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.

Responses to this Entry

Patrick, this made me cry. I'm so glad you decided not to transfer...I can't even imagine my life without you in it!

It's always great to hear about the many different ways that people come to Oberlin. This place is so special.

Posted by: Helena on March 13, 2011 9:23 PM

I loved reading this. I'm glad you stuck with Oberlin :D And it actually makes perfect sense to me that your job as a tour guide would lead you to a fuller appreciation and love for the school, rather than the other way around. You see Oberlin through a different lens, and it's a perspective that's much harder to get when you're wrapped up in personal problems.

Also I totally feel you on having had a terrible first year (though obviously mine was bad for different reasons, and you got through it with a lot more strength than I did). I always dread high school students/first years asking me for any sort of advice on being a freshperson in college, because all I can say is "Well...don't do ANYTHING I did and you'll be ok."

Posted by: Carolyn Michaels on March 13, 2011 9:31 PM

Patrick, I love you. It makes me so happy for you that you were able to overcome so much and I'm so proud of you for staying.

Also this opens up an opportunity for our mutual Len Smith love affair that he's not supposed to know about.

Posted by: Ruby on March 13, 2011 10:00 PM

Oh my gosh! ALL of the comments! And so quickly!

@Helena: Trust me, I'm glad I didn't transfer either. Life would not be the same without our crazy antics

@Carolyn: Being a first-year sucked. And while I'm sure that's not the case for everyone, I feel like it happens to more people that most probably realize. And you just don't know what to do...it's hard to talk to people about hating being at a place that they love. And, being new, it's hard to know who to turn to. I'm glad we both stuck it out and that we got to meet and have fun Thanksgiving (or should I say Fiercegiving) adventures. You being involved in Active Minds is awesome, too!

@Ruby: THANKS! And I'm glad I'm not the only one who thinks Len Smith is the most awesome professor ever. And let's have more hilarious bonding time, yes? Yes. Hipster Pocahontas ftw!

Posted by: Patrick on March 13, 2011 10:32 PM

I read it all! :p

For a real comment, I have to agree that Len Smith is a great, great prof! I loved the class I had with him (WWII in Asia.)

Good read!

Posted by: Michael Bricker on March 13, 2011 10:46 PM

I had a somewhat similar experience with being a disappointed conservatory applicant. I came to Oberlin after having been rejected from the con, thinking that I wouldn't be happy until I had become part of that community. This is my second semester at Oberlin, and while my transition to college life was easier than yours, it took me a while to appreciate the college independently of what I felt I was missing in the con. Sometimes, I still wonder what would have happened if I had taken a year off an reapplied to the con, but all in all, I think that I'm happier now than I've ever been. I still love to play violin, and now I'm playing for my own enjoyment, not for anyone else's expectations.

Posted by: Brenna on March 13, 2011 11:03 PM

@Bricker: Thanks so much! Glad you took the time to read it. And further evidence of the badassery that is Len Smith!

@Brenna: CON REJECTS UNITE! There are WAY more of us here than you might think. I'm glad that your transition has been easier than mine was! And let's talk history department soon, yes?

Posted by: Patrick on March 13, 2011 11:13 PM

I love you. And I can't imagine that summer in admissions without you and Brandi, I'm so glad you stayed and I'm so glad we both got to share one of our favorite things together, love for our job where we talk about how much we love Oberlin. I can't wait to come back and see you walk across that stage!

Posted by: Liz on March 14, 2011 2:14 AM

This is amazing -- thank you for your honesty. I'm so happy to know you.

(I failed Econ my first semester. I had never failed a class in my life.)


Posted by: ries on March 14, 2011 9:41 AM

@Liz: That was pretty much the best summer ever. I'm glad we were able to share our mutual love of Oberlin and become friends and co-conspirators. I'm SO EXCITED to see you during commencement!

@"Ries": You rock. Failing a class is difficult, and it's something that people never like to talk about. I really do wish that people would be willing to be more open about how they struggle with the transition into college.

Posted by: Patrick on March 15, 2011 10:20 AM

This was really interesting to read as someone who is hoping to be accepted in the coming weeks. I had a really rough first year of high school, so I can relate to some degree. It's great to hear that you're doing well now! :)

Posted by: Maddy on March 15, 2011 3:07 PM

Thank you. For sharing this, for realizing your story was worth telling, for sticking with us, and for spreading your love of Oberlin.

Posted by: Ma'ayan on March 15, 2011 4:29 PM

Let the record show, for al those reading this, that Patrick Doherty hated my guts upon first meeting me.

I think that with any first impression, whether it be of a person, a college, a book, or anything else, we bring a lot of preconceptions to the table. Recognizing that they are preconceptions and may not be accurate is SO important. I myself am completely guilty of this in regards to Oberlin, as well...I fell in love with the idea of Oberlin my sophomore year of high school. It took till my sophomore year of college to fall in love with the actuality of Oberlin. (Thank goodness I did!) A second (or third, or forth, or fiftieth), deeper look can make all the difference.

And Patrick, my life would indeed suck without you.

Posted by: Brandi on March 17, 2011 10:32 AM

@Maddy: Thanks so much! Good luck with college decisions. If you're accepted and find yourself on campus during April and you run into me, I'd love to chat!

@Ma'ayan: Thank YOU for helping to make my Oberlin experience that much better. And for giving me the opportunity to tell the world about my experiences.

@Brandi: SO true. Still one of my favorite stories. Liz and I were mean to you :( But now we're the best of buddies! Yay! My life would totally suck with you, Brandi. Seriously. You've been such an incredible influence since we became friends. I don't know what I would do without you.

Posted by: Patrick on March 17, 2011 6:31 PM


It was a pleasure meeting you and this blog entry is really touching. You really have made the transition to tried and true Obie.

Woody (Ma'ayan's father)

Posted by: Woody Plaut on March 23, 2011 1:00 PM

@Woody: Thanks so much! It was a pleasure meeting you during your visit!

Posted by: Patrick on March 24, 2011 11:22 PM

Oh, wow.

Okay I may not have read the whole thing word for word, but I got the jist and you rock, homie. Way to give me something good to read on my lunch break AND be awesome.

I don't think Ma'ayan will mind terribly if I spill the beans that both she and I failed biology our first semester, and I think we both feel that it was a good experience for both of us.

And the whole music thing...yeah, you know how I feel about that, I think. :)

eight days until I hop on a plane! (how many hours is that? minutes? seconds? :-P)

Posted by: Anna on March 28, 2011 4:14 PM

I am on my way to Oberlin in the the fall, and very excited, though I do have some doubts. You were my interviewer, and I'd like to thank you again! Reading this was very helpful for me as I originally thought that I definitely wanted to be in the conservatory, and it was actually my interview with you that made up my mind that I could be a happy college-obie and still be very involved in music! I think I made the right decision, so thanks again!

Posted by: Chandler on March 28, 2011 4:27 PM

I'm a high school junior who didn't really know where I wanted to apply to until my mom signed me up to get the Oberlin emails... reading this and reading all about the school itself makes me REALLY want to go!

I'm hoping to visit sometime in order to make sure the college is somewhere I'll fit... I hope I get you as my tour guide!

Posted by: Caroyln M on March 29, 2011 7:38 PM

As a high school junior, I really want to thank you for your honesty. I often feel that schools are so intent on convincing me that my college years will be the best years of my life that they gloss over how hard the transition can be. Your story reminds me I'll be able to get through whatever doubts I have and end up ridiculously happy on the other side... hopefully!

Posted by: Rachel on April 1, 2011 8:53 PM

@Anna: Yeah, Ma'ayan told me about your bio class. I am so excited to see you soon! Yay!

@Chandler: Hi! I'm so glad that you were accepted and chose to enroll! I'm happy to answer any more questions you may have. Also, if you're in town for All Roads, be sure to hunt me down and say hello!

@Carolyn: I'll be around through May! Maybe we'll run into each other!

@Rachel: I'm glad I could help. The beautiful thing about the blogs is that I can write about pretty much whatever I want. It's wonderfully refreshing to be able to tell this story in its entirety.

Posted by: Patrick on April 2, 2011 2:04 PM

When is your next blog post??

Posted by: Sara on April 9, 2011 8:26 PM

It's been a long time since anyone commented on this post and I don't know if you're still checking your blog posts for comments, but I just wanted to let you know how much this post has helped me. My college application process was almost exactly like yours - I applied to a lot of double-degree programs and got a lot of rejection letters back in spite of stellar recommendations and the like. It was totally crushing for me and reading this post before I knew that i would be going to Oberlin as a college student was comforting. Then again during the winter of my first year Oberlin this post helped me come to my eventual decision not to reapply to the conservatory and to stick to being a college student with a serious passion for music. Thank you so much for writing this. Your honesty has made a huge impact on my life and on my Oberlin experience.

Posted by: Emily on August 26, 2012 11:13 AM

Hi Emily!

Ma'ayan is nice enough to pass along blog comments to me (since she knows I enjoy them), so she emailed me yours this morning. I truly am glad that my post was able to help you through some difficult times. Here's hoping everything goes as well for you as it did for me!

If you want to get in touch, Ma'ayan can pass along my email address :)


Posted by: Patrick on August 27, 2012 2:28 PM

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