Oberlin Blogs

Houses, Homes, and Home Bases

October 27, 2016

Lilah Drafts-Johnson ’18

September for me is all about beginnings. Usually, it marks the start of a new school year, new classes and a new dorm room - but this year, instead of moving back in at Oberlin, I found myself writing this blog post and eating a kiwi in the dead of a Chilean winter.

Study abroad has made me think a lot about the word "home." Recently, I caught up with one of my best friends, an Obie '15 alum, who currently works as an English teacher in Spain. Well-versed in the difficulty that comes with moving to a foreign country, the first question she asked me was, "Have you made Chile a home yet?" A pang of déjà vu hit me.

She asked me this same question two years ago, in reference to my freshman year at Oberlin. To speak candidly, I was not a fan of Oberlin my first semester. When I went home for Thanksgiving break, I spent my vacation researching the transfer process. Although I can't pinpoint why I was so unhappy my first semester, I remember feeling polarized by the campus activism and inadequate as I adjusted to rigor of the academic workload. But I was also in the middle of a difficult transition that many college freshmen endure: my "home base" was changing for the first time; for first time I felt like I didn't have a home.

I call this Home Base Theory: Part of feeling stable and secure in a new place depends on feeling that even if the new place is uncomfortable, you have a place somewhere that is home base - a place where you can go to feel consistently happy and safe. For the first eighteen years of my life, my home base was Melrose, Massachusetts, the small town where I grew up. Home was a red house on a quiet street, a pair of parents who supported me, a little brother who conspired with me, and an older sister who inspired me. Home was also the respect of my community, the history in my friendships, and the purpose I had during my years in Melrose: work hard, get a good education, go to college.

The unfortunate thing about home bases is that if you don't tend to them, they no longer fulfill their role. When I left for college, I left my home base behind. I no longer was active in my Melrose community, and when I returned I didn't fit into the same role I once had as a high school student. Friendships that were once easy with everyday interaction and a common daily routine suddenly required work and planning to maintain. We were all on different paths, and sometimes these paths didn't intersect the same way that they used to. This terrified me when I came home for breaks - my old home didn't feel like home anymore, but neither did my new one back at Oberlin. I was home base-less.

Slowly but surely, Oberlin grew on me. Now, the charged sociopolitical atmosphere of campus no longer repels me, but instead makes me critically evaluate my own beliefs. The intensity of my classes has allowed me to challenge myself with new ideas and learn everyday. By taking the time to invest in my new community, I found my niche at Oberlin - and a new home base. As I struggle to find this during my study abroad, I look to the three things that I love and miss most about Oberlin: friends, purpose, and comfort.

The friends I've made at Oberlin the past two years are some of the best people I know in this world. I didn't just make new friends; I made new kinds of friendship. I miss the way that an Obie will never let me answer the question "How are you?" with just "Fine," and the way I can count on my classmates to make a stink when someone says something insensitive or intolerant. As for purpose, I now have a much more defined role on campus. I volunteer in the elementary schools as a Spanish tutor, captain the track team, and work as a trainer for Oberlin's sexual assault prevention team. Comfort? I have a set routine, full days, and I know and where to ask for help - whether I need a computer repair in Mudd or have to schedule an emergency appointment at the Counseling Center.

So when my friend asks me, "Have you made Chile a home yet?" I know that my answer still is "no." I love Chile, I really do. I love my host family and the window in my room that looks out at the Andes mountain range, and I love the new friendships I'm beginning to make. I know my purpose - learn Spanish and explore Chile, and have an amazing time while doing it. But "comfortable" will never be a word I can use to describe Chile - at least not on this trip. The language barrier turns simple tasks, like finding a printer, into an hour-long endeavor; the cultural differences trip me up every time I am greeted with a kiss. Luckily, I don't think the purpose of my study abroad adventure is to make Chile a home. Every day that I find myself being uncomfortable, I also find myself growing in ways I didn't know were possible. It's little successes like these that I pride the most - working out as the only woman in a testosterone-filled gym, commuting an hour on public transit to get to my 8:30am class, or asking a question in Spanish in front of a classroom full of native speakers. If I can do these things in a non-native language and in a country that is not my own, I feel like I can do anything back home. Chile is what is should be - foreign and uncomfortable, and blessedly so. This will be a semester of challenges and that is exactly why I picked this program.

But that doesn't mean I don't miss the comfort. When all my friends back at Oberlin were moving in and beginning the madness of add-drop, I felt a knot in my stomach as I realized that I wouldn't be there this semester. You see, when I get homesick in Chile, I don't think about my little red house on Adams Street as much anymore. I think about mornings spent writing papers in Slow Train, about chocolate milk in the co-op on Wednesdays, about lying on the ground gasping for air after repeat 300s with my track team. I think about Baldwin Cottage at dusk, about how happy Obies look after that first warm day in the spring, about drinking tea in bed with my roommate after a long day. My mind and heart are in Chile right now - there are still have many more mountains to climb, both literally and figuratively, but I already know that when the time is right, I will be excited to come home.

Trying to find home in the Andes, mostly finding beautiful views.

The door to my "home" in Baldwin Cottage.

My home on Adams St, circa 2002.

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