There and Back Again, and Again, and Again
April 10, 2015
Margaret Saunders ’16
'Tis the season of tours and prospies, and of course the most popular question we current students are asked to answer is, "Why did you choose Oberlin?"
I've never liked this question, because if you are a high school senior, you know--or will soon find out--that you and your classmates will choose your colleges based on an infinite number of reasons, and though we may end up at the same school, no two people will make the same choice to get here. Case in point: I discovered Oberlin at a college fair, toured the school twice and had an interview before applying, and chose it because it was a small, liberal arts college that was a reasonable distance from home. My freshman roommate discovered Oberlin though a poster hanging on the wall of her high school...in Karachi, Pakistan. She'd never set foot on campus before committing, and she'd applied to nearly twice as many schools as I had. Two very different paths, and yet here we are, Obies roommates for three years.
So instead of telling you why I chose Oberlin three years ago, I'd like to pose a better question: why did I choose to stay at Oberlin?
I didn't really have an answer to this question until this semester. Last spring, I was scrambling to finish my sophomore year and solidify my plans to study abroad in the fall. It was a hectic time, and in the vein of most students at the end of spring semester I was tired, stressed, and overworked. As I ran around campus between my classes and my job, I thought about getting on a plane in the fall as if it was a space shuttle and I was an astronaut; leaving behind all my problems and worries and embracing the thrill of exploring the unknown. At the time, my greatest fear about studying abroad was that my absence on campus simply wouldn't be felt. My friends would forget me, my professors wouldn't notice my absence, my spot at Oberlin would essentially be filled again, and when I returned, there'd be nothing left to return to. I spent my final weeks glaring at how beautiful the campus had turned in the late spring, putting on a show after months of terrible winter as if Ohio itself was mocking me.
Just as I was the only student from my high school graduating class to go to Oberlin, I was the only Oberlin student in my program in Prague, Czech Republic. Of the other American students in my classes, over half were from large state schools in the South. Everyone seemed to be involved in fraternities or sororities, which I had almost forgotten existed. This and other experiences really drew my attention to what many people call the "Oberlin bubble," and I didn't even know just how real the "bubble" was until I had to venture outside of it.
Living in Prague couldn't have been more different from living in Oberlin. I had never lived in a city before, never had to shop for and prepare all of my food on my own schedule and budget. In Oberlin, I can get pretty much anywhere on campus within 15 minutes of walking, or 5 minutes of biking. In Prague, my commute to the study center took 30 minutes and two tram lines both ways, as well as a daily hike up and down the largest hill in the city. Not to mention the language barrier--I've told many friends and family about the time I looked up the Czech word for "flour" before going grocery shopping, only to get to the store and realize that of course, there are at least five different kinds of flour, and all of them have different names.
One of the biggest things I realized while abroad is how much I value the community I have at Oberlin. Of course I missed my closest friends, but I also missed going to blues dances, recitals and concerts at the conservatory, attending student theater shows and performances. I turned down three-to-five Facebook event invitations per week, joking to my friends that they should stoping inviting me by now because "if you haven't noticed, I'm still not on campus." I tried not to be too bitter about one of my courses in Prague that was almost maddeningly easy, while back on campus the one-time art conservation course I really wanted to take was going on. Back at Oberlin, just last week a total stranger struck up a conversation with me in DeCafe, something that wasn't impossible in Prague due to the quiet nature of the city locals and my very limited Czech.
Like all things, I got used to Prague. I memorized my tram routes (and the tram announcements) and went to wine tastings, gallery shows, and museum tours. My friends and I explored local restaurants and secondhand clothing stores. On one very memorable day, I went to a cafe alone and actually managed to speak to and order a coffee from the barista entirely in Czech. Prague was a beautiful and fascinating city, and I never regretted choosing to study and live there for four months. But in the midst of all the adventure and excitement, there were times when I was simply bored, lonely, and homesick. Other friends who have studied abroad said they felt the same: being in a foreign country is often new and different and wonderful, but after the honeymoon period you begin long for something that's solid, something that's static. Culture shock comes with an unexpected and unfair amount of inexplicable melancholia.
One of the highlights of my semester abroad was visiting three friends from Oberlin, two in London, UK, and one in Córdoba, Spain. Though I wasn't friendless in Prague, when I rejoined my fellow Obies I felt like I had found a small part of what I missing. I've never been afraid to venture to new places alone, but there's something different about traveling with your friends. I finally understood why so many other American students came to Prague in big groups from their fraternities or sororities, why it was comforting to them to be surrounded by something familiar. At same time, I still felt a little sorry for their situation: it would always be harder for them to make strides on their own, to venture completely out of their comfort zones. Once you have a taste of something familiar in an unfamiliar place, you want to cling to it so that you don't feel afraid. When I visited my Oberlin friends, we had already spent most of our semesters by ourselves. We were eager to see other, but we were also eager to share with each other. When one of my London friends returned the favor by visiting me in Prague, I felt at last like I had accomplished something by leaving Oberlin. I was confident to be her guide to the city, proud enough to teach her what I'd learned about Prague.
In January, I came back to campus. Cold, snowy, mostly empty for Winter Term, it felt almost surreal. Somehow I almost expected everything to be unrecognizable, but there was the museum, there was the memorial arch, there were the restaurants I'd eaten in dozens of times and the buildings where I'd sat in classes for two years. My parents helped my roommate and I move into our new dorm in Talcott and got us sandwiches from The Feve for dinner, which is probably the most Oberlin sentence I've ever written. Out of our new windows we could see the conservatory garden, draped in snow and gleaming in the streetlights, the bell tower of the FAVA building just visible in the skyline. It's not as grand as my old view of Prague Castle, but it's beautiful, and it's home.
Why did I choose to stay at Oberlin? Because I felt welcomed. Because I felt safe. Because I felt challenged and inspired. Because I learned a lot of life lessons the hard way here, and I feel stronger and wiser for it. I chose this place three years ago, and though I was glad I chose to leave for a time, I was gladder that I would return. I chose to stay here because I believe that when I graduate, I will feel that same sense of accomplishment that I felt when I looked out over the skyline of Prague every morning: it will have been a long and arduous hike, but in the end you can see for miles.
So to you high school seniors and juniors, or prospies of any age or indecision: while you walk around campus, while you browse the college website, while you read this entry, don't ask yourself if you want to come to Oberlin next year. Ask yourself: would I want to come back?
And if you do, I'll see you soon.
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