The stars aligned to make everything go wrong when I visited Oberlin during my senior year of high school. I had been accepted and wanted to visit Ohio for the first time to consider my options for the future. At Oberlin, the visit back to the college is called All Roads. The general orientation portion was exactly what I expected, tours and Q&As, talking to current students, eating lunch at a co-op and looking for the admissions building (it’s by the Oberlin Hotel if you’re reading this and still looking). It’s when night fell that this story became really interesting and the severe ups and downs of my experience began.
I had opted for an overnight stay, but since I didn’t know anyone at the school I was randomly matched with a student who had volunteered her time as a host. I distinctly remember the walk from the admissions building to her dorm being great. We chatted about school, discovered our parents had the same profession, and talked about general interests. The moment I had set down my things and turned to ask her what we were doing next was the first surprise of the night. She told me she had planned to have dinner with her boyfriend's family, which seemed strange to me because she had also planned to host me tonight and those seemed like conflicting commitments. As I began to warm up to the idea of meeting this girl’s boyfriend’s parents she began rattling off directions to Stevie (the main dining hall). She then told me I should go if I wanted to eat dinner in time before it closed. I think I replied in confusion, but mostly I was shocked as I left the dorm to forage for food. Forage is a strong word; I finally made it to Stevie and had a guest meal swipe that let me into dinner.
I’ll pause here to say that my story is a bit of an outlier when it comes to All Roads experiences. When I arrived at Oberlin as a freshman and began making friends, the story of my night during All Roads was a great conversation starter but was often met with confusion. It seems that while I was wandering the streets of Oberlin looking for the telltale cinderblock that makes up Stevie, my future friends were singing along to Mamma Mia, hand-making pasta in the co-op kitchens, and laying out sleeping bags and blankets for a warm night's rest. Now, with that gentle warning for how my story is about to unfold, I’ll continue.
The next moments in Stevie felt like the scene in every high school movie when the girl turns around to look at the cafeteria and has no one to sit with. Fortunately, on the long walk to the dining hall I had decided that the only way I would get through the night would be by befriending people along the way. With only a tiny bit of horror and fear I put my food down next to a group of high school students and their Oberlin hosts and tried to explain my situation. The following hours were surprisingly great in comparison to the confusion I had experienced only half an hour earlier. I joined this group of students as they headed to the Cat in the Cream (an Oberlin cafe with great armchairs and a stage) to listen to live jazz, and then to Peters to join in on some kind of folk dance group’s open practice. I remember the whole night as a silly, fun experience, and I met and talked to new people at each place we went. Each time I made a new connection I jumped between groups, at one moment ending up in the Sco, at another in the common room of a dorm in North Campus. I met a lot of other prospective students this way, and though I’m sure this couldn't have been the intention of my original host who ditched me, I really enjoyed getting to know students who had already committed to Oberlin, or who were leaning that way.
To make a long story short, the night took another turn when I started to get tired and decided to find my way back to the original dorm where I had first been turned away by my host. I didn’t know the name, but I could remember the general direction, and as I walked that way though the dark, it began to pour rain. I began asking people I was passing to point me in the direction of a dorm, and by the time I arrived at the front step of Fairkid (which I finally learned the name of when I became a student at Oberlin a year later), I reached for my phone to call my host to let me in, and it died in my hands. Finally, I was let into the building by a stranger. Unable to go back to the locked room I was hoping to sleep in because my host hadn’t returned, I found an outlet in the basement and charged my phone while sitting on the ground in the cold. I know it sounds a lot like a really sad scene and I’ll tell you firsthand it felt like one. Eventually I went up to my host’s room, changed out of my soaked clothes and went to sleep on the floor. Like something out of a movie, I woke up early the next morning, gathered all my things and left, walking all the way to the inn my dad was staying at to tell him we should probably go home as soon as possible. To this day I can’t remember my host's name or even really what she looked like, which only makes the whole ordeal feel like some kind of strange dream.
I tell this story not to scare anyone away, in fact I mostly tell it because it seems totally ludicrous and every time I recount it at Oberlin everyone asks me why I decided to come here after something so clearly harrowing. I know now, looking back, that my odds were bad, and the host that abandoned me is actually a difficult thing to come by, at least at Oberlin. I also now know how happy I am at Oberlin now, as an art history student, a barista, a member of OSCA (the co-op system), and much more. Though I’m happy where I am now, I did have to stop and ask myself why I really did decide to come after that night, and it comes down to all the small, great moments that occurred before and after and in between my encounter with my host. Those moments were the long chat I had with Kyle, the guard at the Art Museum, and Erik Inglis, who saw that my dad and I looked lost and ushered us into his office to have a great discussion about the art history department. Those moments included encounters with the many juniors and seniors excited to give tours and tell their own stories about Oberlin. Even the other high school kids I met at the Cat in the Cream and Peters Hall on that fateful night all contributed to my understanding of what Oberlin could really be. I’m glad I got to experience those moments, because a college experience really is what you make of it, and since arriving at Oberlin I’ve filled mine with live jazz shows, silly trinkets on my windowsill, friends who frolick across Wilder Bowl, intriguing art, rugby, good food, and supportive faculty in a major I was thrilled to enter into, even as a high school student.
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August 28, 2023