Fall break began this week, and many people chose to stay on campus. The week-long break always seems to land on the seven days when all the leaves of Oberlin turn bright red and the air goes from cold to bitingly cold. I’m always a little disappointed to miss the gradual shift in seasons that the week offers, but by going away everyone gets a true break from campus and life at Oberlin.
The same sense of disappointment but excitement for new experiences existed at a larger scale when I left for Paris last spring to study abroad for a semester. I was ready to go and thrilled to be living in a city for the first time. The access to public transportation, the freedom to go all over the city, the apprehension of living with an unknown host family and making new friends were all things I was looking forward to and things I knew couldn’t exist in Oberlin. With the excitement for a semester in Paris building, it was easy to focus on the stark differences between Oberlin’s campus and small town and a bustling city in France.
The more magical and romanticized elements of Paris remained steadfast for the first half of my semester there. Yet what eventually infiltrated my adoration of Parisian living was the unshakable feeling that I was beyond grateful to have one more year at Oberlin when I returned. The specificity of my life at Oberlin was unlike anything I would probably get to experience again in my life. As I learned to navigate Paris, formed a routine, attended university and took on jobs, the comparisons between Paris and Oberlin became a bit more complex in comparison to my thought process before leaving Oberlin for the spring semester.
In preparation for leaving for France, I was especially excited to be in a space full of strangers who didn't know each other and didn’t know me. The idea of a sea of people in the street or on the metro was foreign to me as an Oberlin student. Yet upon my return to Oberlin and the start of senior year I was equally excited to see my friends again and dedicate energy to reaching out to all the people I hoped to make friends with but had not crossed paths with enough in previous years.
By the time Greer, my best friend who I met at Oberlin, came up from Spain to visit me in Paris we had a long list of art projects we knew we needed to create when we got back to school. At the time, I didn’t think twice about the fact that we were both in complete agreement of where in Oberlin we would create the paper-mache statues or marionette theaters, or where we would perform the abstract plays and happenings we planned. Now, thinking back on that time, I reflect more on the fact that we were so eager to return to Oberlin because we knew we’d not only have the resources to create such art, but we’d be surrounded by people who would want to join in and make our ideas even bigger or better. Without thinking too much about it we knew we’d have both space and support to make silly crazy art even within our university schedules. In Paris, without those Oberlin friends daring me to turn a paper mache strawberry from a statue to a lamp, or turn a puppet theater show into a documentary, art-making was a smaller, more rigid part of my life routine. After graduating, I know I’ll have to consolidate the most surreal art project ideas with a new lifestyle, but for now I’m deeply grateful to be at a university that (to me) feels artistic at its foundation.
The culture shock that was most surprising between France and the United States was the university system and the way classes were run. I was enrolled in art history courses at the Sorbonne, and had no idea what the classes would look like. I had a crash course in the vastly different essay structure and presentation methods used in universities in France, then received my class assignments and began my first week of school. My first course was a lecture of 300 people with a professor who sat on stage and spoke into a microphone. The class met twice a week for two and a half hours each meeting with an additional smaller class led by a TA. During the first TA-led class the professor revealed that we would each be choosing a piece to present from a slideshow. Then, the day of the presentation, the two or three students signed up for the same piece would arrive in class prepared with both an essay on the artwork and an oral presentation prepared. In class the professor would choose which student would present in front of the class. That initial introduction to university in Paris was a good introduction to the education style at large. The schooling was often very traditional, centered around dates, artists and foundational knowledge, and a huge amount of personal work and research was required for success in presentations, papers or generally understanding the topic being taught that day.
At Oberlin, I have not been in a classroom with more than 20 people. My smallest class, an art history seminar, had only 8 students in it and was entirely discussion-based. While I’m aware Oberlin’s class size and focus on students is uncommon in a college sphere, the small class size makes sense for a small university size. Returning to Oberlin and taking up space in classrooms where the student’s thoughts and ideas are deeply valued made me reconsider how I was approaching class discussions, especially after a semester of classrooms that required complete focus on silent note-taking and research outside the classroom.
Distance, in the case of studying abroad, really did make the heart grow fonder for Oberlin. I formed a new appreciation not only for the people I spend my time with, but also for the co-op system, the art projects that take over my current apartment at school, the small Oberlin traditions and routines and the meals shared on Tank porch. Though I appreciated these parts of Oberlin before, after living without them for a short time, I could view them from a new perspective and recognize how Oberlin-specific they are. I can’t imagine that I will be able to live in a community like that at Oberlin ever again, mostly because I don’t really believe the exact experience can exist anywhere else. In this last year I plan to curb the nostalgia for Oberlin by sopping up all the experiences, meals, classes and walks through the arb possible.
Fall break is like a mini introduction to these bigger notions of missing Oberlin. A week away is no time at all, yet when I get back to campus and see my friends we shriek and hug each other. The living room in our apartment at Oberlin will be filled with different fall lights and reflections of brighter red and yellow leaves. I know that sleeping in my bed again will be blissfully familiar. All the little things that become so regular in the day-to-day life of class, meals and seeing friends will be amplified and extra special for the first few days back as we curl back into our lives among one another at Oberlin.
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