For College Seniors, One Last Lap Before Graduation
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Joel Rose
Friday, May 4, 2012 at 9:57 AM
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Requiring students to pass a swimming test to graduate was once a widespread tradition. Today, only a handful of colleges still require the exams. Some schools are trying to persuade procrastinators to put the test behind them long before their last college semester.

   
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It's spring, the season when many college students are cramming for final exams. But it's also when some college seniors must prove they can literally stay afloat.

A swim test is still a graduation requirement on a handful of U.S. campuses, mostly in the Northeast. For seniors who have been putting off the exam, it's time to sink or swim.

A Shrinking Tradition

On a recent evening, a handful of seniors at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, Pa., gather nervously at the edge of the campus pool, waiting to take the last swim test of the school year.

Bryn Mawr's test consists of 10 minutes of continuous swimming, followed by one minute each of floating and treading water.

"The key to this is going slow," explains Nikki Whitlock, the college's swim coach and aquatics director. "It does not matter how many laps you do, OK? It only matters that you are swimming for the 10 minutes continuously."

A century ago, many colleges required students to pass a swim test. Today, just a few holdouts — including Bryn Mawr, Cornell, Columbia, MIT and Swarthmore — cling to the tradition.

Swarthmore alumnus Maurice Eldridge, class of 1961, remembers his swim test vividly. "We were given our mandatory physicals," he says, "and were told to jump in the pool. And I jumped in the pool and sank, like a log."

Unclear Origins

Eldridge eventually passed the test. Now Swarthmore's vice president for community and college relations, even he isn't sure exactly when — or why — the school, just outside Philadelphia, began requiring a swimming test.

"There's a story that has floated around having to do with someone drowning, and then some person of that family providing money with the stipulation that everybody learn to swim," Eldridge says. "But I can't find any credible reason for believing that."

Indeed, there was a Swarthmore student, Herschel Ware, who drowned in 1912. Ware's relatives later donated money to build the campus swimming pool. But Eldridge says there's no record of any connection between those events and the college's mandatory swim test.

Still, the rumors persist — and not just at Swarthmore.

Samuel Roth, a senior at Columbia University in New York, says "some people say some wealthy donor student drowned or died on the Titanic or something."

Columbia requires a swim test for students in certain academic programs, but not others. Roth has heard plenty of theories behind what seems to some students an arbitrary requirement.

"If [Manhattan] were flooded, we'd need to know how to swim to get to New Jersey," Roth says. "But then, of course, the engineers don't have to do it. They say we could build a boat, which, to me, is totally ridiculous because you're not going to do that during flooding."

Dissuading Procrastinators

As swim tests go, Columbia's is pretty easy — just three laps of the pool using any stroke. Still, Roth waited until spring of his senior year to take it.

Junior Will Hughes says that kind of procrastination is hardly unusual. "It's this big thing ... to take it your senior spring," he says. "You do it with all your senior friends. Especially in April ... there's hundreds of people that go there to do it together."

Whitlock would like to persuade her students not to wait until the last minute. The college is following Swarthmore's lead, where administrators try to get students into the pool during freshmen orientation.

And for students who are truly scared of the water, Bryn Mawr offers a class in basic water safety. Senior Leila Zilles took it this spring.

"Before I took the swim class, I couldn't even float," Zilles says. "Now that I've learned to float, I can say that even though I'm still scared to fall into the deep end of the pool, I would know what to do."

Whitlock seems pleased with that. "I have not, in my six years here, had a student fail to meet the requirement and not graduate," she says. "And I'm not looking to start in 2012." [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]


Audio Transcript:

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Spring is the season when some college students are going to have to prove they can stay afloat. I'm talking here about a swimming test. It remains a graduation requirement on a handful of campuses, mostly in the Northeast. For seniors who've been putting off the swim test, now is the time to sink or swim, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: It's a few days before final exams at Bryn Mawr College, outside Philadelphia. But about half a dozen seniors gather nervously at the edge of the campus pool for a different kind of test. Bryn Mawr aquatics director Nikki Whitlock explains the rules.

NIKKI WHITLOCK: The key to this is going slow. It does not matter how many laps you do, OK? It only matters that you're swimming for the 10 minutes continuously. All right?

ROSE: That's 10 minutes of continuous swimming, followed by one minute each of floating and treading water. A century ago, lots of school required students to pass a swim test. Now it's just a few holdouts that cling to the tradition, including Cornell, Columbia, MIT and Swarthmore.

MAURICE ELDRIDGE: We had just been given our mandatory physicals, and were told to go jump in the pool and swim. And I jumped in the pool and sank.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ROSE: Maurice Eldridge eventually passed the test at Swarthmore College. Now he's a vice president there. But even Eldridge isn't sure exactly when the school's test started or why.

ELDRIDGE: There's a story that has floated around having to do with someone drowning, and then some person of that family providing money with the stipulation that everybody have to swim, learn to swim. And I can't find any credible reason for believing that.

ROSE: There actually was a Swarthmore student who drowned in 1912 whose relatives later donated money to build the campus swimming pool. But Eldridge says there's no record of any connection between those two events. Still, the rumors persist, and not just at Swarthmore.

SAMUEL ROTH: Some people say some wealthy donor student drowned or died on the Titanic or something.

ROSE: Samuel Roth is a senior at Columbia University in Manhattan, which requires a swim test for students in certain academic programs, but not others. Roth says there are lots of theories about why.

ROTH: If the island were flooded, we'd need to know how to swim to get to New Jersey. But then, of course, the engineers don't have to do it. And they say, well, we could build a boat or a bridge to escape, which to me is totally ridiculous because you're not going to do that during flooding.

ROSE: As swim tests go, Columbia's is pretty easy. Still, Roth waited until spring of his senior year to take it. Junior Will Hughes says that is not unusual.

WILL HUGHES: It's this big thing, I feel, to take it your senior spring. And you do it with all your, like, senior friends, especially, like, in April. Like, every time you see it, there's hundreds of people that go there to do it together.

WHITLOCK: One minutes left. One minute.

ROSE: Back at Bryn Mawr, aquatics director Nikki Whitlock would like to persuade her students not to wait until the last minute. The school is following the lead of Swarthmore, which tries to get students into the pool during freshman orientation. And for students who are really scared, Bryn Mawr offers a class to help them learn basic water safety. Senior Leila Zilles took it this spring.

LEILA ZILLES: Before I took the swim class, I couldn't even float. And now that I've learned to float, I can say, well, even though, you know, I'm still scared to fall into the deep end of the pool, I would know what to do.

ROSE: Bryn Mawr coach Nikki Whitlock looks pleased with that. Whitlock says she's never had to prevent a student from graduating, and she doesn't want to start now.

Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.



This article is filed in: Education, Around the Nation, Sports, U.S. News, News

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