From the moment I started looking at colleges, I was hooked on a facade. Every admissions office swore that their school was, uniquely, the place where students could discover themselves, prepare for a career, feel heard by their teachers, dip a toe in every skillset, think critically, change the world, and find a community ready to accept them. It's so funny now. I'm not sure if I really believed it or not, but I wanted to believe that I would graduate high school into a world that was ready to meet all of my needs and desires, one where the issues of whatever institution I ended up in wouldn't be so impossible to solve, one where I would flourish naturally and belong. Willingly, I invited the facade into my body. Consciously, I let it keep me warm through my last months and years of high school.
It didn't fully shatter until my second semester of my first year at Oberlin, when I had two interactions that gave me a nervous, terrible feeling about the years to come.
One: In a dance studio, students in the class rolling in. Someone talking about the many activities they were involved with, showing zero concern for the limits of their time or energy, and an upperclassman stopping them mid-sentence to ask, "What year are you, again?"
"I'm a first-year."
"Yeah, I can tell. You still have the first-year glint in your eye." The upperclassman laughed like they needed something to laugh about, badly.
Two: In my lounge with two third-year students I admired, late at night. They asked how my semester was going. I answered cheerfully. And then: "Oh, it hasn't hit you yet."
Their eyes dragged to meet each other, almost rolling, almost taking a smile along with them. "...The void." Over burritos from the now-deceased Agave— the only place in the city of Oberlin that served food past 1am— they described "the void" as this emotional cesspool, dull, painful, lonely. They swore that only Agave burritos past midnight (known to taste bad at any other time of day) could remedy it. The symptoms of the void that they described sounded exactly like the symptoms of depression to me, but the scary twist to it was that they were implying it was specific to Oberlin. That I might make it a year, maybe two, before it hit me. And then, once it did, there would be no making it out of the void until I graduated.
A couple years after those two grim-seeming interactions, here's where I'm at: indeed, there is no glint left in my eye. But I am not quite in the void either.
Or, I am glinting in glimpses, hardly dwelling on anything that seems for a moment to sparkle.
Or, I am teetering at the edge of the void, watching its depth sprawl out before me, holding space for those on the inside without ever plummeting towards the ground.
Or, I have definitely plummeted before, but I haven't ever stayed down there for long.
What I mean to say is that I am demystified. Sometimes, I am depleted. I am ready to process the harsh realities at play on this campus. I am no longer knee-deep in the sweeping idealism of admission's rhetoric. Countless times, I have contended with that rhetoric's flimsiness. I have been burnt out, stretched thin, feeling the health effects of being asked to do more than what is actually feasible. I have been frustrated at the administration's unresponsiveness to the student demands that matter the most. I have rolled my eyes at the silent agreement here to dodge the institution's racism by citing things it did in the 1800s. I have fully abandoned the hope I once had for the Hispanic Studies department to respect or prioritize Latine students. And I am held in a continual state of disillusionment by the simple practice of listening to my body. To what is too much to take. To what goes unsaid unless I say it. To what douses me in broiling rage. To the ways that there is often no room here to accommodate disability or move at a sustainable pace or maintain energetic boundaries. And I am always disillusioned when I am listening to my loved ones. I am always disillusioned when I am listening to those of my peers who are bearing the burden of Oberlin's shortcomings in ways that I never will. I have lost all my defensiveness; I am not attached to the idea of Oberlin being a good place or even to it being a better place than my high school. This is the edge. The cliff is steep; the fog is thick. The void's presence breathes at my shoulder, and there is no glint to yank my head in the other direction.
And yet. Without turning my head I can see a stream. It does not ask me to deny the void's presence, but runs alongside the void, abundantly, loyally, as if it had always just rained. In the morning light, it might be glistening. These waters are not made of my old first-year glint. They are made of trickles that dig trenches into the Earth when they converge, deeper than they are wide, mightier than they are heavy. This is not the glint because it is not a facade, but it sparkles the way the glint once made me think that everything would. It is the piece of fantasy that has survived.
Each trickle that lends itself to my stream is something that cleans me. One trickle for my inner circle. One for the student body humming with artistic possibility. One for the smoothies from Biggs with two scoops of hemp fiber powder. One for any and all Comparative American Studies professors. One for the fact that the heating works. One for community. One for the arboretum. One for living in the only place on campus where it's normal to blast reggaeton loud enough for the whole hallway to hear. One for room to breathe. One for all the choices I get to make every day. One for studying the things that set me on fire. The stream is alive, even without the illusion. It is more than enough to sustain my spirit— even on a hazy night, when the soft glisten of the stream looks nothing like the eye-catching glint I once expected.
Stream aside, you might be wondering, at this point, why I'm still willing to vouch for Oberlin as a place that you maybe should go. My answer is that I am simply not convinced that a single one of Oberlin's serious flaws are unique to Oberlin. Several of them I believe are unique to private liberal arts colleges or to predominantly white institutions or to the United States or to late stage capitalism or even to all of humanity. I am going to tell you the truth, and you might not want to hear it. No college that you're looking at is a sparkly innocent utopia. The void is no more Oberlin-specific than romanticized admissions rhetoric is. If a private liberal arts education is what you are searching for, I don't believe there is a single place you could go that doesn't snatch glints from eyes and shove voids into chests in much the same way as Oberlin does.
This is not to say that you will not find substantial flaws if you end up at a large public university or working full time straight out of high school. It is only to say that you will find substantial flaws wherever you end up, and that the type of flaws you end up with are going to be similar among sets of peer institutions. "Private liberal arts college" is the particular brand of flaws that I am familiar with. For some students, these flaws are beyond devastating. Others are frolicking in a field somewhere because they have never even noticed them. Still others live in transit between the void and their stream, plummeting and splashing, never for long without rage or laughter.
Admissions offices make a lot of promises. They are exaggerated and sweeping and obscure. They would have you believe that the ground reaching from one end of the void to the other is straight and smooth and stable; they do not prioritize truth. In the end, though, it's what you do find at a college that makes it yours. There are many possible trickles of life that a student can find at Oberlin: in academic departments, in student organizations, in co-ops, in dorms, and in any other tangle of people and activities really. My anger for Oberlin College as a collective body continues to renew itself, and yet I've still made home here. And yet, everyone who finds their way here deserves to be able to make home. And yet, in some way, most people do. I am home here not because I think Oberlin is perfect, but because I have found the ways that I fit into it all.
A college education is not what a first-year glint would have you believe, but it's nothing you can't handle either. It's just more life, in this same world, in all its excitement and all its agony— the way you have always lived it. If you have the luxury, like I did, of choosing a college yourself, then here is my advice to you: don't choose based off of an advertised image of perfection. The image is wrong. Choose a college that you think has the particular trickles of life that would help you thrive despite whatever you might encounter there. In all likelihood, your trickles will converge into a stream. If you allow it to, the stream will sustain you. It will not fix everything, but it will cleanse the wounds. It will cycle the void's dust off of your skin and back into the Earth.
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September 29, 2022