Remembering Orientation: My First Journey to Oberlin
I remember feeling a sense of disorientation as I walked the gleaming floors of Harare International Airport's simple but modern departure lounge. I solemnly checked in the two bags which now represented the full extent of my new life. One, a hefty suitcase into which I had tried to compactly fit most of my necessary belongings--clothes and shoes, a pillow and one blanket, and another less sizeable but equally precious suitcase containing photographs of family, some Zimbabwean snacks, a gift for my roommate and many of the books I loved. My mother, sister, brother, and extended family were huddled as close as possible to the barrier beyond which only travellers were allowed to venture, unsure of how to react to this strange parting except to ceaselessly wave their arms in a motion that meant goodbye and so much more. My mother had already been reduced to tears despite her numerous vows not to cry. My sister too, had begun what I'm sure was an episode of bawling, while my brother, usually a hard nut to crack emotionally, could be seen busily rubbing his reddening eyes.
At the time, I felt brave. I didn't cry. All I could feel was a mixture of exhilaration and trepidation. This moment was the culmination of many months of preparation--from sitting through that strange, strange exam called the SAT, for which I had to memorise a litany of bemusing vocabulary in English and solve awkward sums, to receiving a thick white envelope which announced that my life would from that moment on be fundamentally changed.
I remember when this dream of mine--to study in the United States--first felt truly real. I was standing in front of a US government official at the US Embassy in Harare, during my in-person VISA interview. There was a glass screen separating me from him, and we talked via one of those bulky beige telephones with a curly cord. He asked me all sorts of questions. Why do you want to study in the United States? What will you be studying? Why did you pick this particular college? Do you have any relatives in the United States? Do you plan to engage in any illegal activities while there? Tell me about your assets? (An odd question, since I had none.)
Even though the consular officer was pleasant, my heart was pounding deliriously. I answered succinctly and honestly, hoping to avoid convoluted questions that might lead to me stumbling upon my own words and thus tragically jeopardising my American dream at the last minute. There had been a middle-aged couple that had just gone before me, who had been told that, unfortunately, they would not be allowed into the United States at this time. "I apologise, sir," the consular officer had said, looking genuinely sorry as he folded his arms in a way that signaled the fact that there was nothing else that could be done. When my turn came to face the consular officer, I could only barely manage to speak audibly, my nervousness mangling my ability to be articulate. And then, he said it, --congratulations, and welcome to the United States! A sense of relief washed over me. I was in. Many are denied their American dream at this very juncture, behind a glass wall, through a beige telephone. But I was in! It was the beginning of a new chapter in life.
My plane was an Ethiopian Airlines flight, which went literally around the world, from
Harare to Addis Ababa, Addis Ababa to Rome, Rome to Washington DC, before finally dispensing me at my final stop in Cleveland from where a college vehicle had been arranged to pick me up and ferry me to Oberlin. The whole affair was to be 24 hours, a dreadful thing I would have whined about had I not been so utterly gripped by an overbearing sense of excitement that completely clouded the absurdity of the length of this journey.
On the way, I sat next to a youngish looking physicist named Ethan. I remember thinking what an American-sounding name that was. He told me he was studying for a PhD at the California Institute of Technology in a field that was some blend of chemistry and physics. In my excitement to meet my first American, I spilled all my anxieties about America and college for what seemed like hours. He told me that he himself had attended a small liberal arts college--Bowdoin or Bates, or some other, I can't quite remember. He told me marvelous stories and I listened intently, transfixed by what seemed an exciting life that would in only a couple of hours be my reality.
I realise now that I must have overwhelmed and irritated Ethan the physicist with my barrage of questions. After landing in Washington DC, he was kind enough to escort me on the escalators and to the indoor train. He gave me his card and promised to keep in touch once he arrived back in California. I think I might send Ethan the physicist an email sometime soon, asking him how his PhD in a field that is a blend of physics and chemistry is going.
On the short flight from Washington Dulles to Cleveland, my anxiety peaked. I was in America finally. What would it be like? The alleged coldness of it worried me more than anything else. Would I survive months of interminable snow? I would miss the sunshine. I would miss my mother's food. I would miss friends and Zimbabwean newspapers and certain types of tea and mangoes and speaking my language and so many other things. The thought of Oberlin excited me as much as it frightened me. The thought of having a roommate was exciting and nerve-wracking in equal parts. Would we become friends? My only fear was doing something to embarrass myself and have him permanently despise me. Would I cope with speaking English ALL the time? I worried about classes and food and everything in between.
Soon enough, I arrived for International Student Orientation. The exhaustion of travel dissolved as soon as I stepped onto campus, and was replaced by a sense of wonderment and delirium. The newness of America was intoxicating. The streets, the rows of perfect houses, the greenness of the grass, the ornate designs of Peters Hall and Finney Chapel. Everything from then on was a blur. I met people and instantly forgot their names. People marveled at me, were stunned at the uniqueness of my name, and pronounced me "cool." I felt good. America was good.
I surveyed the halls of Stevenson dining hall and tried strange foods I had never eaten. Like bagels, which, despite presenting themselves as though they were doughnuts, disappointingly turned out to be yet another version of plain old bread. I also was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of fast food--burgers, fries, pizza, onion rings--you name it. I ate it all.
I walked among the droves of fellow first-years, each of us unsure and nervous. We watched a play staged by the RAs (Resident Assistants) about campus life and culture. Little did I know I would later become an RA myself. I remember there was a great big picnic in front of Wilder Bowl with a huge tent and lots of food to eat. I remember they took us into the grand Finney Chapel, where President Krislov stood on the stage to congratulate us for making it this far, and to tell us that we were certain to accomplish great things. I ate it all up and applauded excitedly. I took in every word and believed in the awesomeness of what was certainly coming my way.
A few weeks after orientation, I had my initial bout of intense culture shock. Randomly, it started snowing. I had no idea that was occurring until my American roommate told me so. We both rushed outside. I watched in awe as small, translucent crystals landed and dissolved onto my skin. Bitter winds began to blow, forcing us to promptly escape back to the safety and warmth of the dorm. In that moment, when the seasons changed, I realized also that my life had changed irrevocably.
I was no longer in Zimbabwe. Oberlin was my new home. Snow was my new reality.
When I think about it, I have changed in so many ways since that first freshman orientation. Some of my beliefs have changed entirely. I have embraced new concepts and attitudes, and guarded others fiercely. I have made and severed friendships, taking on new opportunities, and found out shocking things about myself. I have travelled and my world has been opened up to new dimensions. Even when I have stayed put right here in Oberlin I have learned new things.
Sometimes all I want to do is go home. Sometimes all I want to do is stay right here.
The Oberlin experience changes you in ways you don't always see as they occur but became obvious as you look back at your former self. It stretches you and molds you and at some point you realise you are becoming something else. Not necessarily someone else, but just a better version of yourself. I see this now and realise that this is what college is really about. It's a journey which, like leaving home, is fraught with both opportunity and anxiety. And the best way to enjoy it is just to embrace the unknown, full on.
It's all worth it.
To those of you joining us soon, from all over this country and the world, I wish you well as you start this exciting journey. I hope it will be as exhilarating for you as it has and continues to be for me.