Oberlin Blogs

Five Years

January 30, 2011

Harris Lapiroff ’10

Five years ago this spring, I landed at Cleveland airport for the first time and was blown away by how gray the sky was. Five years ago this spring, I caught the bus from CLE to Oberlin, and was blown away by how at home I felt. Though it was still some weeks before I made a final decision—it was clear to anyone watching closely that this was where I was going to spend the next years of my life.

When I reflect on that person five years ago, first setting foot on Oberlin soil, I see how different he is from who I am today—nearly a wholly distinct person. Oberlin has changed me, deeply and indelibly. And yet, Oberlin still feels like home today; Oberlin has been such a home to both those people.

Just a month ago I finally completed my last credits at Oberlin and… graduated1. Just as when I graduated high school, suddenly I find that everyone is asking me, “What next?”2

Well. For the moment I’m still here in Oberlin. I’m in love with this town and I’m in love with this school, so I don’t mind spending a little more time in it. I’m working for the Office of Communications as a web developer (a job right out of college!) and continuing to live in Delightful House with my dear friend and (platonic) wife Ma’ayan. I’m not sure what the future holds for me; it feels very open—leaving me simultaneously aimless and excited.

But I’ve been thinking a lot about how far I’ve come in the past five years. How much has changed. When I was in high school I could hardly imagine what it would be like—to go to college classes, to live without parents, to pay for the things I need and want, to schedule my own time all the time. Now these have been a part of my life for years.

But these are the two things that I think most make Oberlin special: the people I’ve met and the way that I’ve learned to think.

I met so many wonderful people. Ma’ayan recently wrote an epic about friendship at Oberlin and I guarantee you that I and most of the people I know could make similar lists. It boggles my mind to think that people who I feel so close with today weren’t even a part of my life for most of it. And yet I feel confident that a great many of these will sustain into lifelong friendships.

I think more deeply than I used to. I peer unflinchingly into complex issues. I know how to appreciate art with more than a passing glance. I have tools to solve problems that would have previously seemed unapproachable.

Some months ago Ben Jones put a question to the readers of his personal blog:

If someone were to ask you why you value your own liberal arts education, or why he or she should choose the same path, how would you respond?

I think my response to that question is the best explanation of what has happened to me in the past five years, so I’d like to share it here:

For me, DFW’s Kenyon commencement speech really captures it—more each time I read it.

There’s not an easy summary of it for me, but I’ll attempt. He says that a liberal arts education gives us more consciousness—it gives us the power to choose what we think about. This has been true for me. I now think about things on a daily basis that I never even considered before—they were part of the formless ether I swam through every day.

The power of my liberal arts education is that it has exposed me to perspectives and disciplines that I’m not used to or wasn’t aware of. (This is why I was so baffled that so many Obies were up in arms3 about Rove speaking… to me the point of my education is to hear as many diverse perspectives as humanly possible—even the crazy ones I disagree with—if not to be persuaded by them, then to better understand why I’m not persuaded and how to take them apart.) If I choose to, each day I can see the world through a mathematical lens—and it’s beautiful4. Because of English and Creative Writing classes I’ve taken, I approach books in a more thoughtful and critical way. Because of the few social science classes I’ve taken and numerous interactions with other Obies and lecturers, I think about the roles of gender, sexuality, race, class, &c. in our society. Not to say I never thought about these things before college, but Oberlin has expanded my understanding—there’s so much more complexity to all of these things than I ever anticipated.

People talk a lot about the Oberlin bubble and there’s a lot of truth to that. It is always a shock to leave Oberlin and be pushed into a world that doesn’t understand why I think the way I do. But this bubble idea can be reversed. I believe Oberlin has kept me from a narrow worldview—which is a sort of bubble as well. If I had gone to art school, to a writing conservatory, or into an engineering program, I would certainly be more skilled—but so much of the world would remain invisible to me.5

I’m not in any position to comment on how a liberal arts education affects my chances in the workplace. I think it’s clear that any degree—esp. one from a prestigious institution—doesn’t hurt, but I do imagine there’d be more money straight out of college if I’d gone to a technical school.

Still, there are other rewards for me. I think the more thorough understanding of the world that I have been provided with gives me more power to navigate it and effect change.6 And I feel more conscious every day—which to me is personally fulfilling.

I don’t know what the future holds. But I’m enormously grateful for the last five years.7

Five years ago
Five years ago, California coast.

  1. I suppose my diploma is not quite in-hand yet, so I shouldn’t jinx it. Still, I’m not too worried.

  2. Actually, the Q. among my particular social circle in high school was the somewhat more offensive, “So, where are you going to college?” as though of course each and every one of us were going to college. (n.b., It does not turn out to be true that everyone whom this Q. is asked of ends up attending college.) I am tremendously grateful that, as of yet, no one has asked me, “So what are you studying in grad school?”

  3. Background: Karl Rove came to speak at Oberlin some months ago, which caused some controversy.

  4. Late-night conversations with my friend Sean are wont to devolve into in-depth discussions of base phi. When presented with a real world problem, I’m quick to consider how I could most elegantly model it as an optimization program if I really wanted to find the most efficient solution. (Though rarely do I actually carry out such problems.)

  5. This is more than just idle speculation for me—during my college application process I considered a few specialized art or writing programs (strange to consider how different my life would be today) but eventually concluded that a more general education was what I wanted. Even well into my freshman year at Oberlin I was still thinking about it—but by the end of sophomore year, I knew I had made the right choice.

  6. It’s more than just this though. Something I’ve been thinking about recently is how much I also have a lot more personal freedom: the power to make choices about my life—about what I think about and also, on a personal level, choices about how I conduct my life—things that I would never have realized were choices five years ago. E.g., I think a lot about what is expected of me based on my gender, age, physical appearance, demeanor, race, &c. and how I can choose which of those expectations I want to fulfill and which to play with. Again, it’s not that I never considered these ideas previously, but that my understanding is deeper and more nuanced than it was five years ago. A college education is certainly not the only way to develop this freedom, but it’s a pretty good one.

  7. Not to worry. This is not good-bye just yet. I get to keep my keys to this blog for a little longer; you’ll hear from me again.

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