I knew the dean’s office had them, but I felt
if I asked for a tutor, it was a sign that I just wasn’t smart enough. I’d survived three-and-a-half years without
one, I certainly didn’t need one now. Fortunately, common sense, along with a fear
of not graduating, prevailed, and a wonderful sophomore, who also happened to be a rugby
teammate, worked tirelessly as my tutor to get me through the semester. She was happy for a campus job that she considered
to be really easy, and I was just thankful I was finally making some progress. After the first few minutes of our initial
session, any silly fears of looking stupid for asking for help went away. It became obvious that the only bad decision
I’d made was waiting so long to ask. The night before the final, my mom called
with words of encouragement. My mother has a way with words and her wisdom
that night has always stuck with me. She said, “Emily Anne, just remember, a D
is for diploma.” I didn’t get that D. I got a C minus. I have never been so proud of another grade
in my life, but getting there wasn’t something I did on my own. Getting there took the help of the staff at
Worth Health Center, my professors, my tutor, my friends, my family, and many, many others
along the way. I may not use my organic chemistry skills,
or what’s left of them, in my day-to-day life, 12 years post-Swarthmore, but I have never
forgotten the lessons the course taught me. Today in my career, I am often the one leading
big meetings and presenting to CEOs, CFOs, or the board of directors for my clients,
but I’m never in it all on my own. I always have a team that helped me prepare
for the presentation, build the slides, run the statistical analysis, and who has supported
me along the way. Even when I was thinking about what to say
to y’all today, I called up my friend, who all those years ago had intervened and given
me her copy of Organic Chemistry for Dummies. She didn’t remember giving me the book, but
she certainly remembered the number of times that she had asked for help when she was on
campus. By the way, her advice for you is, “Drink
plenty of water, wear sunscreen, find your friends after parties, and don’t date anyone
on your hall.” So as you start your adventure at Swarthmore,
dive in, explore at all, join those clubs, try a new sport, and take on new challenges. Enroll in those classes you’d never even heard
of until you looked at the catalog. This is your chance to do exactly that. And don’t be afraid. You have an entire community here to support
you and help you through it. All you have to do is ask. Thank you.

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