How I Almost Didn't Go to Oberlin--Twice (And Why I'm Very Glad I Did)
Perhaps it is strange that an Oberlin blogger should write about almost not coming to Oberlin, especially in a month when hundreds of accepted prospective students are trying to make their decisions about which school to attend, but I think it's important that you know that Oberlin does not have an aura of inevitability for everyone. Many Obies--including some of Oberlin's most vocal publicists--have had their hearts set on Oberlin since they were tiny, or since they started to play music, or since they learned of its egalitarian history, or since they heard about the co-op system, or the ExCos. There are Obies who are what you could call legacies, who had one or both parents go here, or even what I call "dynasties," with a whole clan of Obies in their extended family. This happens, certainly, but these people are by no means a majority. For most people, Oberlin was never an inevitable point on their personal story arc. It is, instead, a bit of serendipity. That's what it is for me, and that's why I love it here.
Flash back to my senior year of high school. I am organizing my college materials by a system described more fully here. This is mid-fall; I have completed applications to a few schools already (aside from letters of recommendation; my work is done) and I'm going through my box of recruitment materials with a big paper bag by my side. Things I want to keep stay in the box; things I'm getting rid of get recycled go in the bag. This is difficult, because many schools send out really clever pamphlets. My packratty nature compels me to save a few from schools I am positive I won't go to. But what I'm really doing is winnowing, tossing out the materials from schools I won't apply to, cutting off my sources of information about them.
Several folders neatly labeled with school names get careful final perusals before being dumped. I am on a roll. I throw out a well-designed booklet from some place on the East Coast, a quirky postcard from somewhere too small, a bunch of fliers from [school], because cool as it looks, I just don't want to go to Louisiana. I'm sorry, [school], really, but I can't apply just out of respect; do you have any idea how many applications that would be? . . . . And then I come across a folder filled with a few funky-looking pamphlets and one oversized viewbook. The pages are mostly black with stylized silhouettes in orange, green, blue--different colors for each subject in the book. They have headings like "We Plunge Into Physical Challenges" (the sports spread) and "We Burst Through the Barriers of Thought" (on classes) and "We Shatter Convention" (on the admission of African-Americans and women practically from the founding of the college). They have a whole spread just for their green initiatives and something about student cooperatives.
I think it looks intriguing, although the layout is perhaps a bit cheesy, maybe trying a bit too hard to be offbeat or edgy. But every college pumps itself up, and what it's actually saying appeals to me. It also has a creative writing major, which, at the time, I see as a major plus, because I am considering becoming a novelist. On the other hand, I'm already pretty sure I'll apply to at least two other small Midwestern writing colleges . . .
I throw out all but one of the things they'd sent me, keeping the biggest booklet for reference, and add "Maybe?" after the school's name on the folder. That name, of course, is Oberlin.
Cut to a few months later--late December. I am finishing up my final applications for a total of what I will later look back on as "really a few too many." I'm not burned out--on the contrary, I'm on a roll. Give me a prompt now and I will spill my guts in 250 words or less, managing to laud my skills and be wryly self-deprecating at the same time. I'm sitting in an easy chair reading when my mom comes over and says I should probably apply to [Ivy League college, name withheld], partly because it'd be cool if I got in and partly so that I apply to at least one East Coast school. She also mentions one other college that has remained in the dither zone. "Okay," I say, and go off to do so at once--no time like the present, and then I can get back to reading!
I trot off to my room and get going. I don't remember what I did for [Ivy League school], but the other one required a short essay about why the school would be a good fit for me and vice versa. Poised to being writing, I pause. "Oberlin . . . Right . . . Which one was that again?" I recollect calling a phone number from a viewbook to ask about the creative writing program, and I remember whoever I spoke to mentioning a student-run science fiction and fantasy publication called Spiral. Besides that, I don't remember much. This is the downside of being in an application groove/fever.
[PROSPECTIVE STUDENTS: The next paragraph depicts very sloppy applying skills that you should not try to emulate. Yes, they worked out for me, but--do as I say, not as I do.]
I check through my box of materials and realize I have only the one booklet to refer to. This is not enough to fuel the essay-writing machine my mind has become, so I turn to Google. The school's official website is rich in details, but difficult to navigate. That's not what I'm looking for right now, so I turn instead [remember, not as I do, prospies! NOT as I do!] to Wikipedia.
The Wikipedia article is short and helpful. It mentions Oberlin's early history, being the first college to admit African-Americans and women. It stresses the school's activist culture and liberalism and environmentalism on campus-- "ah yes, the one with the co-ops"--and I see Spiral mentioned again. And these funny things called ExCos--that sounds like something I could get really engaged in. I decide that I really do want to apply here. My excitement wells up inside me again, and I get writing.
March. I get two letters on the same day--the notice that I have been waitlisted at [school that I was drawn to mainly by the mythos of California, name withheld] and my final acceptance letter, from Oberlin. While I am looking at the list of ways to get off the waitlist ("impress us"), my parents are looking over the acceptance from Oberlin. "Wow, Tess," my mom says, "This is an impressive aid package. Look at that scholarship. They must really want you."
"Huh," I say, and look over the Oberlin letter again. Perhaps this one might make it into the top few after all.
April. I go to visit Oberlin and one other Midwestern college, the ones that have given me the best financial aid and that also, fortuitously, now happen to be among my top choices. By now, I have visited many colleges and I have the knack of the thing. Wandering around pretending that I actually live here, I smile at the blue skies, blooming trees, and students playing bowls and Frisbee in a big, grassy area during something called TGIF. I have overcome what I will later realize is a silly kind of shyness, a reluctance to "bother" people. I now walk up to people at random, introduce myself, and ask if I can eavesdrop. Better than that, the students I accost in this manner ask me questions about myself and offer me free advice. I sit in on two classes and am struck by how much people seem to be enjoying themselves in them. I go to part of an improv show at this weird coffeehouse that's only open for performances. Overall, I have a great time, and I leave feeling comfortable and energized.
So you see that Oberlin was by no means inevitable for me. I almost threw out the admissions literature, disqualifying it before the applications process began; I almost didn't apply because of ten-schools-is-enough syndrome; I couldn't even remember what made it distinctive when I sat down to do the final essay. But the more I thought about it, the more it appealed to me, and my visit settled it. Yes, I had the good fortune to be here on a Friday with beautiful weather and an improv conference, and I could take advantage of it because this was the second-to-last school I visited and I was over being shy--if there's one thing I've learned as a psychology major, it's that there are more influences on our decision-making processes than we're ever aware of--but I think I would have made this choice regardless. The students at Oberlin were less self-conscious, more engaged, and had more vivacious class discussion than pretty much anywhere else, and people seemed to like me. I felt like I fit.
And the thing is, I almost stumbled into it. Of course I would have been happy at other places, and of course I would have made other, equally good friends with whom I'd share other, equally bizarre inside jokes, and of course I would have enjoyed my classes and loved my professors--people are pretty adaptable--but I'm glad that all that's happened to me here. It's a good place.
So if Oberlin is just hovering on the margins of your consciousness, I'd advise you to give it a closer look. Nowhere else has ExCos, after all.