From High School to Oberlin to...Oberlin?
Not so long ago, I was a prospective student interested in Oberlin. As a high school junior at a public boarding school in South Carolina, I was shamelessly influenced by a close friend of mine, a senior, who was considering Oberlin himself. He was primarily drawn to Oberlin because of a friend of his who went there--the infamous Shige. I'd heard lots of stories about Shige: there was the tale of when he got concerned about food waste and went on a streak of finishing all the food on his tray (and every one else's) in the cafeteria, which apparently came to a painful conclusion on sauerkraut day. Or the story of when he convinced a substantial group of students to dress up for classes in order to protest a decision the school administration had made. If all Oberlin students are like Shige, I thought, it must be a pretty interesting place.
So, I did a bit more research, and I liked what I saw. I was looking for a small, academically rigorous liberal arts school not in South Carolina, and Oberlin certainly met those basic qualifications. It also had other academic draws, like small classes and no core requirements. But, Oberlin also had something more--the more nebulous qualification of a compatible atmosphere. It showed up on the list of "Birkenstock-wearing, tree-hugging" colleges in my brother's Princeton Review guide, which I considered to be a great recommendation. There also seemed to be a liberal, quirky, activist, change the world mentality. That sounds great! I thought, Let's go visit!
I visited Oberlin in the spring of my junior year, and I discovered something that surprised me--yes, Oberlin was academically rigorous, but the students weren't stressed out about it. Nobody was talking about how many hours of work they had to do each day for their classes, and every one I encountered seemed either laid-back and calm, or excited about something fun and interesting.
I happened to be visiting at the same time as several friends, and perhaps emboldened by our numbers, we decided, in a lull between scheduled visit-type events, to go looking for students to talk to by going through a dorm and knocking on doors. At the first building we tried, we didn't have much success--hardly anyone was home. Then we tried the co-op across the street, with great results. The students got all excited to see us, and led us on the grand tour of the building. We got to see the commercial-strength kitchen, where fresh bread was baking. We knocked on doors and talked to a lot of interesting people--one girl proudly showed us the paper and wire contraption she was making for an art class. It was definitely the coolest experience I had while visiting colleges.
Ultimately, during the spring of my senior year, I concluded that Oberlin was definitely better for me than the other schools that I was considering (it helped that Oberlin gave me noticeably more financial aid), and I decided to attend.
And, it was great! I ended up living in the co-op I had toured as a prospie, and fresh baked bread at midnight became a common delight. Co-op living gave me a welcoming community within the broader welcoming community of Oberlin, I made some great friends, enjoyed the pretty campus even through the snows and dreary skies of January, and participated in all kinds of fun events, from concerts to the circus. I got to know some excellent professors, and I made sure to take advantage of some excellent ExCo classes as well. Of course, college wasn't all fun and games. I had to do a lot of reading (some of it never did get done...), but then again, most of it was at least fairly interesting because I got to pick my classes. Some of my classes weren't amazing, which was a bit of a disappointment. And they weren't all tiny, either. But there were a few that I can genuinely describe as life-changing experiences, and there were a large number that were just plain good. I got to appreciate Oberlin even more by spending a semester abroad in China (never mind that I hadn't previously studied Chinese). In fact, the worst things about my college years all had nothing to do with Oberlin.
So, I guess it doesn't come as a big surprise to find out that I stuck around in town after graduation. After all, I had spent most of my summers here as well. But, I can tell you that it was really an accident, the result of a chain of serendipitous events. I had decided to spend a year doing AmeriCorps after I graduated, and I just happened to find a poster from the previous year advertising an AmeriCorps position in Oberlin, coordinating a tutoring program and working at a technology center. That sounds great, I thought, I still have lots of friends here, and after a year I'll have more direction in my life and I'll go off to some exciting location and do great things. But, life happens, and I found myself inextricably attached to Oberlin. After being discouraged about the (lack of) job prospects in Ohio, I got the opportunity to work for my favorite college in the admissions department. The upside is, I love it! I genuinely enjoy helping all you prospies figure out what's right for you, and in helping keep alive the ideals of the college I so greatly enjoyed. And the downside? Well, I didn't actually get to have that impoverished post-college experience in Seattle, but I do get to travel to exciting locations and meet interesting future Obies, and that's good enough for me.