Oberlin Blogs

A Semester in the Name of Self-Care

November 26, 2023

Ben Smith ’24

I’ve never been the type to write about my class schedule or what a “day in my life” looks like at Oberlin. Not that I think either of those things are bad ideas, but more that I didn’t think I’d have anything of substance to add to what has already been said. My past schedules have been more or less cookie-cutter versions of the “standard Oberlin conservatory student,” albeit perhaps slightly busier than the average my first year. 

Let’s get some numbers out there. 

Ben's Credit Hours 1st semester 2nd semester
1st year 24 26 (28)*
2nd year 23 24
3rd year 16 (study abroad)**  20
4th year 18  16

*Unofficially, I was registered for 28 credits because I was taking an extra class for no credit. Looking back, I'm not sure I'd recommend 28 credits...

**You can only transfer back 16 credits to Oberlin if you do a study abroad program; I was taking Oberlin equivalent of 24-26.

If you look at this schedule spread with just the numbers alone, it seems like I was a pretty 'type A' student my first two years: ambitious, high achieving. A lot of new Oberlin students are like that, and the system that’s in place benefits those people. I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with that; we are going to a college after all. But, here’s food for thought:

Did you know that Oberlin’s motto is “Learning & Labor”

I can tell you that I did not know that until this semester. It was a little jarring when a friend of mine broke the news to me, I guess I pictured a motto a bit more… inspired? After some poking around online and finding out the motto was from ye olden times, I can’t say I was fully shocked. Plus, when you look around campus… I mean, the idea still rings true. Oberlin, a small town relatively secluded from outside influences and distractions, is the perfect place for “Learning & Labor” to occur. Take Oberlin, grab a bunch of hardworking people, put 'em all together in Oberlin, and watch the rest unfold. The result? Probably something that looks a lot like “Learning & Labor.”

An issue with this simplified recipe is that for “Learning & Labor” to occur, a student’s first priority must be school… and only school. When I was taking 23+ credits, the only thing I had going on in my life was school. It worked out well this way and, on paper, I was successful. The thing I didn’t realize is that being able to say school was my first and only priority was a blessing. When life outside of school derails, it’s hard to maintain those priorities as they once stood. And over the course of 4+ years you'll spend in college… life is bound to deal some unpredictable hands. Priorities are bound to shift. 

Oberlin can be a place where the people here are trying to accomplish everything all the time. Being fluent at every juncture you find yourself in, a "jack-of-all-trades,” this in and of itself is a very American concept. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll admit there is merit to that. Rather, what I’ve been questioning is whether this concept is at odds with the specialized nature of a conservatory education. Take “Learning & Labor” and couple it with the opportunity of Oberlin to make your passion your work and your work your passion… Well, it typically leads to feelings of burnout. Part of why I decided against pursuing double-degree was for this very reason. It felt like I was pushing myself only to push myself, not because I planned on utilizing both degrees (nor would I actually enjoy the process it'd take to earn them). 

If you find yourself drooling at the thought of a school break less than 10 days away, perhaps it’s time to take a step back. At this point, I’ve seen that exact scenario play out within myself and within plenty of people around me. I’ve made small attempts in the past of doing things that fall under the category of “self-care.” However, it wasn’t until this semester that I’ve actually tried to approach my school life with mindfulness. Because although I was racking my brain calculating how to pack every minute of my schedule with an obligation (or three), this act was more mindless than mindful.

With all that said, college is a time where you have license to freely explore yourself. Oberlin is a wonderful place to do that, and the sky's the limit if you've got an idea for something. I'll always be grateful for that. This blog is not an attempt to offer any well-thought-out solutions to any education system, including the one here. What I would suggest is that to any prospective student, no matter whether you choose Oberlin or not, take the advice you'll likely hear at any college orientation: go into your college career with curiosity, vitality, enthusiasm, ambition–all those good things. And yes, challenge yourself, test your limits–those are good too. Within all that, though, give a good think about what you're getting out of your college experience. School isn't everything, but it can certainly seem like it when you're in it. If you devote all your time to "Learning & Labor," there might not be a whole lot left in your pot–and it's equally important to keep some in there, just for yourself. 

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