When I was a senior in high school applying to different colleges, I remember one of the main pieces of advice that I would hear over and over was to visit the schools I was seriously considering. Considering I received free and reduced lunch all my life, this was pretty difficult, but I made do with what I could and I was even able to visit Oberlin for free through the Multicultural Visit Program. I was only able to visit one other school besides Oberlin, but I remember at both schools the emphasis was always placed on showing prospective students what life on campus was like in an attempt to convince them to attend that particular school. Sometimes this was done by letting these prospective students sit in on classes or student organization meetings; sometimes school traditions and superstitions were explained by current students of the university. One thing that I’ve realized is critical to choosing a college but I never heard about was the situation of the community that the college is located in, and I think that should change.
By the time students are seniors in high school, there’s a good chance that they’ve heard about gentrification and how it impacts a community. If you’re a student considering attending Oberlin College, it’s likely that you’ve thought about gentrification and heard about how it displaces families and often disproportionately affects people of color, low income communities, and disabled people. I want students, no matter where they plan on applying or attending, to think about the following question: How can I be more conscious of the community I am entering? Ultimately, most students only stay in Oberlin, Ohio, for the four years they attend Oberlin College. If we didn’t grow up in this community and have no plans to stay long term, we are guests in it and should respect the area and town as such. I’ve seen some friends reflect on how colleges in their hometowns or home neighborhoods have increased rent prices and fueled gentrification, and I’ve realized that the presence of Oberlin College and its students has likely done the same. I’m part of local Facebook groups that include residents of the town and surrounding areas, and I’ve noticed that there are times when Oberlin students are appreciated for what they add to the community, and there are times when we are rightfully criticized. For example, there are only so many homes and apartments in the town and some landlords have a heavy preference for renting to students. Some apartments in the area are (in my opinion) quite expensive due to their proximity to the college, and there are students who are willing and able to pay these prices so there is no incentive to decrease rent prices and make them more affordable to community members. Granted, I could also be observing things through a particular lens and not have the full story, but this is what I have gathered from seeing apartment prices in the area and seeing discussions in these Facebook groups. Another thing that I didn’t realize as I applied to Oberlin was the demographics of the area and Northeast Ohio as a region. If I’m being completely honest, 17-year-old me thought Ohio was just an extremely white place and I would just have to accept it as it was. I’m sure you can tell, but I was quite wrong. Yes, there are many white people that live in Oberlin, but there are also people of color that live and work in the town, and there are towns like Lorain that have prominent Black and Latinx populations. All this to say, learn from my shortcomings. It’s important to think about the community you are potentially entering rather than simply the school.
How can students be more conscious of the communities they are asking to be part of? Get ready to do some reading. I’m sure you’re comfortable with that considering you’re scrolling through and reading the Oberlin blogs, but expand the sources of the content you’re consuming. As I said earlier, I learned much from the Facebook groups that included residents of the town and weren’t focused on the views of students. See if there are public Facebook groups and take a scroll through them and what kind of questions are asked and what kind of discussions are happening. See what aspects of the community are repeatedly mentioned and what’s important in town. Once you’ve done your Facebook research, go through local newspapers and websites to see what events and topics concern the town and the college. The newspaper that has contributions from both students and community members here is the Oberlin Review (oberlinreview.org). Who speaks about what topics? Ask yourself, are the pros and cons of a particular school something I feel strongly about? When I complain about administrative issues at Oberlin to my parents, often they tell me “if you’re so unhappy, then just transfer,” but the reality is that I’m not particularly unhappy, I just wish the school would make choices that I better agree with. I always respond by telling them even though there are issues at Oberlin, there are issues at every school, and I would much rather have Oberlin College problems than XYZ college problems. When you feel like you need more information and context for campus culture, look at demographics. Usually a simple Google search of the demographics for a particular town, county, and region can be quite informative. This isn’t to say that you should search for a college set in a town or city that’s exactly like your own, but to drop whatever assumptions you may have and realize that each community is unique and should be respected for what it is. Be ready to try new things and be uncomfortable at times. Read on the history of the area, and not only the school. Even things that are a bit more specific are interesting to look at. Around Halloween (a.k.a. Spooky Season), I like to look up ghost stories and haunted buildings in the greater Cleveland area. If you’re particularly interested in, say, environmental justice, see how Lake Erie has made the news and impacted legislation about clean water. Look at more than just the admissions website and student perspectives. Take in as much information as you can.
At the end of the day, as much as it might feel like it at times, you will not be living in a bubble. You will interact with non-Obies in restaurants and stores across town; you might even become friends with them and explore the area. I know it may not be realistic for everyone, but I like to go into Cleveland with a friend sometimes and try different restaurants or dessert shops or go to museums or go to the lakefront and enjoy the view of the skyline. I write all this just to urge you to think about the community you are asking to be part of. Prospective students tend to ask themselves “Why should the college want me? How can I convince the admissions committee that I deserve to be here?” but hardly ever “Why should the community want me?” even though the presence of college students often heavily impacts an area. I am in no way an expert and there are likely individuals who have a better way of expressing what I have attempted to address, but I feel like this is a topic that should be considered by students in the admissions process. Just try and remember the following: be conscious and be courteous; you will be a guest of wherever you decide to attend school.
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April 26, 2022