Oberlin Blogs

50 Pearls of Wisdom: Part One

June 27, 2014

Alexandria Cunningham ’16

In honor of the Class of 2018 who may read (or stumble upon) this post--this is for you! I rarely blog about Oberlin in the direct sense without finding some way to insert my own personal narrative in it but since I know the summer before college is crucial decision-making time, I am willing to calm the stressful waters just a little bit in the best way that I know how.

To help some of you avoid the "initial shock" that Oberlin will give you during that hot week in late August, I have pulled together fifty different pieces of advice that I think about all the time. Some of it are things that I have come into understanding, other things are advice that significant people in my life have given me. A lot of these points are things that I share when I give my honest retelling of my Oberlin experience--as someone who works with a lot of prospective and multicultural students who visit campus, I try to give a rounded account of my years on this campus.

For me, that means being real about the good and the astounding but also the bad and the terrible and everything else in between. What I will also do is write a part two to this if folks would appreciate/like some more context/dialogue around these points or would like me to address something else that is not listed... be on the lookout for that. So with that said, here are my fifty "pearls of wisdom" for the incoming class that hopefully help somebody out somewhere along the way.


  1. Let go of your high school you.
  2. Read course descriptions all the way through.
  3. A struggle class will come into your collegiate life, accept it.
  4. Ask questions all the time and be fearless in asking them.
  5. Get organized and work your resources.

Professors and Mentors

  1. Get to know faculty, departments, staff, TAs and your classmates.
  2. Introduce yourself, talk about your goals and share yourself.
  3. Speak up in class!
  4. Put your best work forward and believe that it represents a part of who you are.
  5. Build relationships and put the work and effort to make them last.

The Roommate Situation

  1. Establish room/house rules early.
  2. Be honest about your needs, expectations and hopes.
  3. Decide where the line is and when it has been crossed.
  4. Agree to disagree.
  5. Folks who live outside your living space do not need to know all your business.


  1. They have complicated interests and responsibilities which are not always clear to a lot of people.
  2. Transparency, cooperation, forum, sit-in and other terms are frequently used between the student body and administration to express some type of miscommunication between the two.
  3. Effective communication could fix/avoid a lot of issues, but there is major work to be done in that direction.
  4. Like any other college/university, the administration has good intentions (I believe more times than not); it is just the method, execution and articulation that is lackluster. Good intentions only go so far.
  5. There will be numerous times in your college career where you may have to challenge the administration based on your principles, values and understandings of what is "right." Be radical.

How to Hold a Conversation

  1. A lull in conversation is not awkward; it may be necessary.
  2. Own your experience, views, prejudices and understandings as your own.
  3. Accept that you are an expert on nothing but your own experiences.
  4. Believe that your opinion is not always needed, your thoughts are not always golden and that sometimes silence is the best option.
  5. Respect any and everyone you speak to. Require them to respect you back.

"Safe Space" and Why It Is NOT for Everyone

  1. Everyone will have a different definition of safe space and an opinion on whether or not they think it exists. Listen to them and comprehend what they said. It is useful.
  2. Make yourself aware that there are indeed specific spaces on campus that you will not feel comfortable/welcome in. And, no, it is not always just a racial/ethnic thing. Respect a community's right to be in community with one another without your forced or well-justified presence.
  3. It is not about you.
  4. Learn what it means to be an ally in action, not in name.
  5. Support communities you love in more ways than one that go beyond the superficial.

The Bubble and Other Split-Campus Topics

  1. Oberlin is a part of the real-world and therefore has real world problems.
  2. The radical-liberal versus ultra conservative binary is real and people vary on their politicized viewpoints. Ask what informs those opinions in an effort to better understand the person and why they act as they do.
  3. Conversations around sex, sexual preference, gender identity and expression and such is necessary and relevant conversation for everyone. You have to listen and give a damn about what is being shared, though.
  4. Privilege and disadvantage manifest in different ways. Be cognizant of that.
  5. Be slow to speak and even slower to judge.

Relationships and Friendships

  1. Define your needs first and foremost. Do not lose yourself accommodating for any and everyone before your self.
  2. Accept that you cannot be everything to everyone all the time. People who love you know this and accept it.
  3. Distance can make the heart grow fonder and can also complicate old relationships. More times than not, you have to ride it out and see where things will go.
  4. Home is never going to be the same again, for better or for worse.
  5. The people meant to stay in your life will be the ones with you at your lowest. Love these people with your best and cherish them because they make the hard days easier to handle.

Support, Mental Health and Self-Care

  1. College is new, shiny, beautiful and all of that but it is also demanding, stressful and lonely at times.
  2. A lot of people experience depression, anxiety, loneliness and other mental health issues. Brace yourself for this reality.
  3. Believe that you are not ever really alone. It feels like it, I get it. Someone somewhere gets it.
  4. Take care of yourself--mentally, physically, emotionally and in all the ways you need to make sure you are as close to your best as possible.
  5. Take mental health days, sick days, I'm-gonna-treat-myself-because-I-worked-hard days, workout times and whatever else can act as motivator for you to make it through those rough weeks that will happen.

Conversations That I Hold Dear To This Day

  1. "Baby, people just like to throw around a lot of wind. Don't you let anyone make you feel less than in that classroom when you have earned that seat you are sitting in."
  2. "Is it just your lot in life to always give more than you receive?"
  3. "I am concerned for you, all of you, and I want to make sure that I do right by you in your time of need."
  4. "We're going to help you get through this. We'll support you in the ways you need."
  5. "What motivates you to do all the things that you do? Where is your support system located and what do they do for you?"

Responses to this Entry

Alex, as usual, this is gold. Thank you for your openness. I love that you worked some truths about Oberlin, not just advice, into this post, and I love how differently it turned out from my 'fifty things' post!

Your "Administration" section, especially, made me think. I like that you put the word in quotes, because I think most people really don't have a grasp of what 'the administration' is or how it functions - I spent a lot of time working with Oberlin staff and I still have minimal knowledge of much of the business of running the school! The one thing I took away from all that collaborative work, though, is something I wish the staff would understand about students, too: there are no monolithic entities in Oberlin. "The administration" is not a body of professionals with the same goals or opinions, in the same way that the students have all KINDS of ideas about what's right and how to do it. (Same goes for the board of trustees.) Everything is made of humans.

Anyway, can't wait for your part two!

Posted by: Ida on June 27, 2014 9:45 PM

Ida thank you so much! You always add this new layer of insight and perspective to my posts that make writing the next one that much more fulfilling. I really tried to think of the things that I wish I fully understood coming in my first year and things that I struggled with up until (and still) now.

Especially when it comes to the administration, I completely agree with you. I have worked with some different folks in different capacities and their interests vary so much and it is hard for me to generalize what they do as what the institution "wants." You're very on point with your conclusions (as always!) And thank you, the brainstorm is soon to begin for part two!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on June 28, 2014 6:11 PM

I am curious about what you are trying to say in the 2 statements below. Would you please elaborate?

The Bubble and Other Split-Campus Topics:
Conversations around sex, sexual preference, gender identity and expression and such is necessary and relevant conversation for everyone. You have to listen and give a damn about what is being shared, though.
Privilege and disadvantage manifest in different ways. Be cognizant of that.

Thank you,


Posted by: Anonymous on June 30, 2014 6:22 PM

Sarah-- no problem, I can definitely expand more on the two statements you have highlighted. Hopefully, this helps but if not definitely comment again and I'll try to clarify more as best as I can!

The first: Oberlin (and many other similar colleges) have been ranked on different college ranking sources as an LGBTQ friendly space and what that means is that these colleges tend to be more open to non-heterosexually identifying students and hopefully that the campus is more willing to have conversations on sexual identity, preferences, discussions on gender and safe and consensual sexual practices. The point that I wanted to get at is that these are conversations that everyone should have--not just members and allies of the LGBTQ community but those outside of it as well, outside of Oberlin and these other schools too. With that being said, one has to see value and necessity in having a conversation like this and keep dialogue moving.

The second: Once again, Oberlin as a campus culture tends to be "liberal." I put that in quotations because definitions of liberal vary, but generally there is an evident presence of people concerned about social welfare, equality, equity, social movements and other things that are identified as liberal agendas. Discussions of privilege happen a lot; in my experience, white privilege is pointed out a lot to highlight instances in which a person receives rewards, benefits and/or advantages simply because they are closely affiliated with a social construction of whiteness. To avoid giving you a full sociological spiel, basically a lot of conversation can boil down to the ways in which some people experience privileges as a function of some status that they have rather than working for it. My argument, however, is that everyone has some level of privilege and disadvantage despite their social standing, race/ethnicity or any of that. Try not to automatically write people off just because they seem to be thriving when in actuality they may be struggling hard. One must be aware of this dynamic.

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 1, 2014 5:24 PM

For every single thing on your 50 things list, I want to +100 and up to +1000000000 every one of them, which mean this is an exponentially important post to read.

*snaps heartily*

Posted by: Ma'ayan on July 3, 2014 12:01 PM

This is so good. Thank you!

-Current Obie

Posted by: Anonymous on July 9, 2014 8:49 PM

Thank you for reading and I'm glad you enjoyed it!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 12, 2014 4:44 PM

Awwwww Ma'ayan!! You're the sweetest! I'm glad you loved this post!

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on July 12, 2014 4:50 PM

For each and everyone of these pearls, there are two thoughts:

2 - So much truth can be reflected through writing. No matter how many times your hear the old adage "think before you talk," it will never hit you as strongly as reading it in your own mind - or out loud in your own voice. Even if someone was to disagree with all of this - it is still real and true in this blogpost and reflects truth as you (and so many others) know it. I love that about your writing.

Also Alex you must know that you embody that wonderful sharing of counsel, which so many people lose sight of - do you recall reading about the activist intellectual?

Further, how ingenious of you to title this post "Pearls of Wisdom"! Yes to the allusion - a pearl is a metaphor for something very rare, fine, admirable, and valuable. These suggestions are pearls. Thank you for the free wisdom!

Posted by: Ryan on August 14, 2014 3:51 AM

*cues streams of tears and all the feelings of love* THANK YOU. I keep saying that to you but I deeply mean it because as much as you say I inspire you, I get so much inspiration and motivation from your comments and I truly appreciate that.

I embody a wonderful sharing of counsel? Activist intellectual? I'm flattered! Truly, thank you for everything you have said and I definitely agree with you in that writing from an honest and self aware place often leads to the most fruitful writing. Not necessarily because everyone agrees with it but because when you represent your own truths in both words and actions then the message is all the more resonant.

As for the titling thank you! My little brother is inspirational sometimes and when I listen I can throw it in the mix with my other thoughts and come up with something dope for the blogs :)

Posted by: Alexandria Cunningham '16 on August 15, 2014 7:38 PM

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