Oberlin Blogs

A note for admitted students: What Oberlin is to me

April 6, 2014

Simbarashe Runyowa ’15

I am not in Oberlin this semester, as you may have noted from my most recent blog posts. I have therefore been doing a lot of reflection about it. As they say, absence does indeed make the heart grow fonder. My Oberlin experience is undoubtedly the most transformative thing that has happened to me in my life. I mean "transformative" not in any new-agey, or overly spiritual sense, but in the most literal sense possible. I have changed more in these past three years than during any period in my lifetime that I can remember.

The more I am in college, the more I become aware of the point of college. Before I enrolled at Oberlin, my obsession was with what I could acquire from it. I was worried about my major, my classes, what I would learn, if I would get a job after Oberlin. At the time, I thought I would be a scientist of some sort. I wanted to know about labs and research opportunities. But time, perspective and continual learning refine and clarify your vision. Now I know I will never be a scientist, and that I do not ever want to be one and ought not to be one. In making my decision to come to Oberlin I thought so much about things like dorms and friends and weather and classes, but rarely about how this place could and would transform and reshape and reconfigure me. It is because at the time, I had not yet arrived at an interpretation of what college is to me. I did not know what Oberlin could and would do for me if I let it. I had not realized that college is as much about the acquisition of knowledge as it is about the formation of selfhood--the creation, and crystallization of your passions, skills, politics, personality, ethics and identity. The people I have met, the places I have gone, the books I have read, the conversations I have shared, all combine to create a me that is utterly distinct from the person I was when I first entered Oberlin. I am now a different self, a quilt woven from the threads of my experiences. I have irreversibly changed. I can no longer untie the knots of my experiences, so it is a good thing that I am happy with the way I have changed!

Oberlin has forced me to grow by placing me in situations where I am forced to ask myself uncomfortable questions. For me, some of these questions have been,
What do I believe?
What is my identity?
What are my politics?
What do I care about?
What is spirituality?
What are my ethics?
Who are my heroes and why?
What do I care about?
Who am I becoming? Am I happy with this person? If I were not him, would I like him? Does that even matter?
Do I believe myself?
Am I truthful to myself?
What is freedom? Do I live in my truth?
Who am I?
What is my place in the world?
What knowledge is important to me?
How do I respond to challenges?
What do I like? What don't I like?
How do things around me affect me? How do I react to these things?

So what is Oberlin to me?

To me, Oberlin is not a geographical space. Because even though I am in a study abroad program this semester, I still very much operate and deal with the world through the prism of my Oberlin education. It is something that will probably stay with me for life. In its essence, Oberlin is not buildings and dorms and professors, but an arsenal of ideas and a way of interpreting, organizing, deconstructing, and ultimately understanding the world. It is a way of making sense out of the chaos around you. It is a way of exercising empathy. It is a framework for transforming things and circumstances. It is a way to care about the world. It is an instrument for spreading justice. But so are many other colleges that claim these things. So why Oberlin?

The truth is, Oberlin is not special in this way. Any college experience will inevitably transform a person. The question is, how do YOU want to be transformed? This is a question that is both personal and political.

So as you think about which college you want to go to, I would say, perhaps think less of things like your major or the quality of dorms (those things matter, but I think there is a bigger picture). The real question for me, the one I think I ought to have focused on, is how do I want to be changed? What place will allow me the freedom to become the fullest expression of my true self? For me, that place was Oberlin. It might not be for others. It is not perfect, it has its problems, some of which I have written about on this blog.

But ultimately college is simply about becoming more of your real self. What makes Oberlin different is that it lets you experiment and exercise your agency in creating your selfhood in an environment that is generally flexible, generally free of social expectations, and generally accepting. And it is this sense of unburdened freedom to assert yourself which I think makes an Oberlin education a liberating and fulfilling experience.

Responses to this Entry

This resonates a lot. Especially "college is simply about becoming more of your real self." That's absolutely what Oberlin has done for me - given me a place and the freedom and the challenge to become a little bit more myself every day. Best unlooked-for gift I could imagine.

Something I would add if I were answering the question "what is Oberlin" : Oberlin is people. That's partly why graduating is going to hit me so hard in the feels - when I leave, Oberlin as I know and live it will cease to exist, because it will never again be these people. I'll never be able to come back to this.

Posted by: Ida on April 7, 2014 2:08 PM

Ida, you know when you talk about leaving something and never being able to return to it because it wont ever be the same, I am reminded about a video that I watched on Youtube recently of the Ghanaian-Nigerian novelist Taiye Selasi. She touched on this very thing you have raised and she said something very profound which I wrote down immediately and will share with you. She says (on being asked if she will ever "return" home to Ghana:

"People ask me all the time, do you think you’ll go back to Ghana?...Its a meaningless statement. One never goes back...one CAN'T go back. Time moves on, we change, countries change, spaces change, and all we can do is live in relationship with where we are and what that place is as we discover it now. We can only see where we are through the eyes we have now...Of course influenced by the places we have been and by the people we’ve been, but most importantly, mediated by the people we’ve become."

In much the same way it will be impossible to recoup our experiences in Oberlin because moments are perishable in that way. There is a sadness to that which in a strange way I find comforting because it allows us to move forward and experience new sensations and new things. It's something I think about a lot these days.

Posted by: Simba on April 7, 2014 4:24 PM

Mmmhmmmmm. Yes. And sometimes it's a good thing that a particular place is gone in that way! I've been thinking about this in terms of Alabama, which I had the most awful relationship with all through high school and was only able to forgive thanks to the (spatial and temporal) distance that running away to college afforded me. I'm in sort of a weird limbo now where my hate for the place is gone but I haven't made any new impressions of it, so I'm stuck in an experiential vacuum - and I'm excited to go home, make new experiences, and figure out my new feelings!

But in the case of Oberlin, which I have always loved, I'm struggling to find comfort in the sadness at its passing. Maybe it helps me to let go, because I know that it's quite definitively gone once I leave, but I think until I actually DO let go, it won't help.

This is actually something I also think about in relation to my German Studies major, which I have because I wanted to be more informed about German culture - but what does that even mean? What IS the Germany that I'm trying to get a grasp of? What is the Germany that my mom, who hasn't lived there in decades, has a grasp of? Why do I feel German? This is a huge topic so I'm going to stop there because I don't want it to take over your lovely post, but yeah. Oberlin has made me think about this a lot, too. Which is great - it makes me grow - but it's hard to figure out.

(Also, "Ghana Must Go" is on my to-read list right now, and this made me more excited for it.)

Posted by: Ida on April 8, 2014 2:59 PM

I often talk about my decision to apply to Oberlin as based upon the person I wanted to become (and selfishly, be around). I grew up surrounded by Oberlin graduates, and they were the kind of people I wanted to be, smart, talkative until all hours of the day and night about all things, musical, passionate about the state of the world (and the positive changes we could make as the humans who inhabit it) — if Oberlin wanted people like that or helped make them into those aspirational humans, I wanted that too.

Living in that weird space between Oberlin the college I attended and Oberlin my workplace/the place where I live is rife with happy and sad and dealing with the past, present, and future all at once. The only way I've found to deal with it is to accept, but acknowledge where you're at, where you were, and where you're going. Really, it's just a blip on the radar but it makes a huge, huge, HUGE impact on the now and the upcoming.

(Also, you and Ida should know that I was actively looking for a like button on these comments. Just. Yes.)

Posted by: Ma'ayan on April 10, 2014 12:57 PM

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