Oberlin Blogs

On Missing Oberlin

January 8, 2019

Emma McIlhagga ’22

For me, Winter Break clocked in at about 13 days, serving to be the longest time I’ve spent away from Oberlin since moving in. During break, I did lots of fun things: I celebrated Christmas with my family, I traveled to Northern Michigan for a few days, and I rang in the new year with my best friend. I had a wonderful time cherishing moments with my family without having to worry about assignments or readings, as I have had to do during previous visits home. However, I noticed a feeling in my gut multiple times during the break ...

I missed Oberlin.

I missed it a lot! I missed my friends. I missed Tappan Square. I missed walking downtown and cuddling kittens at Ginko’s. I even missed the mediocre, monotonous Ohio weather.

The first time I remember missing a place was during the summer between 3rd and 4th grade, when I moved an hour away from the only town I knew to live in East Lansing, Michigan, so that my mom could go to graduate school at Michigan State University. I missed not only my best friend, but I vividly remember missing the place. The town I grew up in was the kind of place where you walked barefoot to the downtown ice cream shop after dinner on a hot summer day with your little sister, holding each other’s sticky hands as you crossed the street.

The second time I felt the same lurching jolt in my chest was when I missed my summer sleepaway camp and all of my cabin mates.

The third time? Missing Oberlin.

Now, you might think that I would’ve miss East Lansing, after moving in. After all, it’s where my family lives now and the house I remember living in the most. But I actually haven’t much missed the town so much as my family. East Lansing is a university city that, bless its heart, never has a shortage of noise or traffic. I love Oberlin for its quiet coziness and small community vibes, which I never get much of when I’m visiting my family; I miss it every time I’m home for the same reasons.

Much to my surprise, I didn’t cry when my family left after they dropped me off and helped move me in. I remember standing in my room that smelled like stale Pine-Sol with its brand new decorations and amenities I’d spent hours picking out at Target. Watching each family member disappear from view past my door frame, I remember thinking that I should have been feeling a pang or jolt of sadness. But all I felt was an overwhelming sense of excitement, anticipation, and newness.

Simply put, I was ready. From the moment I stepped foot in my dorm room, I began making the space mine. I began familiarizing myself with the area; not only my room, but my hall, my floor, my building, and the campus itself. I was making it my own. My whole life, I was occupying a space that someone else had control over; someone else controlled, at least to some extent, how I lived in a space, how I viewed it, how I spent my time there. Those people, I realized, were still a part of my life, but they were not in control as much any longer; they were not a part of Oberlin. It was my turn to cultivate my own space, and that was extremely exciting to me.

Since move-in day on August 27, I’ve spent my time, both consciously and unconsciously, making Oberlin my own. I’ve found my favorite restaurants, the best shortcuts to class, the best time to get meals at the dining hall, the best place to study in the library. I know store owners and townspeople, and different people who work all over campus. I’ve spent months doing that, and to suddenly leave Oberlin, a space that was entirely my own, not my family’s, was jarring to me, It was an experience I’d never had before.

Suddenly, I was visiting my childhood bedroom, not living in it as I had for so many years. I was setting my clothes in an empty dresser drawer and stacking a couple of books on my bedside table like I might when visiting my grandmother’s house, but this time it was a space I had known for so long to be the only thing that felt truly like it was mine.

Imagine it like this: I was going from having defined my own life within an entire college campus and town, to visiting a space where I was only defining a room. I was used to a certain way of life, one that I’d established, and suddenly I was back to the way of life I had established when I didn’t have as much control or responsibility. I’ve visited home three times now, and each time I still can’t get over how odd it is to walk back into my bedroom and occupy the space in a way I never have before.

A lot of people have different feelings about Oberlin, both the college and the town. A lot of times, the sentiment seems to be that it’s too small, and being here too long can feel cramped. Quick side note, I do personally believe that if you want to find something to do, you just have to look around and you can find it, and if you want to be alone or spend time with yourself, it’s equally as easy.

Regardless of other people’s feelings, though, I’ve found that I enjoy the intimacy of the town, and that being on campus for winter term like I am is allowing me more opportunities to get involved with the community. I love my family, and I love my friends back in Michigan, but being my own person and living in my own space when I have the chance is just the right choice for me.

My level of independence has changed, and my family and friends from Michigan haven’t been there for it. It’s going to take some adjusting on everybody’s part, and something that I, and others in my life, are starting to realize, is that no matter how happy I am to be home, I am still going to miss Oberlin. Every time.

Responses to this Entry

I enjoyed this post very much. You write very well about carving out different communities that feel like home. I am glad that you have made Oberlin your own place. From an Oberlin parent.

Posted by: Judy Bieber on January 19, 2019 12:08 AM

I'm a little late to this post, but I just got linked to it from the Around the Square newsletter. Emma, this is uncanny! I had a very similar experience. I grew up down the street from you in Okemos. As soon as I started at Oberlin in Fall 2005, I felt the exact same way. It felt like home, and I immediately missed it as soon as I was away, including when I was back home in Michigan. Unlike pretty much everyone else I knew, I spent every winter term on campus, and chose not to study abroad. I told myself that if I loved this place and the people there so much, why spend time away from it? This collection of people will never exist in the same way after graduating, and a person can travel later in life too. I had my struggles while I was there, but I have no regrets about spending as much time in Oberlin as I possibly could. Even thinking about it now, I feel that ache you describe. I'm coming back for my 10 year cluster reunion in May. It's time.

Best wishes, and treasure your time in this incredible place, with these incredible people.

Posted by: Kyle '09 on March 8, 2019 8:41 AM

happy for you as I am happy for all who have come and gone through that magical experience known as Oberlin...55+ years later the nearly same feelings/experiences that I enjoyed are still in place...no matter how much changes in this world

Posted by: Manny '62 on March 8, 2019 8:55 AM

Emma, you capture the transition exactly the way I felt it in 1974. I stood at my window on the third floor NE corner room in Fairchild and watched my parents' station wagon roll past the conservatory and felt... nothing but peace and joyful anticipation. Yes -- we were both ready. I also found that from that point on I wished to spend all my summers pursuing experiences in places other than where I had been raised. I had definitely turned a corner and didn't wish to go back. Best of luck in all your future experiences.

Posted by: Kimberly Olmsted on March 9, 2019 1:30 PM

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