Some Vassar students, faculty and staff know Antonia Sweet well. Some know her name, and say hello to her on a daily or near-daily basis. Some people might not know her name, but would still recognize the “woman at the Athletics and Fitness Center (AFC) desk” if they saw her. Undoubtedly, some residents of Vassar’s campus have no idea Sweet exists, and would not be able to recognize her even if she were standing right in front of them.
During my first-year orientation week, I belonged to the final category. I was trying to shoot around in the gym one morning, and, peering up at the retracted main baskets with obvious longing, I was confronted by a woman in a Vassar hoodie and sweatpants. After an occasionally rocky back-and-forth in which she told me only varsity basketball players had access to the main hoops, and I explained that I wasn’t one of those but I might be, Sweet lowered the main basket. That interaction feels far older than nine months ago. Similarly outdated that day was my understanding of the AFC’s oculus and self-titled “bartender” (Of basketballs, keys, gym cards and conversations, of course). I sat down with Sweet to access a perspective that, while visible to thousands of people daily, is shared by only a select few.
Sweet sees, coordinates, advises, sees, greets, chats and still sees. Every day, the flow of students heading for the weight room, gym, pool and trainer’s room passes right by her desk. So too does the less populous procession of coaches, administrators and building staff. After-school programs chock-full of younger kids from Poughkeepsie and its environs also make their way past Sweet’s desk. It is perhaps this group that presents her with the most frequent opportunity to direct the geographically confused and correct the itinerantly misled.
As I sat with her for a little more than an hour, no fewer than seven families, anxious about the absence of their children’s youth swimming coach, sought counsel at Sweet’s desk. Witnessing her oscillate between the constant conversation of her work and our chat, I was treated to a daily routine that is too frenetic to be misrepresented, a lily too vital and happening to be gilded. After one of the mothers in question trudged away, having been told that the official AFC schedule didn’t seem to include the desired swim coach for that day, Sweet sighed, “I hate to disappoint people.”
Sweet was born on Long Island, where she stayed for seven days before moving a total of 37 times prior to the age of 13. Her father, a teacher and actor, moved the family around as his two careers demanded, and it wasn’t until high school that Sweet settled for multiple years at a time. After spending all four years of high school in Geneseo, which she refers to as “home,” Sweet attended SUNY New Paltz, the University of Rochester and SUNY Geneseo, ultimately graduating from Geneseo.
After receiving degrees from Northwestern State in Louisiana and the University of South Dakota (confusing USD with South Dakota State is a Mount Rushmore-sized mistake; the rivalry is akin to Duke-North Carolina, with slightly less publicity), Sweet came to Vassar, in part to be near her elderly grandmother, who lived on Long Island.
Coming from South Dakota, a place she described by saying, “You’re either white or you’re Native American,” Sweet expected Vassar, when she arrived in the late ’90s, to be a remnant of the days of Woodstock. The school’s reputation for openness and variety was a fond reminder of New Paltz, which she described as a “last gasp of the ’60s, but in the ’70s.”
Twenty years later, Sweet now sees Vassar differently. As Sweet sees it, the College is a place in which “you can be as different as you want, as long as you’re just like me.”
Citing opposition over a decade ago to the formation of a Young Republicans group on campus, Sweet identified that college campuses are rarely, if ever, true bastions of diversity, neither in background nor in thought. It would be definitely incorrect, however, to identify Sweet as a closeted conservative bemoaning Vassar’s liberal ethos; she recalled gathering with a group of students and administrators in the wake of the 2016 election and “commiserating,” just being together in disappointed solidarity.
Sweet’s daily work goes beyond who she has to help or ask for guidance as a third party, or even what actually goes on in the AFC. Her vision for what the building and campus in general could be harkens back to the beginning of her time at Vassar, and is exciting to consider.
She told me that a juice bar used to exist behind what are now the seldom-opened copper doors above the counter in front of the basketball gym. Revamping the kitchen as a purveyor of smoothies and other quasi-healthy snacks is just one idea she floated.
Sweet also pointed out that opening the kitchen to students of different backgrounds, perhaps wanting to cook a meal that reminded them of home, would be a way to bring people to the AFC who don’t play a sport or work out. This emphasis on people, on the unavoidable nature of being around them and the resultant importance of getting to know them, was central to my conversation with Sweet and, indeed, to her outlook on Vassar.
Sweet and I also discussed the tendency of students to whip their phones out the minute a dead moment occurs, be it in a class, during a meal or just in ordinary interactions with others. Take eye contact, for example. Something that is so central to simply conversing with people, let alone connecting with them, is avoided by so many (including myself; this stance on Vassar is not a disembodied polemical that doesn’t apply to me). The “If you can’t see me, I can’t see you” strategy is another aspect of Vassar’s occasional disconnectedness that Sweet noted.
Even teammates, she observed, will walk right by each other without so much as a hello or a smile in greeting. “How could you be on a team together?” Sweet questioned.
There is no all-encompassing solution to the fact that college students, living by the thousands in close quarters and in a period of personal and physical growth that renders vulnerability absolutely necessary and yet difficult to reach, are not always able or willing to meet and get to know people.
Sweet, as somebody who is always seeing and talking to people, often engaging in what she characterized as “glib, surface-level” interactions, sees her own role as being a connector. Using the title of “bartender,” she expressed a desire to provide people with what they need—namely directions to a class or access to a piece of equipment, and to get to know those people.
The swimming coach so desperately sought after did eventually show up. Sweet was able to give the good news to late-arriving families, and the business of the AFC went on. I left her at her seat behind the desk, where I’m sure she continued to watch students filter in and out, greeting the ones she knew. That seat, which so many of us pass by on a daily basis, provides the opportunity to take a step back and observe a large part of Vassar’s population. What you see from that seat, and who sits in it, are two things worth considering.