I've written a lot about why I needed space from Oberlin and preparing to leave for good. The natural question is why I'm here in the first place, and why I stayed. That has a lot to do with privilege, class and cultural norms, and even more to do with my incredible, tolerant and generous parents. But it's also because I love it here. It was great to take a semester off. But I didn't go farther than Pennsylvania for a reason, and I came back to visit, between January and June, six times. I may not belong at a liberal arts college, but I belong here.
Every year I try to write an entry specifically for the accepted students about why I love this place so much, but it's always May before I know it. This year I've caught it one day early (or, you know, about three weeks late). This entry is for those of you like me, who take until the very last day to decide; and for those of you who might be waitlisted and wandering; and for next year's prospies, who have almost exactly a year to figure it out.
Obviously, this is written from my perspective alone. I couldn't write it if I tried to preface every statement with "Other people feel differently about this for these reasons, which I agree are important, but can't speak to personally." Obies and prospies alike: if you want to share a different perspective, want more detail about something, or want to call me out, please feel free to leave a comment or email me and I'll be happy to address the topic more fully or educate myself.
But for me:
I feel safe here. Although I know not everyone does, I think we are improving, one fight at a time. I am flamboyantly queer, socially awkward, white, male, and 21 years old. All of my identities are accepted and affirmed, and I could ask for nowhere safer. My kind of awkward is well within the normal spectrum of Oberlin:
A hand-drawn line graph on graph paper shows two curves. The y-axis is labelled “Amount of Normal,” with the lower bound marked “totally weird” and the upper bound marked “totally normal.” The x-axis is labelled “Amount of Awkward,” with the lower bound marked “never, ever awkward” and the upper bound marked “awkward in majority of interactions.” The lower left of the plot area is marked “bizarrely charismatic people,” and about a third of the way along, the main area under the first curve is marked “Society at Large,” and an area further to the right says “Oberlin.” There are several bumps on the right side, with one label saying “specific peaks of awkwardness considered normal, such as ‘stereotypical computer geek,’” and another marking “my peak.”
And my kinds of queer are affirmed here, too.1 There are many like me, and many more who just don't consider us strange. I can mention a crush or a childhood moment without fearing for my safety - emotional or physical.
I do know it's not emotionally safe here for everyone, and not everyone's identity is considered normal. People of color, in particular, have spoken about feeling unsafe, alienated and experiencing microagressions here. It wasn't just the KKK regalia incident, or the other incidents last spring. It's a chronic problem, as it is most places. I think, based just on what I've seen and read, that Oberlin is better than average. But with a history like ours, we can do better than that. 2
The folks who are tasked with keeping us physically safe are great. I trust Safety and Security officers. They're helpful, reasonable, and friendly. They unlock rooms for me on a regular basis (once I've given them a good reason, of course) and smile and wave on patrol. They break up parties without unnecessary force. They keep things under control without trying to control every little thing. And unlike security on other campuses I've heard of, they don't carry guns.
Oberlin encourages independence in ways that are important to me. There are not a whole lot of liberal arts colleges whose assets include several organs, a supercomputer, and a dozen laying hens. The fact that Mary Claire was able to start a flock in the first place, and that I was able to begin anew with day-old chicks and a ten-year plan, says a lot about people all the way up the chain of command.
In fact, it's pretty great that the Environmental Studies Program has sovereignty over its landscape at all. There were a couple of years in between David Benzing's retirement and Sean Hayes' hiring where there were no staff with the time and desire to supervise the landscape. The skeleton staff of student groundskeepers was dedicated, but small, and had very different priorities than the college groundskeepers. Who's going to mow the lawn when there's chickens to feed and radishes to plant? (Not me.) The inestimable Dennis Grieve, grounds manager for the college, tolerated it all. Now that Sean is here, the staff is larger, and order is restored, Dennis has also allowed us to tap the maple trees in Tappan Square:
Academic independence is also encouraged, as evidenced by my two private readings in unconventional subjects: spinning yarn and cider-press-making. In my experience, independent classes, independent research and independent majors all follow that same rule of thumb: if you can make it happen, make it happen.
And, of course, Oberlin tolerates OSCA. It takes a special institution to sacrifice a good bit of income and a lot of control over the health and safety of 25% of its student body. 3 (In exchange, they are rewarded with more responsible, more independent, less debt-ridden, happier and healthier students, but much of the benefit accrues to us, not to the college.) Most Obies take OSCA for granted, but stepping back, its scope is breathtaking.
OSCA itself is why I came here, and OSCA is why I left. Co-ops aren't for everyone, but for me, Keep and Harkness were true homes. I loved working with and for my coopmates. There is joy in a well-attended cleaning crew, in a sorted bag of recycling, in a gleaming, sanitized kitchen ready for the next big meal. At the co-op level, most tasks are simple and ritualized. Thousands of crew members have soaped, rinsed and sanitized each counter in pretty much the same way. Hundreds of residents have sighed and gone to fetch the toilet paper from the same closets. Dozens of CMCs have scowled at open bags of flour in the same dry foods rooms. This was comforting while I was in OSCA and is even more so in retrospect. Compared to my own long and varied list of house chores, most of which I'll have to do alone, cooperative crew is fun. 4 OSCA culture suits me. And OSCA's failings, unlike my own, don't bother me much. OSCA is a long-lived and many-headed beast and has much more time to improve itself than I do.
The support networks here, both formal and informal, have sustained me. It's not like I've had the hardest year ever, but it hasn't been the easiest either. I've been dealing with doubt, fear and remorse fairly regularly. But I've never had to deal with them alone. My family, though far away, supports me. My friends are always close at hand - especially my housemates, which is convenient, since they're three of the people I love most in the world. (I am not so lucky with another closest friend, who is across the ocean - in Hawai'i, to be specific - but they'll be stateside soon enough.) I try to work things out for myself most of the time,
I also have institutional resources close at hand. Debra of the Counseling Center has been helpful to talk to on occasion and Melissa Ballard of Student Academic Services went above and beyond offering weekly check-ins my first year. One semester I had access to fabulous notes from fellow students.
But the most important to me is something called OWLs, student-led workshops for large science classes. The format is different from lecture. They're sometimes worksheet-based, but the best ones still feel like class, but smaller, and interactive. Don't get me wrong: lectures are necessary. Can you imagine trying to learn organic chemistry by coming to a class consensus? And we wouldn't get through nearly enough in class if we did six examples of every reaction ourselves. But I've come to terms with the fact that I don't learn well in lectures. When sitting still, I have just so many minutes of attention to give, depending on how much I care about the material and whether I've just sat through another class. Sometimes I have 40 minutes. More often I have 20. Once the time is reached, I'm gone. That doesn't happen in OWLs. I can learn from OWLs for two hours and come out still interested. I hear tour guides say that we don't have TAs instead of professors, and it's true; but you should know that we do have TAs, and they are awesome.
There's more to say — isn't there always? — but it's time now to feed the animals and have my own breakfast and begin another busy Oberlin day. I feel ancient thinking about how many Oberlin days I've had already (which will make those of you older than 21 chuckle, I hope, but it's true). Future Obies, I hope you have many wonderful Oberlin days yourselves, and come to feel ancient just as I do now, and feel lucky, like me, to have been here for these four short years.
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Although I prefer not to share more detail about my identities on such a searchable and permanent website, I'd be happy to speak more about my experience to queer or just-curious prospies. Email me or find me on Facebook.
I think it's silly to complain about things without offering a single solution, but I don't want to derail this entry too much - contact me if you're curious about what I'd do.
It has become apparent lately that Oberlin may not, in fact, be prepared to be that special institution forever. You may have heard of the recent change to the financial aid policy; if not repealed, it will seriously affect OSCA's accessibility and diversity, and possibly its existence. Only time will tell if Oberlin's students will succeed in defeating the policy.
Lest you think I merely wax nostalgic: I crewed at Tank a few weeks ago, and it was fun. They use bleach instead of pink sanitizer these days, but little else has changed in the last two years.