By Lily Barnette & Ülvi Gitaliyev
In 1928 Berea College instituted the swimming requirement as one of its conditions to graduate. Even back then, the decision was controversial, with Dr. Cowley, the College Head Physician maintaining that “if God had meant for man to swim, he would have given him nostrils like a hippopotamus.” He freely distributed excuses from the requirement, making it very difficult to enforce the requirement.
In the 21st century, the swim requirement in Berea College has once again become contentious, as other colleges in the United States have been dropping the requirement, with only a minority of them still having a swim test. So far, Berea College has remained stubborn on its insistence that students take the swim test.
Many Berea College students do not appreciate the college’s stand. Students with have a phobia of water, religious affiliations, or physical disabilities have complained about how difficult it is to waive the swim requirement, especially the fact that students are required to submit medical records to a committee made up of Berea College faulty, staff and students, but not medical practitioners. The Student Government Association (SGA) has been well aware of these issues, but unfortunately, most of the administration either do not know or ignore issues related to the swim requirement. Therefore, the SGA decided to bring up the issue in the January 19th meeting of the General Faculty Assembly (GFA).
The GFA meets once a month on-campus and includes staff, faculty and some students who are either members of the SGA or part of a decision-making committee, such as the Student Life Council, Sustainability Committee, Labor Program Council, etc. The GFA reviews and discusses college polices such as increasing parking space and adding new majors and minors on the roster, with every GFA member having a vote. You can learn more about their purpose and agendas here.
Abraham Garcia-Romero, Freshmen Class President of the SGA, made a speech to the GFA about his personal experiences waiving the swim requirement and how it had negatively affected his time at Berea College. In an interview after the GFA meeting, he told The Berea Torch his story:
“When I was a prospective student, I took three tours at Berea College before I made my decision to study here. One thing that always was in the back of my mind was the swim requirement. I knew it would be an issue considering my medical condition. I applied through the Office of Disability and Accessibility, and I had conversations with the previous Director, Lisa Ladanyi, at the time. I had to fill out a ton of paperwork talking about my medical condition, and how the swimming requirement would be detrimental to my health, physically and mentally. Also, I had to go through my doctor’s office to get her professional opinion and diagnosis shared. I ended up going to my doctor’s office, I believe, two to three times. My doctor’s office is 17 miles away. So obviously, that was an inconvenient cost of money. Plus, freshmen don’t have cars so that made it even more difficult because now my family had to provide transportation for me too.”
Garcia-Romero also commented on how the process of getting the swim requirement waived made him feel:
“I take issue with the whole requirement because not only is it tedious, it’s very invasive personally. I can say this is the same for many students who are having to fill out this paperwork. Going to the doctors and opening up is hard enough because, you know, this is very personal to us, very intimate things that, quite frankly, define who we are, how we interact in the world and how we navigate it. Then, we have to have all of this highly sensitive data go to a committee of people that I have yet to meet.”
At the end of Garcia-Romero’s speech, he proposed a motion for the Campus Governance System to bring practical and positive change to the process used to waive the swim requirement. Just as oral voting on the measure was about to begin, Dr. Roy Scutter-Davis, Chair of Biology Department, asked for a secret ballot. After a few minutes of voting, the final tally came out as 106 votes in favor of the motion, 19 votes against, and 1 abstention. While the SGA was celebrating the results, a parliamentarian pointed out the over half of the GFA’s membership was missing and therefore, no voting could take place on any substantive issues. Another vote was brought up pass the vote without quorum anyway after extensive discussion, which passed with unanimously, with the exception of one abstention.
Lastly, SGA President Connor Courtney made a short speech about how there a lack of democracy and communication between students and administration, including the GFA and other committees. Several professors noted that the issue would be discussed in the General Education Modification (GEM) Committee.
The GEM Committee is tasked with “revitalizing the curriculum and developing energizing dialogues among faculty about teaching and learning.” Since 2022, it has been working on comprehensive changes to GSTR courses, Wellness classes, and other parts of of the General Education Curriculum in Berea College. More information can be found about the GEM Committee here.
Jared Sipple, the student representative in the GEM Committee, was not present at the GFA meeting. When asked for comment, he said that while the swim requirement will be kept in place by the GEM Committee, changes would be made to please the students. If you have any comments about the swim requirement or any other part of the general education at Berea College, you can email Sipple at email@example.com!