All Roads Lead to Zoom: COVID-19 and Admitted Student Engagement
Each year, Oberlin hosts an event called All Roads for admitted students to come to campus and interact with their potential future classmates. Hundreds of prospies (what we call prospective students) flock to Oberlin to see if the college is the one for them. Although I myself didn’t participate in this event as a high school senior, I think because I had a lead role in a ballet during the same weekend, I know how important this event is for bringing students to Oberlin and helping them in making the sometimes stressful college commitment decision.
Naturally, this year Oberlin couldn’t host All Roads. Instead, the college did something really clever, if I do say so myself. As a replacement, the college offered a remote course called “Uncovering COVID-19: Critical Liberal Arts Perspectives.” This 8-week remote course, which could be taken for college credit, was offered to admitted students of Oberlin. Each week there was a lecture by a different professor from a specific field (everything from Biology to Comparative American Studies) followed by a discussion group held by a current Oberlin student. Almost 500 students signed up.
A few days before this course started up, I got a slightly chaotic email from a fellow Obie who was serving as the student coordinator, sort of the TA, for the course. He was looking for students to help lead discussion sections with admitted students, with a rather urgent turnaround period. I said yes, and I’m so glad I did. For the next 8 weeks, I got to see different lectures from Oberlin professors I’d never interacted with before and lead a discussion section with a particularly impressive and bright group of prospies. The discussion groups were formed around a common interest or characteristic. My group consisted of 13 students who all participate in robotics, an interest I most definitely was NOT involved with during high school. I was honestly a little apprehensive when I first met my students, because a) they were brand new people and I was on Zoom and wanted to make a good impression, and b) I was worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to them! Luckily for me, we got to know one another quickly and established a good rapport. Even though attendance varied each week, the quality of our discussions didn’t waver, and I really enjoyed being able to debrief the lectures and also talk about Oberlin with these kids. I’m so glad I was approached with this opportunity for engagement with admitted students, and that I got to take what ended up being a super cool course, and here’s why:
The entire idea for the course was brilliant. Sure, from an admissions point of view, it was a smart move. But it also presented an incredibly smart and unique learning opportunity for the students who took it, regardless of whether or not they decided to attend Oberlin. Not only did students get to see the value of a liberal arts education and the importance of an interdisciplinary approach to learning and understanding complex issues like the pandemic, but they got to interact with potential fellow Obies and a current one. The course was emblematic of all the best things about Oberlin, which is hard to do without a campus or interviews or tours of any of the other things colleges usually use to convince people to go there. I’ll never forget a comment one student made, I think it was week 3 of the course, when I asked them a check-up question about what they thought distinguished this course from a typical high school class (besides the obvious online model). One student said something like “Maybe this is kind of weird or obvious, but I feel like every week with every professor I can really tell how much they care. Like, they seem really genuinely interested in teaching and their fields and they seemed excited about their job.” The enthusiasm of Oberlin professors is something I’ve grown to take for granted, now that I’m 75% done with my college career, and it was both touching and refreshing that the students noticed and appreciated this. Being both a learner and a facilitator and peer mentor for this course was an amazing experience, because I was learning right alongside my prospies. I got the opportunity to hear lectures from professors I’d never interacted with at Oberlin, from very different fields, which showed me the standard of quality across the board at Oberlin. Even during weeks with lectures in fields outside my comfort zone, like Econ or Politics, the lectures were engaging and approachable. I never felt intimidated, I felt nurtured, and I hope that the prospies taking the course from all over the world felt that way too. All the professors were clear, enthusiastic, and clearly cared a lot about educating all the students involved in the course.
The course was a testament not just to Oberlin’s professors, but also to its students, or potential students. My section had really awesome discussions, which impressed me each and every week. I became genuinely very fond of my students and was sad when some of them stopped attending the course after decision day had passed and some of them presumably committed to other colleges (but I sincerely wish the best for them!!!). But even more impactful each week was the Q&A session after the lecture. Every week, after the 45-minute lecture was over, questions that had been submitted by students during the Zoom call were read out loud to the professor, who answered them in real time. Each week I was positively floored by the questions these students were asking! They were intelligent, nuanced, articulate, and thought-provoking. It wasn’t uncommon for the prof of the week to say “Wow, that’s a really excellent question” after every question that was posed. The Q&A sessions were a wonderful reminder of how smart Obies are, how good they are at asking questions, and how lucky I am to go to a school that attracts such incredible learners and scholars.
In a lot of ways, being able to interact with the Class of 2024 gave me some much-needed hope and positivity during a time where those things are often in short supply! First off, connecting with and meeting some new people was really great, because how else would I do that during this time? Second, interacting with the amazing class of 2024 gave me hope for Oberlin as an institution and the world more generally. That’s sort of cheesy, I know, but it’s how I feel. I’ve never been a huge fan of Oberlin’s motto “Think one person can change the world? So do we,” which is a topic for another time. But, after interacting with these new students who are persevering through a really challenging moment, I was reassured that although I don’t think one person can change the world, the power of collaboration and critical inquiry that I saw in these students legitimately has the potential to effect change in a very meaningful way. Each week having chats with my discussion group I thought, wow, these kids are so resilient and I’m happy to have been part of it all!
Yesterday was the last day of the course. The lecture was possibly my favorite one so far, from a professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Feminist Studies (GSFS) and Comparative American Studies (CAST) Departments. They lectured on capitalism, structural healthcare access inequities, and mutual aid. They encouraged radical kindness and community orientation. It was such an Oberlin moment, in the best possible way. Everyone in my family ended up watching the lecture, including my labradoodle, who is definitely a strong anti-capitalist ;). After the lecture, in lieu of a discussion, there was a mini virtual graduation ceremony hosted by Dean Kamitsuka, all the professors from each week of the course, and President Ambar. For many students, who don’t have any sort of recognition for graduation, I thought this was such a tender gesture from the college. Each speaker donned their academic regalia and gave advice to the Class of 2024. President Ambar spoke from an eerily empty Finney Chapel and reassured students that the college is doing everything possible to have an in-person semester in the Fall. The entire affair was so touching, the professors so kind and encouraging, Carmen Ambar so majestic, standing alone on the Finney Chapel stage. It made me proud to be an Oberlin student. After being at home for Winter Term, abroad for part of this semester and then at home again for the rest of it, I have felt disconnected from Oberlin at times. Participating in this course, which helped bring together the next generation of Obies, helped me feel more connected to Oberlin, even from afar. I’m so glad to have participated in this way to give back to my Oberlin community. And to my prospies, if you see me on campus in the Fall, please say hello, even if we’re six feet apart :)