Let's start off with a number. If you were to arrive for first-year orientation and somehow didn't leave Oberlin for four years straight until the last day you could leave your college-owned housing, you'd have roughly 1,699 days in Oberlin. There are a few things you should know about that number. First, it's rough math, and nowhere near a representative experience. So it's safe to assume that it's flat out wrong, and that you'll spend breaks, many breaks, not in Oberlin. Your days in Oberlin for four years (there are obvious exceptions to this timeline, like double-degree students, but just indulge me for a bit) are closer to 1,000 days, at best. Second thing about that number, it will affect you differently than it will affect me, or your roommate, or any of your classmates. Our experience of Oberlin is subjective, and you may wish for that number of days to be longer, or shorter, and your feelings toward that number may (and almost certainly will) change depending on the day, the week, the year. So now that we have a rough, wholly inadequate number of days, let's talk about the real stuff: privilege, meaning making, and feelings of place.
This is an incredibly hard subject to talk about, and I certainly don't have all the language to do so adequately, but I hope you'll bear with me for a moment. People coming into a community for the sole purpose of living in it for its novelty, resources, or convenience is a description of life very heavily tied to descriptions of gentrification, of altering communities by the very act of not being concerned with the people who are already occupying communities. The historicity of this issue in Oberlin doesn't make it any easier to wrap your head around, because there's a sense that that's how it's always been, so that's how it will continue to be - that students will come for their education, and maybe make contact with their surroundings in their 1,000 days. In this spirit it seems clear, that first and foremost, we are here for our education, second only to the camaraderie of our peers (many of us also not from this community), only after which do we consider the town within which we will live, eat, learn, and maybe even come to love.
The conversation surrounding students at a college and their community would be incomplete without addressing how college students are positioned to that community. Regardless of what you think about privilege and access within the Oberlin College student population, there's one thing that we should be able to agree upon - simply by way of being college students, in relation to the residents of the surrounding community, college students have a certain privilege. This doesn't mean we get to trivialize Oberlin students' experiences at any level - many who are excluded and mistreated in other communities all their lives continue to have those experiences here, by peers, faculty, and even Oberlin residents. No, what I mean, specifically, is that in coming to a place, this place, for an express purpose other than to live in,with, this community, positions students in a place of privilege in relationship to many of the members of this wider community. Whether we continue to struggle, with ourselves, our peers, and the community itself, does not delay, negate, or change this privilege, it's simply a consequence of coming to college. The least we can do with the privilege of having made it to college is recognize our position as an opportunity not only to understand and grow in Oberlin, but also to give back, and help the people we are surrounded by. It's important to note that what I'm advocating for is helping the community however it needs help, to look for what the community is already in need of and how you might be able to help the community sustainably support itself, which is the approach the Bonner Scholars program has helped me learn to remember time and time again. Contribute to this community as best you can, in a way that is beneficial to what this community wants, not what you think it needs (even if that means only making change in your friend group or classroom or dorm, because ensuring that these student communities are safe and conscientious means a better community all around).
Some people have a complicated relationship with "home" - the word, the concept, the place, or any alternative interpretation of what that means. As a college student, especially in a "college town" like Oberlin, whose town name and institutions are virtually indistinguishable to those who haven't taken the time to consider the people who already live in this community, that relationship is almost assuredly complicated. Whether you experience home sickness from day one or relief at not being home for some 1,000 days, whether it's feeling at home in your dorm room or in the library, most students will find comfortable places to "be" on this campus, in these college/student owned residences, and they will find "home" here too. In light of making this place meaningful, though, it might be good to consider who else might consider this place home. Who else considers Harkness a fond memory, or Mudd the place where they spent most of their waking hours for 1,000 days? Who else, in the history of the students here and in the history of the larger Oberlin community, considers the town, the shops, the college you love or hate or feel ambivalent toward, to be theirs as well, to be a part of (or to be entirely) their home? You make meaning here because you will spend time growing here, but it might also do you well to consider who else has grown here, and who else wants to grow here someday but can't even though they go to middle school just a few blocks away. If this is going to be your school, make the school's community your community, and maybe the meaning you make here won't be so singular, maybe it will help more people to live as a part of not just this college, but this social fabric - even if you only do it for 1,000 days.
Oberlin is a place. But that's not really true, that word is a lacking descriptor of anything, isn't it? "Place." Nothing is really just a place - it's a school or a home or an office or the setting for someone's obscure, fantastic memory - or maybe, for a few people, it's all of those things and more. Maybe for others that same "place" is none of those things, maybe it's special and different, because people have wildly different experiences of that singular thing we call "place."
So whether you're coming back for your last couple hundred days, or you haven't even had day one yet, welcome home. Just remember you're not the only one here, you're not the first, and you most certainly won't be the last.
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February 16, 2021