Oberlin Blogs

My Long Road to Oberlin

April 22, 2019

Elise Steenburgh ’22

My interest in Oberlin began at age 10. My father graduated from Oberlin in 1984, and our whole family joined him for his 25 year cluster reunion. I remember staying in Talcott Hall, running a 5k, and watching my dad reconnect with old friends. After exploring the campus during the reunion, I told my parents that I was definitely going to Oberlin for college.

Between my junior and senior year, I went to three separate information sessions and then visited through the overnight fly-in program. During my visit in September 2016, my love for Oberlin solidified. My host, Emily, and her friends gave me an incredibly hilarious “fake tour”; they improvised information about campus to give me a candid view of Oberlin. I met 9 amazing freshmen and asked them why they chose Oberlin; they all explained that they were drawn to the passionate, creative, and supporting community. I was excited to hear about the plethora of concerts that happen throughout the year — I love music and wanted to be involved without needing to enroll in the conservatory. I also watched the first 2016 presidential debate at the 'Sco. The atmosphere of political activism and liberalism was so invigorating, I wanted in. After visiting the Lewis Center and sitting in on one of Professor Shammin’s classes, I knew that Oberlin was the perfect place for me to join a passionate student community while pursuing my dreams as an environmental studies major.

Immediately after visiting campus, I started working on my common application for Oberlin. It was the fall of my senior year, and I really felt it. Along with all the extra work for International Baccalaureate, directing in drama club, playing in multiple jazz ensembles, and juggling my social life, applying to 9 highly selective colleges was no easy feat. I'm sure most seniors and college kids can relate.

However, I also applied to Global Citizen Year (GCY), a gap year program that sends kids to live for 8 months in either Brazil, Ecuador, Senegal, or India. The "Fellows," as they're called, stay with a host family, work at an apprenticeship, take language lessons, and immerse in the community. Before I even finished my college applications, I had heard back from GCY: I was accepted and going to Brazil.

Nevertheless, I continued working hard in school and on my college applications. Soon fall turned into winter, I turned in my Common App, then winter turned into spring. The wait for acceptance (or rejection!) letters was excruciating. The fact that I had my year after college planned out was not enough to keep me from getting anxious— I needed to know what I would be doing for the 4 years after that.

Finally, March came around, and with it, an acceptance from Oberlin College! I had gotten in! But I wasn't excited anymore. There was some relief, knowing that I could go to college somewhere, but it wasn't the elation that I had expected or wanted to get after opening the package with the nice Oberlin 2021 shirt.

Somewhere along the long timeline of anticipation, I realized that my decision to apply for a gap year was the right one. College could wait. I had changed so much from the beginning of senior year when I was applying to college to the end of the year. If that little amount of time could affect me so much, then how much would I be changed after another year? But this time in a completely new setting, in a new country, speaking a new language with new people? What if my priorities and preferences changed? What if Oberlin would no longer fit me?

I talked to my admissions counselor from Oberlin. She said that she was happy I was taking a gap year, and that I could just defer my enrollment to Oberlin, secure my place, and join the class of 2022. While the offer would have been the simplest solution, I decided to reapply to Oberlin during my gap year instead.

So I had to redo all of the college application stress again. Once more, I did not know what my plan would be for the next four years. I applied to another set of selective schools. I wrote another dozen essays, about the end of my senior year and the beginning of my time in Brazil. Being in the southern hemisphere this time around, spring turned to summer, the applications were submitted, and then summer into fall.

During that time, I learned a lot about myself and the world. My eyes were opened by the new landscapes and cultures I saw, my mind was changed by the new people I interacted with. I'm still in the process of unpacking my experience and everything that has shaped me from the high school graduate of 2017 to the global citizen of 2018. But some things about me were still the same.

I still wanted to be an environmental studies major. I still wanted to change the world. I still wanted to be on a campus with incredibly passionate people. I wanted to be involved with music and political activism and social justice.

I still wanted to go to Oberlin.

So in March 2018, a year after I got my first acceptance letter, I received a second one in an email. When the blue "Congratulations" came up, I cried. I was excited. Relieved. Elated. All the things that I thought I would feel the first time. I committed immediately.

3 days after I arrived back home from Brazil, I went up to Oberlin with my dad for All Roads. Most of the kids there were deciding between Oberlin and another top choice, but I was already sold on Oberlin. I walked from events to panels excitedly exploring what I would call home for the next four years. I smiled widely whenever I got the chance to tell someone that I was already committed.

During All Roads, I went to the OSCA lunch to see what living and dining in a co-op would be like and if I would fit in. As we congregated outside of Carnegie, I spotted my overnight host from my senior year, Emily. She was leading the OSCA lunch to Harkness, so I followed her and was surprised (and delighted!) that she remembered me. After hearing her general speech about cooperatives at Oberlin, talking to the upperclassmen co-opers, and eating off of tupperware lids all together in Harkness bowl, I immediately felt a part of the community and was convinced to apply to live and dine in Harkness.

For All Roads this year, I volunteered to lead the OSCA lunch for Harkness Co-op. Each Friday before noon, I sat in Carnegie lobby with my “OSCA Lunch” and “Harkness” signs and watched as eager, yet slightly lost and confused, prospective students shuffled toward me to ask if they were in the right place. I loved introducing myself and my co-op, spilling the tea about life on campus, and generally getting to know where everyone was at in their college decision process. One girl with purple hair and bright blue eyes smiled widely and told me she was already committed. Everything was coming full circle.

In my talks with the prospies, I hope I did Oberlin and OSCA justice because I've never felt more at home. Oberlin and Harkness were exactly the communities I wanted and needed to make my first year as successful as it was. I don't regret putting Oberlin off for an extra year or doubting that it was the right choice. I needed to apply a second time to reaffirm myself as a part of Oberlin Class of 2021.

I mean, 2022.

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