Alpha Decay, or Four Things To Know About College
December 22, 2014
Ma'ayan Plaut ’10
Backstory: there are three Plauts in my family with Oberlin degrees, and among the three of us, we cover the three major divisions in the college: humanities (I was a cinema studies major), social science (my dad was a psychology major), and natural science (my brother was a neuroscience major, and my dad was also a geology major). For my dad, the geology major was added late in his academic career, but served as a basis for quite a bit of his future life activities and lessons he imparted to my brother and me. Growing up on a Kentucky organic farm and later moving to the biologically and geologically diverse Hawaii means that my interest and knowledge of science pervades much of my life even if it wasn't my core educational experience at Oberlin. Regardless of what you choose to focus your learning on at Oberlin, you'll make connections between everything you're absorbing. Liberal arts!
Following my fourth reunion masquerading as a fifth reunion this past May, I've hit a weird sort of turning point here in Oberlin: following my reunion, I've officially lived and worked here longer than I was a student here, and that number continues to increase every day.
I see Oberlin differently now. Well, not differently, but in more kaleidoscopic ways that I was privy to when I was a student. My focus as a student was laser-tight on absorbing everything through my camera lens, and that gave me more than I could have imagined from being here. Images are still a mainstay for my growth and understanding, but the written word (both read by and written by me) has shifted into a more primary location in my life.
This week marks the digital meeting of Oberlin's class of 2019, so I've had some things on my mind, specifically about what one should know about college in general, with a microscope on Oberlin.
At Oberlin, your learning environment is everywhere. Fact: I learned more from talking to my friends about what they're learning and experiencing (still do, in fact) than I ever did in three hours a week I spent sitting in one class. This is not to say that the classes weren't important (they were, in fact), but what I learned sitting and listening and discussing and doing didn't stop there. It was a starting point for so many things I touched upon in college, but more importantly, what I touch upon daily in my life and my work. As a student, I spent more hours per week working jobs than I did in class. For most classes, I spent at least the same amount of time doing homework as I did sitting in class.
Which of these things helped me get a job? Which of these things prepared me for my current work? Which of things things prepared me to be a better Ma'ayan? (Secret: all of them.)
For four years, I learned through the vocabularies, histories, and research of sociology, psychology, anthropology, economics, biology, chemistry, rhetoric, English, art, and then applied that to visual storytelling (coincidentally, my major and many of my chosen jobs in college). Even adjective sandwiches, those kinds of creative associations and emotion-turned-edible don't just live in my head, there's science and process and language included in the hard work.
Could I have done these things without going to college? Probably. I think I'm driven enough that I can learn whatever I want from wherever I want — the world is my classroom! — but Oberlin is the environment in which I wished to absorb more, and I decided to spend the time focusing on learning to learn for life.
Our Kentucky home is located in one of the three counties that Mammoth Cave* inhabits under the surface of our soil. Limestone, lurking, is a relatively soluble rock that breaks down over time. In the breakdown, something new emerges in the negative space. (Everything that exists is a function of what is and isn't there.)
Caves go deep and get deeper over time. And until they break the surface, they're just doing their development thing right below our feet. College is, in part, a place to find your deeper self. I'm of the mindset that one possesses all the potential they'll ever have when they're born, but it takes the right encouragement, exposure, and experiences to open those things up.
My Kentucky soul thinks of all of this as spelunking: exploring yourself within. Your deeper self is the shaping of your identity. All you know about yourself before entering college will crumble, hone, and expand during your college years. Much of this will come from inside, but the things that carve us and shape us are the waters that wash around us as well.
For those of you considering college, especially schools the caliber of Oberlin, choosing to attend a school such as Oberlin means that you're about to immerse yourself in an incomparable traditional learning environment. If you're deciding on a small elite school like Oberlin, you are going to learn things that most of the world doesn't have access to — graduating from Oberlin puts you in the family of 40,000 worldwide Oberlin alums, or .00057% of the world's population. Elite schools are just that: they educate the few, and they educate those few well.
The pressure is real. Whether it's coming from inside or outside, there is no push without pull, and there is no such thing as two different unbreakable objects. The more we know about our imperfections, the more we can do to work with them. Oberlin's the (learnin' and) laboratory in which we can dream of and act in order to create the world we want. Not just the world at Oberlin, but the WHOLE world... but since the world is huge and Oberlin is small, we're going to try it out here first, small scale, to see what we can do so that we can apply it to the rest of the world. The same big things my dad's generation spoke up about — human rights, civil rights, food justice, the sexual revolution, economic injustice — are the same things my brother's and my generation are speaking up about, and with time, we've learned more, seen more, read more, thought more, written more, done more.
My big question for myself (that you're welcome to ask yourself, too): what do I do with the education I was introduced to and that I absorbed at Oberlin? How do I, in the words of fellow Oberlin blogger Sammie, continue to learn, apply, and share my wisdom? The privilege of this education is something few others in the world will receive, and I am constantly reminded of this every time I leave the Oberlin bubble.
Time spent away from Oberlin translates to a greater and deeper appreciation. For me, that time away were my summer breaks in college; I chose to not study away lest I miss a single day of Oberlin. I even stuck around for another year... and then a few years more. Whether you take time away from Oberlin during the prescribed breaks or voluntarily through study away or leaves from Oberlin, space and time gives you a different look into this place.
What I've learned in the past year more than any: there's no place quite like Oberlin. For every conference I've attended, for every prospective student or parent that I've chatted with, for every conversation I've had that includes the word Oberlin, that's just another layer of love accumulating and compressing into the sedimentary bedrock that serves as a foundation for my appreciation for this place. Like most immersive experiences, it's hard to thoroughly process and understand all that happens in college until you have a moment of breathing time and some physical distance. (As Tanya pointed out while helping me edit this post: this is how I write now on the blogs. There's a lot of heart and soul of Ma'ayan here, but this is the wide view — the Oberlin education in action and words.)
Oberlin was founded 181 years ago, by no means one of the oldest collegiate institutions out there, but those have been 181 very interesting years. (If I live a life even 1/10 as interesting as Oberlin, I'll be A-okay.) The larger lesson here is that college is not the beginning, nor the end, but a blip in our lives. A significant one, but just a blip. In geological time, the existence of Oberlin isn't even perceptible. As everyone's favorite Calvin always says, "I AM SIGNIFICANT (screamed the dust speck)." From this dust speck to a fellow dust speck: wedge yourself in with your fellow dust specks. That's how to make pearls. (Or someone sneeze.)
Blips, meaningful as they are, can be the pivotal moment of serendipitous opportunity. Getting into Oberlin was one of those moments. Stepping foot on campus was another. Graduating was another. Each of these blip/drips compound, and become this larger and more significant thing. A trickle of water may be small, but the ebb and flow over time shapes us. May you have four years of the waters washing over you, of spelunking and excavating, of filling in and creating new spaces for yourself.
* So, Mammoth Cave. It's the coolest place ever; you should go, and while you're there, you should SAY HI to all our friends who work at the park, most of whom will flip out and hug you if you wear an Oberlin shirt/name drop Oberlin.
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