Oberlin Blogs

Departing the Blogs (4): 10 Things I Learned

June 19, 2011

Patrick Doherty ’11

The fourth, and final part of my series bidding adieu to the Oberlin blogs. Click on the links for parts one, two, and three. In this section, I'll be focusing on ten things that I learned during my time at Oberlin.

If you read my other blog posts on any sort of consistent basis, you'll notice that I tend to go about discussing topics in a rather lengthy manner. This post is no exception. I will apologize one last time for my inability to be concise, but in some ways I think it's appropriate that my final post is lengthy.

Ten Things I Learned

Number 1: It's okay to want to learn
As my high school education came to a close, I dreaded moving on to college (you can read more about my transition to Oberlin here). Though I was somewhat excited to be getting out of California and beginning a new experience, I was worried that I would end up as jaded and bitter as I was at the end of high school. Though I was lucky to attend one of the more reputable public high schools in California, I was stuck with many mediocre and subpar teachers who clearly cared little about their jobs or actually educating their students. I was often discouraged from asking questions, exploring my own intellectual curiosities outside the normal curriculum, and was confined by the fact that teachers taught more to standardized tests than anything else. My love of learning was destroyed by the Acalanes Union High School district and I thought that wanting to learn was less than desirable.

Oberlin quickly turned that around. I will admit that most of my first semester I was still confined by the fear that my desire to learn would be quashed. This all began to change during my second semester. As I got to know some professors, they began to ask me what I wanted to learn, why I was taking their courses, and what I hoped to get out of their classes. I was in heaven. A key turning point was a conversation I had with Professor O'Dwyer. I went to her office hours to introduce myself and inform her that I had no prior experience with Japanese history. Soon enough, we had discovered our mutual love of the French Revolution and it became the subject of several discussions (to the point of her making a book recommendation). I love to learn. Oberlin students love to learn. I'm glad that Oberlin allowed me to rediscover my desire to learn anything and everything that I can.

Number 2: It's okay to fail
During first semester my first year, I failed a class. Well, I technically "no-passed" the course (luckily having the foresight to switch to the pass/no pass option offered by the college). I was ashamed of myself. For years, I had been the student who was able to achieve academically with minimal effort, and multivariable calculus was not going to let me do that. I came into Oberlin with no study skills, no idea how to prepare for a test, and no idea that it was even possible for me to fail a course. I distinctly remember getting chastised for having too many A-minuses second semester my sophomore year of high school. Failing multivariable calculus was a shock, to say the least.

I'm a proud person, meaning I take pride in my ability to be independent and solve problems on my own. When I got our first exam back with a fat red "51" (yes, out of 100), written on top, I didn't know what to do. I didn't go to office hours, I had a brief conversation about it with my advisor, I didn't seek tutoring, and I definitely did not talk about the fact I was failing a class with my newly-made friends. How could I bear the shame of having to meet with someone less than a semester into college because I was teetering on the edge of academic probation? How was that even possible?

Failing to seek help, I was able to bring my grade up to a 69%. Was I hopeful that the professor would take pity on me and round my grade so I would pass and not have to reveal this to my parents when grades were released? Yes. Is it possible he would have done so if I had gone into office hours, been proactive, and seemed to want to do better? Probably. Did it happen? Nope. I failed.

For a long time, failing this class was a source of shame. It was only when I began to find out that I'm not the only Oberlin student to ever fail a class (far from it, actually), that I began to embrace the experience as one from which I could learn. I worked much, much harder in the spring of my first year, performing adequately and passing all of my classes. I needed to prove to myself that I could achieve at Oberlin, and so I began to push myself. I pushed myself to the point that now, sitting in a box in my room, is my diploma, which states that I graduated with honors in history.

So, thanks multivariable calculus. If you hadn't caused me to fail so early in my Oberlin career, I doubt I would have pushed so hard to become an honors student.

Number 3: My love for baking
My discovery of my love for baking came about as an accident. Sometime during the first semester of my freshman year I was telling people in my dorm about the best pie ever. This pie is a Bowerman family (my mom's side) recipe and is a cream cheese pie. No, it is not a cheesecake. It is a pie. The most delicious pie you will ever eat. I decided to give baking it a go. Then, around Christmastime, I missed making sugar cookies with my family, so I did that too.

Things really took off my sophomore year, when I literally spent an entire Friday in the kitchen in the basement of Burton (which was removed in the recent renovations) baking goodies in honor of the winter holidays. I continued to bake for friends and by the summer before our senior year, Helena and I had concocted a potential plan to open a bakery. Now, I don't think we've officially closed this as an option (as Helena still has one more year in Oberlin), but the plan has been put on hold at the moment. If and when we do open the bakery we already know what it'll be called - H.T. Patty Cakes: Divine Desserts and Pastries. The title is courtesy of Jen, who I wrote about in this post. Baking is something I love, and if it weren't for my decision to journey 2500 miles away from home to Oberlin for college, I doubt I would have figured that out.

Number 4: How to say "no"
Ah, the perpetual dilemma. Oberlin students have a tendency to want to do everything all the time. This leads to us overcommitting ourselves and having at least one "Oberlin semester" where we become completely overwhelmed (for the record, mine was first semester junior year). When faced with overwhelming stress due to the fact that I was saying yes to everything (and my eventual collapse into contracting mononucleosis), I began to learn how to say no to people. I tried to be as nice about it as possible, and most of the time people were understanding. Sometimes you just have to sit down and think about what's more important. For me, I said yes to nearly everything related to admissions, Active Minds, music, and nerdy exploits. Eventually sacrifices and choices must be made, however, and I've learned how to make those difficult decisions.

Number 5: How to push for change in which I believe
I now have in my possession an elusive "Think One Person Can Change the World?" poster. It is a prized possession and I will not reveal how I managed to acquire it shortly before I graduated. This motto is the one with which most Obies I know identify. We want to make the world a better place. We want to push for changes in which we believe. We want to do what we can to leave everywhere we go just a little bit better. For me, most of that was done through helping Active Minds get off the ground and beginning to lobby the administration to improve its efforts in terms of mental health and wellness as a whole.

The administration at Oberlin is extraordinarily receptive, provided that you go about your work in the appropriate manner. Oberlin has made some pretty important improvements in terms of addressing wellness just in the last couple years, and Active Minds was able to do some incredible things this past year. Learning to navigate a bureaucracy can be tricking, but the results are worth every struggle. I left Oberlin confident that Katie and Brenna are going to be amazing running Active Minds, and I'm glad to know that the group will be in their capable hands. If you're interested in advocacy or activism of any kind, Oberlin is a great way to feel your way. I came to Oberlin as an apathetic person who was willing to just let the world be the way it was. I left Oberlin wanting to make the world a better place and having the appropriate tools to know how to do so.

Number 6: I can be an independent person
Imagine being 18 and moving 2500 miles away from home to a place where you know a grand total of two people. That's what I did when I left California for Oberlin. It was a frighteningly daunting task, but one that I thought I was ready for. Turns out I wasn't as prepared as I had believed (read about that here), but everything eventually worked itself out. I quickly learned how to rely upon myself. Unlike many of my friends from high school, I couldn't go home on a weekend to do laundry/mooch free food off my family/recover from an illness. Like it or not, I was going to be in rural northeast Ohio from late August through mid-December and February through mid-May. Tack on spending two of my summers in Oberlin, and you'll end up with an incredibly independent Patrick who is (usually) capable of solving most of his problems. Sorry for the switch to third person. I don't really know why I did that. I left high school thinking I was totally prepared to live on my own and, after four years, I think I proved that I am capable of being an independent, self-reliant person. Special thanks to my mom and stepdad for raising me as well as they did.

Number 7: It's okay to lean on my family
Over the course of learning to function 2500 miles away from my family, I learned that it is actually okay to lean on my family for support. After all, isn't that what family is for? I was fortunate enough that one of my younger sisters enrolled at the College of Wooster two years after I left for Oberlin. For the past two years we have been within an hour of each other. It's an ideal distance in that we don't feel obligated to visit each other, but we know that we can visit if we feel like it. I also was able to lean on my parents during some particularly difficult periods of my four years in Oberlin (more about that here). My family was my rock and I knew that I could rely upon them for pretty much anything. That doesn't mean I used that support mechanism all the time, but it was nice knowing it was there.

Number 8: I can write a 50-page thesis
Surprise! I survived honors (more about that here). I still can't believe that I actually made it through the history department's honors program with a 50-page thesis and a fancy line on my diploma saying that I graduated "with honors in history." Not too shabby, eh? Before this year, the prospect of writing 50 pages on one topic was intimidating. Now I know how much work it takes and I also know that I'm capable of accomplishing the task. I'm super proud of myself. Yay!

Number 9: How to know what's best for me
Hmm. This one is tricky. It ties into learning to say no, but it's more complex than that. Excuse me while I sound more worldly than I actually am. There are times in our lives that we are presented with difficult choices. I've made many of them in my life (including several over the last four years), and it really wasn't until four years of being independent that I began to actually contemplate what was best for me. Yes, I had my bad moments (such as when I neglected to take care of myself to the point that my immune system gave up on me and I contracted mono) but I also had decisions that, though difficult to make at the time, ended up being some of the best choices that I made at Oberlin (resigning from Senate, giving up college orchestra to focus more on Active Minds). It's a tricky thing, figuring out what's best for myself. I think I've started to get a grasp on it.

Number 10: How to be proud of who I am
I grew up in your typical upper-middle-class suburban environment where standing out, being yourself, or being different is frowned upon. And by "frowned upon" I mean it will make you an outcast and the subject of ridicule and that you better conform right now if you don't want to have a miserable existence. Everyone finds their niche (mine was band/orchestra/music and bonding with the über-nerds in my graduating class), but very few people are true to themselves. I certainly wasn't. Going to Oberlin gave me the freedom to finally, after 18 years of suburban repression, be true to myself.

It took me a while to figure out why my hometown makes me uncomfortable. The truth is that when I return to Walnut Creek, I feel the suburban need to conform. I now resist the urge, but it's always there. Oberlin allowed me to be who I am and, most importantly, I learned how to be proud of who I am. I stand up for myself and what I believe. Those qualities will forever be a part of my personality and I have Oberlin to thank for breaking the repressive personality stranglehold that existed on my life for 18 years.

So, that's it. I'm done. I have written 32 blog posts between October and June. I hope that someone finds them helpful. Feel free to continue to comment. Odds are I'll stumble upon the blogs again in the near future.

Thanks to Ma'ayan and Ben for trusting me with this task. And, most importantly, thanks to all my friends who read and comment on my posts.

I look forward to continuing to read about the adventures of all the bloggers. You guys are totally awesome!

And here, for you, one last quote:

"I think I'll miss you most of all." - Dorothy to the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz

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