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.