Oberlin Blogs

On Finding My Way To Oberlin... Twice

December 22, 2008

Ben Jones ’96

I’ve been having fun reading about everyone else’s paths to Oberlin, so I thought I’d throw my own story into the mix. There are two stories to tell, actually; I’ve applied to Oberlin twice.

The first time I applied to Oberlin was 17 years ago. It was the fall of ’91 and I’d already visited 15 schools, looking for the one that would really connect with me. So far I’d been unsuccessful – I’d toured the usual circuit of competitive liberal arts colleges on the East coast and in the midwest, and so many of them felt more like “grade thirteen” than the leap I thought college should be. I’d survived grades one through twelve – not exactly the best experiences of my life – and I felt that college ought to be a reward for that, not simply a continuation of what had come before.

Within minutes of setting foot on campus, I knew that Oberlin was different. Our bus arrived at sunset, and as we stepped off we were introduced to the perfect horizontal half-light that I’ve only ever experienced here in Ohio. There were students hanging out everywhere, and the pulse of the place was loud. I was struck not by how different everyone looked from one another, but by the realization that those differences didn’t seem to matter. On other campuses, I’d seen groups of friends whose members all looked the same, and the comfort they seemed to find in that was tangible. Oberlin students, however, seemed to feed on learning from each other’s differences.

Soon after arriving in Oberlin, a few of us headed over to the Cat In The Cream Coffeehouse, where Fred Small was playing that night. My host introduced me to a handful of current Obies, and word spread through the club that there were prospective students in the house. Soon people were coming over to us in significant numbers, telling us stories about Oberlin, asking us questions about our interests and backgrounds. At the end of the night, I found myself surrounded by new friends, singing along as if I’d been there for years. Needless to say, this hadn't happened at the other schools I’d visited, where current students (other than the ones who were paid by Admissions) didn’t have much – if any – interest in talking to me.

My search to find the place where I belonged was over.

I went home, applied early decision, and began waiting for December 15th. I remember trying to begin applications to other colleges in case I got deferred, but I couldn’t bring myself to complete any of their questions. I simply didn’t have a second choice.

I remember racing home from school on the day decisions were to arrive. I remember opening my letter and reading my offer of admission. I remember what it felt like to know that Oberlin thought we were a good match too. I remember running around the neighborhood screaming like a freak because I simply couldn’t contain myself. I remember calling my parents and trying to calm down enough to speak, and I remember how they cried because my joy was so contagious.

I’d set the bar high with my expectations, but Oberlin didn’t let me down. My four years here were, in some ways, the best years of my life. I learned more about myself here than in any of my years prior or since. I made some of the best friends of my life. I figured out who I was and who I wanted to become. I was encouraged to push the boundaries and limits of everything, and I did.

I majored in English and Environmental Studies, served as a senior intern in the admissions office, and managed the Cat In The Cream for three years. I sang with an a cappella group called In A Chord (now apparently defunct, sadly), and played in a band. I went to a gazillion concerts, theater productions, and films, and never missed an early ’80s night at the ’Sco. I had my ass handed to me more than a few times by professors who knew me well enough to know when I wasn’t giving my best and thought that perhaps I should try doing so (thank you, by the way). Many of those professors have kept in touch over the years. Some even drove all the way to Boston to attend my wedding.

I married an Obie, which makes me part of that ridiculously high statistic. We didn’t meet until the very end of college, so we have very few shared Oberlin experiences. But I have to wonder if the culture of the place – and what we each learned from it – is responsible for the two of us being so compatible, if it is responsible for our marriage being so easy.

Oberlin connections are eternal. Of my three Oberlin housemates, I served as best man in two of their weddings and presided over the third’s ceremony. One of them was my best man; another is the godfather of my kid. I’ve watched all three of them grow in leaps and bounds over the last 15 years, and the impact of their Oberlin experiences on that growth is palpable.

My wife and I have so many close friends from college – in fact, more than a third of the 150 people at our wedding were Obies. When I compare notes with friends who graduated from other colleges and discover that they’ve kept in touch with so few of their college classmates, I am always surprised.

Somehow I knew that I’d find my way back here eventually. Which leads us to the story of the second time I applied to Oberlin.

It all started at my 10th reunion. At the end of a wonderful weekend of seeing long-time friends and revisiting old haunts, I decided to attend the Baccalaureate service because my former advisor, David Orr, was speaking and I wanted to hear what he had to say.

It’s a bit difficult for me to put the experience into words. There were conservatory musicians, a gospel choir with members from both the town and the college, and David, who delivered a brilliant talk about hope. It’s no secret that we’re living in some pretty dark times – which David addressed – but I was blown away by the optimism that dominated the room. Some people misinterpret “fearless” to mean “without fear,” which is wholly incorrect. You can be fearless and still be terrified by a lot of things. Fearless at Oberlin means simply that we don’t sit idle. We translate fear into hope, and hope into action, and that’s what was happening in that room all around me.

When the lead singer (a sophomore, I believe, with the voice of an angel) began singing People Get Ready with the band and the gospel choir, I lost it. I hadn’t felt energy like that since the last time I’d been in Oberlin, and I suddenly realized that I’d been trying to find that feeling again for the last decade. At that moment, I knew that it would just be a matter of time before I would find a way to come back. And I did.

When I received the job offer, I felt all of the same feelings that I had felt the first time Oberlin accepted me. (Granted, I didn’t run around the block scaring neighbors this time... but I really wanted to.) And once again, Oberlin hasn’t let me down – the job has been fun and rewarding, while pushing me to my limits on a regular basis, not unlike the experience of being a student here.

I guess that brings us to the present – in fact, it’s almost exactly 17 years after the day Oberlin admitted me the first time, and almost exactly a year after I applied to return.

Happy holidays, everyone, and may your Decembers be as exciting as mine were in 1991 and 2007. :-)

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