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Go Small or Go Home

April 9, 2013

My baby sister is about to go to college. She totally rocked the admissions process and is now choosing between her three top choices, NYU and two much smaller universities in D.C. She's leaning towards NYU, though she's going to visit each school once more before her final decision. I know that it's her life and her choices and that I shouldn't butt in too much, but I just want to scream, "CHOOSE THE SMALLER SCHOOL!"

Real talk: NYU is a great school, and who doesn't want to live in the coolest part of the coolest city in the country, but 22,000 undergrads?! Really?! I think of the small ~2,800-student undergraduate community we have at Oberlin and simply want to barf at the idea of going to a school with a student body of almost 10 times that number.

In my hopes to convince her (and you, Oberlin prospies) that small schools are where it's at, I've compiled a short list of just a few of the reasons enumerating why going to a smaller school is the best.

Reason #1 - Student-Professor Relations

At Oberlin, I have never had a professor who didn't know my name. Even when it was in one of the largest classes offered at Oberlin, even when I didn't go to office hours, even when I didn't do particularly well in the class. I've found the professors at Oberlin to be overwhelmingly approachable, friendly, and helpful, and the great majority of them work tirelessly to make sure students can achieve understanding of the course material.

TAs never teach classes. Not ever. Not even a lil'. A lot of university websites say that but they are mostly lying. For example: at a larger college, one of my pals from high school goes to a mid-sized school that claims professors do it all, yet group discussions led by TAs replace office hours and most of your tests and papers are graded by TAs. At Oberlin, there are some TAs which help out in lab courses which are taught by professors, but they mostly wander around the classroom, helping students with their experiments, while the professor teaches and supervises.

Beyond the classroom, each department maintains its own sort of community between teachers and students. In the neuroscience department, we have faculty-student game nights, bowling outings, and fancy-dress soirees (in the Science Center, of course, where else?). I'm on a smiling-hello basis with the entire neuroscience faculty, which is common for a great number of majors.

Reason #2 - You can have whatever you like.

Because Oberlin has such a small student body and quite a bit of money for speakers, student projects, events, and clubs, you can pretty much have whatever you like.

When I wanted to start a science magazine, Oberlin gave me money. When some students wanted to attend Powershift 2011, a national environmental conference in D.C., Oberlin helped hundreds of us go. When Solarity hosted the first all-campus party, I got a ticket. When Ira Glass came to speak, I got a ticket. When Nobel Laureate and former head of the NIH, Harold Varmus, came to speak, I got a ticket AND got to have lunch with him, simply because I was in a genetics class. I've performed slam poetry in front of performance poet Jared Paul. I attended a neuroscience faculty meeting to give my opinion on candidates for an open tenure-track position. My boyfriend is having dinner with Ron Paul next week, when he comes to Oberlin to speak. My housemate got funding from Oberlin to go to York, England and study really really old music texts, my co-worker has been to at least three improv conferences on Oberlin's dime, my RA is getting credit to teach a class about Vogue-ing, and there are currently eight (count them, eight) pieces of art from the Allen Memorial Museum of Art hanging in my house right now.

Oberlin is truly a place of opportunity, and every student can get a piece of that pie. The amazing opportunities are not for the select few, they are for the many (which in Oberlin's case is only 2,800!).

Reason# 3 - And so you can shine!

A result of reasons #1 and #2 combined, at Oberlin, it is exceedingly easy to be recognized for your achievements, both in comparison to your classmates and to non-Obie peers. What I want to tell my sis is that at NYU, it's near impossible to be more than a face in the 25,000-student crowd. At Oberlin, the opposite is true; instead of a blurred, faceless crowd, we're more like a sharp, many-faced bunch. The community that results is one which is all at once diverse, knowable, strange, and inspiring.

It gives you this weird sense of empowerment - I am an individual and I can do anything.

Reason #4 - Research!!!

To be continued in the next blog post, since it needs a post of its own.

Reason #5 - You can't walk on campus for more than 5 minutes without seeing someone you can say hello to. And it's great.

Plus, if you meet someone (at a party, at the dining hall, etc), you will definitely see them again. The same can't be said about meeting people at NYU.

Reason #6 - There are fewer people between you and your administration.

Although you are assigned an ID number (mostly for dining hall and registration purposes), you are more than that to the administration, and your voice can be heard. Over coffee with the President of the college, even, which is open to all students once a month.

Reason #7 - Nobody is mean to you when you work at the dining halls!

I learned recently from some of my big-school friends that apparently student dining hall workers at larger schools often get treated pretty scummily. As someone who has worked virtually every dining hall position in two different dining halls, no one has ever been less than courteous to me, whether I was swiping their ID cards, serving them food, or cleaning up after they spilled salad dressing everywhere. Whether it is because Oberlin students are just all-around great people, or because they know that if they are jerks to me, they will run into me again and I will give them the angry eyes, it works and it's really nice!

In all seriousness, I think that when your community is as small as Oberlin's, it is hard to dehumanize or objectify your peers. Rather than a blurry collective of strangers, the people you interact with on a daily basis are each inexorably connected to you, whether they be a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend, or that guy who always ended up leaving Dascomb for class the same time as you every morning freshman year.

I could go on and on and on, but I think I've provided you with enough "Go Small!" propaganda for now. Although I will willingly admit going to a smaller school has its own drawbacks and limitations, I think that coming to Oberlin was the best choice I could have made for my undergraduate education.

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