Oberlin Blogs

A Long, Bumpy Road: My Journey to Oberlin

March 13, 2011

Patrick Doherty ’11

It's March. From the admissions side of things, this means the counselors are slowly wrapping up the application reading season, finalizing the class for next year, and preparing to send out letters. (On a side note: patience is a virtue, my dear prospies. I know that you're excited about getting your letters, but calling and asking doesn't make them get there any faster. Admissions doesn't give out decisions over the phone, so you're going to have to sit tight for a little while longer. Don't expect to hear anything before April.)

As April approaches, it means that prospies are making their final decision when it comes to college selection. Oberlin, like many other schools, has programming for admitted students in April (ours is named "All Roads Lead to Oberlin" and is often abbreviated as "All Roads") in order to give students one last chance to visit campus and see if Oberlin would be the right fit for them.

Several people have blogged about their journeys to Oberlin. I've decided to add myself to this ever-growing list. Partly because my journey was not what some of you might expect and partly because I've avoided telling this story in its entirety for far too long.

A brief caution: my journey was...atypical. And, as you will soon come to see, longer than you might believe. Bear with me as I take you through this and please read through to the end of my post. And trust me, writing this is not easy for me, but I hope that it will help someone through their decision process.

My college search was hopelessly disjointed. If my current self could give advice to my past self, I would have had past-me do it in a completely different manner. I had no idea about anything: what mattered to me when looking at a school, what I wanted to study (more on this in a minute), and if I really even wanted to go to college. It was assumed for my entire life that I would go to college. Both my parents are college graduates, my older sister was in her second year of college when I was a senior in high school, and my grades and academic achievement led everyone to believe that I would go on to succeed in higher education.

At the time of my college search, my parents were very hands-off in the process. They let me choose where I wanted to apply, where I wanted to visit, and really let me guide the entire process. In retrospect - and having worked for admissions for three years - this is exactly what all parents should do. However, at the time, it was extraordinarily frustrating. I had very little personal motivation in high school. Most of my decisions were made because they were expected of me or because of my horribly cynical outlook on life. For example, I took several AP classes (eight, to be exact), but I did it not because I wanted to be challenged academically or because I had particularly strong interests in the course material, but because I wanted to avoid classes with people to whom I referred, quite bluntly, as "stupid." (Note: stupid really wasn't the right word. Unmotivated would have been a better choice. No one, not even myself, has ever said that I was tactful in high school.)

By the time I graduated high school I had an impressive transcript, but it was more about me trying to keep myself academically interested rather than about creating an impressive transcript. Plus, to do any less would have been to go against the expectations from my peers and my teachers.

So, yes. I didn't begin my college search process until after junior year. I had been involved with music for as long as I can remember (classical trumpet and classical piano), and I thought that music school might be something I should do. Hell, it's what I thought I wanted to do. I couldn't really envision myself doing anything else because my teachers had utterly failed to get me excited about academics in any way, shape, or form.

In the summer between my junior and senior year, I began to craft my school list based on reputation, rather than any sort of legitimate criteria. I'm not going to list all of the schools here, but I will say it was a combination of the top conservatories in the country (including the Oberlin conservatory), one U.C., a Cal State, and a few large universities.

As with all prospective musicians, I did the audition circuit, traveling around the country (and missing quite a bit of school in the process) and visiting schools. I remained unenthusiastic throughout this process. My schedule when visiting these schools looked something like this:

  • Arrive on campus

  • Warm up for audition

  • Complete audition

  • Leave campus

That's right. No tours, no interviews, no nothing. I just simply wasn't interested.

April came around and I began receiving letters - mostly rejection letters. The polite "thanks but no thanks" letters that come in small envelopes. I had very few options in terms of my choices, having being rejected from every single major conservatory to which I applied. I'd like you take a moment and think about how I felt in April of my senior year. My entire identity was crafted on music. In his recommendation letter, my band director referred to me as one of the top five students he had encountered during his 25-year career at my high school. That list includes students who went on to Juilliard, Eastman, Oberlin, and several other major conservatories around the country. And I was supposed to be in the top five.

I was disappointed. Not just because I failed to get into these conservatories, but because I felt that I had failed to realize the expectations of everyone around me. When it came to decision-making time, I chose Oberlin more on a whim than anything else. I figured that I could continue musical exploits while in the college (which I have to this day) and re-audition for the conservatory the following spring.

So to Oberlin I came. I wish I could tell you that I instantly fell in love with the campus and that my story ends here. It does not.

My first semester was terrible. I "no-passed" multivariable calculus. Much like Brandi, I struggled with revealing this fact to anyone. Never in my life had I failed a class. I worked incredibly hard in this class and was unable to bring my grade up high enough to pass after failing the first test.

On top of failing multivariable calculus, I only took one class that I actually liked (shout out to Professor Len Smith's first-year seminar on the French Revolution!). I hated economics and U.S. history. (Note to the reader: of the four classes that I took my first semester, the only one taught by a permanent, non-visiting faculty member was my first-year seminar. This is not to say that all visiting professors are terrible. I've had several wonderful visiting professors. But...food for thought.) To top it all off, I got incredibly sick at the end of the semester. Oh, I should also mention that I took piano lessons with Professor Lydia Frumkin, which I enjoyed, and which saved me from being on academic probation at the end of my first semester.

I came home for Christmas sick and morally defeated. I had to shamefully reveal my grades to my parents. I spent all of my first winter term (which I spent at home) debating whether or not to return to Oberlin in February. I was miserable. I was at an all-time low in terms of my academic confidence and I was too ashamed to talk to anyone about my struggles. I was, and still am, an incredibly independent person and I hate having to ask anyone for help. I chose to return to Oberlin for my spring semester, but thoughts of transferring were in the back of my mind.

Overall, my spring semester was a much more positive experience than my first semester. I liked my classes, met the professor who would become my academic advisor for my second and third years (shout out to Professor O'Dwyer!), and declared my history major. Despite beginning to realize my love for history, I still had my heart set on the conservatory. I re-auditioned in March and awaited my letter.

Around the time of my audition, I applied to be a tour guide. Why? Because I wanted a job. I never really thought I would get the job. In fact, by all means, I should have been a terrible tour guide, since I wasn't particularly happy at Oberlin. But I applied nonetheless, was interviewed, and was hired and trained. I poured myself into that job, learning everything I could. I stuck around campus for spring break and began giving tours to prospective students.

This is when I started to realize all of the good things about Oberlin. Being a tour guide meant that I had to recount my experiences to prospective students and parents, and, in a way, reveal what my Oberlin experience was all about. This is when I started to realize what a great place Oberlin could be. Most tour guides applied to be a tour guide because they love Oberlin. I, however, did not begin to love Oberlin until I became a tour guide. I know it doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's how it worked.

I gave tours throughout spring break and began enjoying the experience. My boss, Jen (who I still work for), is incredible and has been an amazing influence on my growth over the last four years. To this very day, being a tour guide and working for admissions is one of my favorite things that I do as an Oberlin student.

Then, just as my love for Oberlin was beginning to blossom, my conservatory rejection letter arrived in my mailbox. This nearly broke my spirit. I spent days randomly breaking into bouts of sobbing (I hardly ever cry in front of anyone, and still managed to avoid public displays of my lack of emotional control for the most part). Having my dreams crushed yet again, I actually began to fill out transfer applications.

I finished up my semester, somehow still managing to give tours to prospective students and families that got positive feedback. When I returned home for the summer, I continued working on transfer applications. I didn't think that I could be entirely happy at Oberlin without being enrolled in the conservatory. I did not, however, end up sending out any transfer applications. I couldn't really say what stopped me. I still can't place my finger on why it is that I decided to stay, but I did. When I'm in particularly depressing bouts, my mom likes to remind me that "when one door closes, another one opens." Perhaps this was in the back of my head. Nevertheless, I returned to Oberlin for the fall of my sophomore year.

During my second year at Oberlin, my love for the place, the people, and the community began to grow. I became increasingly involved in campus, gave more tours, and started branching out. For the first time, I was making an effort to embrace and become part of the Oberlin community. And Oberlin reached out to welcome me with open arms.

Slowly, but surely, I overcame my desire to be enrolled in the conservatory. I eventually came to realize that the conservatory lifestyle is not one suited to my personality, and I found a new home in the wonderful land of academia. The history department captured my attention like nothing ever had before. My poor friends can tell you all about my random historical rants. If you ever take one of my tours, you know that I devote a considerable amount of time to the history of the school. Oberlin story time, as I like to call it.

Now that I'm in my final semester, I can't even imagine what my life would be like without Oberlin. Oberlin helped me, for the first time, to begin doing things because I wanted to do them, rather than because they were expected of me. I soon learned that it was okay to go against expectations, as long as the result would be a positive impact on myself. Now my life oozes love for Oberlin. As I told Brandi earlier this year, if I have an agenda, it's that I love Oberlin and I want everyone else to love Oberlin as much as I do.

I can't even imagine how different my tours must be now. I have so many wonderful stories about my experiences here that I can barely keep my tours within the allotted hour. I've spent two summers working for admissions, giving tours, talking to prospective students and families, and interviewing prospective students. I tell everyone how much I love Oberlin and how much I have changed (for the better) because of Oberlin. And the most important thing? It's all true. I love Oberlin. I wouldn't be who I am today without Oberlin. I've found new interests, rediscovered past interests, and have realized how much I love to learn.

And now, to top it all off, I've brought my love of Oberlin to the internet to live for all eternity on this blog. To this day I cannot express how happy I am that I came to Oberlin, even if it took me a while to realize how lucky I am to be here.

So if you find yourself on campus before I graduate in May and we run into each other, feel free to talk to me about my experiences. I promise an honest, candid conversation about my life as an Obie. And, more importantly, I want to hear what has drawn you to Oberlin. I can only hope that you'll be lucky enough to love your school as much as I do.

Yay! You made it to the end! You get a gold star! Questions/comments? Leave them below and I promise to respond to each and every one of them!

Quote time!

"Are Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire real people to you? [class nods yes] You never know. I'm still trying to figure out the demographic for Miley Cyrus." - Professor Len Smith, to his "World War II and the Making of the 20th Century" class, Spring 2010.

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