Coming Home: A Reflection on International Travel
I've recently returned from a month-long trip to six different Asian locales: China, Singapore, Vietnam, Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan!
Over the course of the month, I traveled with 22 representatives from different liberal arts colleges. We saw over 3000 students, visited over 30 high schools, traveled to 10 cities, and enjoyed 7 different types of transportation (yes, we even took a school bus at one point! no, I don't have a photo of that).
As a member of the LAC China Tour, I participated in a Q&A session on the liberal arts, conducted interviews, and spoke at length about Oberlin and opportunities available to our students. In Singapore, my colleagues and I ran an hour-long interview workshop for students considering applying to US colleges. We ran another interview workshop and added in an essay-writing workshop at the EducationUSA office in Ho Chi Minh City.
Also in Ho Chi Minh City, we accidentally crashed a photo-shoot for the cafe we were breakfasting in. Oops?
A lot of our conversations over the course of the month had to do with what the liberal arts are and what our students do with a liberal arts degree. Many of the students we spoke with have the option to stay in their home country for university. Many of them are looking at universities in the UK or Australia. And many of them are looking at the US, but applying to a liberal arts college may just be one of the options they're weighing.
So if studying in the US is just one of many options, and if the liberal arts is a subset of those options, and if Oberlin (Ohio!) is an even smaller choice within those already narrow decision frameworks... Well, why do I do what I do?
My high school, Cairo American College, was not a destination for a lot of college admissions counselors in the early 2000s. I remember one single college visit to CAC. I went, because I wasn't sure what else I was supposed to do, but I did the bulk of my college search online, in books, and in conversation with the various teachers and administrators I admired. I built a college list around three criteria: a relatively small school, with a Women's Studies department, where I could see the seasons change.
I visited twelve colleges in a crazy two-week road trip the summer before my senior year. My parents are saints. Our rental car had a tape deck but we only had two tapes: Jim Croce and Neil Diamond (I got to know "Crunchy Granola Suite" way too well). At each college, my parents sat in the Admissions lobby and let me take the tour by myself, but joined me for the information session. As we drove away, I had to write a page of notes about the visit so that I'd be able to remember and differentiate the colleges.
I had a couple of large universities on the list, a speckling of single-sex colleges, a few colleges in big cities and a few just outside of them. I interviewed where I could, or spoke to professors if they had time. I did not eat in any dining halls, and I didn't sit in on classes. The entirety of my college visit was narrowed down to a morning or afternoon visit — a few hours at most. One of the colleges I ended up visiting wasn't even on my original list! A family we'd seen at three colleges in a row just casually mentioned this other college in passing, in a "so I guess we'll see you there tomorrow"-type way and, because I'd just seen them at three colleges I'd liked, I added their suggestion onto the college list and my parents looked it up in their road atlas.*
And then I went back to Cairo, sat down with my new college counselor, and told her, point-blank, that I was going nowhere with a college student population of over 3,000 students. I also didn't know what I wanted to major in — my dad had challenged one professor with his question, "But what can you do with a Women's Studies degree?" and her answer was still rumbling around in my head — so I was pretty sure I was looking at a liberal arts college.
My college search process was aided by the fact that I got to visit those twelve colleges. Based on these visits, I struck a number of the colleges off my application list. No to the schools over 3,000 students. No to the city schools. No to the schools where I wouldn't be able to minor in Women's Studies. No and no and no. But also: yes to the small colleges! Yes to the schools with awesome course listings in their Women's Studies departments! Yes to the co-ed schools! Yes to the schools with easy access to airports! Yes to the schools with trees (hello, fall foliage)!
Those are the features I wanted for my college experience. And I realized I wanted those things because I visited twelve very different campuses, and was able to evaluate what I liked and didn't like at each campus.
Not every student gets an opportunity like mine. Not every student will be able to visit a range of colleges, much less one. So what I do, when I visit schools and countries where the students may not have the opportunity to visit my campus, is to inform them of their options.
The liberal arts is one option, and Oberlin is one of many liberal arts colleges. I highlight the things that make Oberlin distinctive — but beyond that, my job is to personalize those facts. A close-knit college community, where students cook and eat together in co-ops and teach each other through the ExCo program. A supportive learning environment, where one of your biggest supporters (and educators) could be a fellow student. The opportunity to work closely with professors, on projects that matter to you.
I think back to my college search and the fact that I was encouraged to visit so many colleges. Of the twelve institutions I visited, eight ended up on my final list; I credit this entirely to the opportunity to gauge the colleges and evaluate them according to my criteria. Criteria, I might add, that continued to develop as I visited college after college, speaking with tour guides and professors and admissions staff.
Today, as I talk about Oberlin with high school students in the US and abroad, my job is to help you build your final list. Oberlin might be a good fit for you, and it's a joy for me to help you figure out the parts of our community that most interest you. But Oberlin might not fit you — and that is important to know. Remember that the goal is to find the college that fits you: academically, socially, ethically, and any other criteria you deem relevant.
If I can help you in building and evaluating that list, then I'm doing a pretty good job. And I'll keep on doing it, because it doesn't matter that Oberlin is one of many options available to you. The point is this: I want you to know what the options are, and I want you to be confident in your decisions.
*This ended up being the college I attended. Protip: if you do get to do a college tour or college visits, make friends! You never know when their suggestions are going to change your perspective, or introduce you to Your Perfect College.