Oberlin Blogs

The Long and Winding Road to Oberlin

April 6, 2010

Helena Thompson ’11

The story of my love affair with Oberlin begins sometime in the spring of 2005 — my sophomore year of high school. This is the exact time when my home mailbox was first introduced to daily piles of college viewbooks, some of which were probably graphic designers' worst nightmares; these glossy, wasteful overrepresentations of various institutions of higher learning (many featuring tragically trite typefaces and pixelated campus photos) left a bad taste in my mouth for many months to come. I soon grew weary of thumbing through page after page of generic praises, descriptions of supposedly state-of-the-art facilities, and pictures featuring racially diverse groups of smiling collegiate types. Most of the viewbooks ended up in the recycling bin. REEEEEJECTED!


This cycle of skim-and-toss continued until I received one particular mailing: a viewbook that, instead of throwing statistics and unsolicited promises into my face, made a bold statement — a statement that would soon prove to define my entire existence —

"Think one person can change the world? So do we."

Though I didn't know everything about myself in high school, I was fiercely certain about some things. I knew that I loved music, I enjoyed writing, coffee was my saving grace, I was fascinated with the way that the world worked...and I was sure that I wanted to create change. I wanted to help people. I wanted to teach, and I wanted to believe in humanity; I wanted to be radical and innovative and unstoppable. This simple statement of purpose reassured me that I had a home somewhere, and I knew then and there that my place was at Oberlin.

I attended the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. Students at my high school took intense college preparatory classes interspersed with courses designed to give us real-world artistic experience; it was not uncommon to see dance majors in leotards and leggings studying for an AP Calculus exam during their lunch periods, theatre students practicing their monologues while walking to class, or music students discussing advanced compositional techniques after school. Although I was a music major, I chose to dabble in courses outside of my cluster quite often — I took modern dance, AP Art History, and photography, among other classes in my time there. Attending Booker T. Washington was the experience of a lifetime, and I was pretty sure that for college, I was looking for a similar place — small size, strong community, a devotion to the arts...Oberlin fit the bill perfectly.

Now, don't get me wrong — I definitely applied to other schools. I'm not going to waste time naming them, but they ranged everywhere from prestigious universities (...meh) to state schools (to please my mother, who wanted me to have a backup), with other liberal arts colleges and music conservatories somewhere in between. I knew I was going to be able to get a satisfactory education anywhere I ended up, but would I be happy? This is where the Epic College Visit Extravaganza begins. Hundreds of dollars in plane fares and several missed days of high school classes later, I found myself in a van chugging down the interstate en route to Oberlin. Now, most people don't believe me when I say this, but as soon as I stepped off of the airport shuttle onto North Professor Street, I knew — this was my place. This was my home.

During my first tour of campus, I saw smiling students, wide open spaces, and albino squirrels, all of which drew me closer to the school — but what really got me was the energy, the vibrancy, and the passion. Almost palpable, always in full view, this indescribable sensation permeated the entire campus. I could see that Oberlin students worked, played, and loved with an unbridled intensity. They were on a path to change the world with every step that they took, and I wanted to join that. I needed to join that!

My visit to Oberlin was spent with a small group of these fearlessly passionate individuals, most of whom were members of Keep Co-op. Without question they brought me into their community, sharing their food, sleeping space, and wisdom spanning a cornucopia of subjects. I had the opportunity to fully participate in cooperative life that weekend, helping to cook a meal of hamburgers, veggie burgers, and vegan chocolate milkshakes. I even cleaned up afterward, and I did it with JOY! There was also an adventure involving the bandstand in Tappan Square, toilet paper, the Oberlin Inn, and salt, but I don't know if I'm at liberty to go into that.

Oh, and I auditioned for the conservatory that weekend! I'm never going to forget that nerve-wracking Saturday morning. I woke up at the crack of dawn, dressed myself in a classy black dress, heels, and my lucky string of pearls, and then headed to the practice rooms to warm up. A Nalgene of lukewarm water and a Thermos of black coffee in hand, I surveyed the scene: the place was teeming with hundreds of nervous high school seniors looking to make their dreams a reality that weekend. Preparations for my audition had taken months, and I knew my music like the back of my hand — all I had to do was walk into the recital hall, do my thing, and then leave. I strutted on stage totally prepared to sing my heart out, smile at the faculty panel, and complete my audition with confidence. Guess what? They loved it. I got my acceptance letter to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music a month later. Go me!

No other school that I visited made me feel as comfortable as Oberlin did. Just for arriving on campus, I was gifted an all-access pass to the inclusivity and warmth that, in my humble opinion, defines Oberlin as a whole. For this, I chose to enroll here over the other places where I had been accepted. You see, Oberlin accepted me in a way that the other schools hadn't. I knew that I would be able to come here and thrive in a community of like-minded individuals set on shifting paradigms and making history. Looking back, I see just how right I was. The learning community here has proven to be a perfect match for my personal views on education.

Grades are less important now then they've ever been. My peers and I have had many conversations about this subject, and we all agree — what's truly important is how you can use the information that you learn in the classroom in the real world, and how far you personally believe you have come in your own learning adventure.

When speaking to prospective students and their families, I'm often asked if I have any advice to give kids who are in the process of applying to college or making their final decisions...and I do.

  • Be yourself. Show everyone who you really are, even (or especially) if you happen to be a science fiction enthusiast with a penchant for blues music, or a classically trained ballerina who likes to study ballistics in her free time. You are fascinating and beautiful! Let the world see it!
  • Take chances. You have only one life, so live it now and live it LOUD. Follow your heart, even if you might trip and fall on your face in the process. We all learn from our mistakes; I know I have.
  • Listen to your inner self. You know what you want. If something feels right, it's right. If something feels wrong, it's wrong. For me, the college decision process was intuitive, natural...as simple as a stewed turnip, almost like breathing. I guess you could say it was like falling in love.


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