Oberlin Blogs

What’s Kept Me at Oberlin

April 16, 2023

Ben Smith ’24

My final year at Oberlin is approaching and, with that, has come with some reflection about my time at Oberlin thus far. I have developed friendships that I cherish, made lovely music with said friends, pursued areas of study that pushed me academically, and overall felt like I’ve been making the most of my time here. With that said, the past 3 years of my life were filled with experiences outside of Oberlin that I could have never imagined, especially the last 8 months. They were the kind of experiences that led me to seriously decide whether to leave Oberlin, either by taking a semester of absence or withdrawing completely. This was something I never could have imagined myself considering, but in fact, I had actually submitted all the forms to take a leave of absence this semester. I talked extensively with my flute professor, Alexa, discussed with one of the Deans of the Conservatory, informed the orchestra directors of my decision, and began to tell all my friends. It made for quite a start (or, in my mind at the time, an end) to this semester. 

This blog of course signifies that I did not end up taking that leave. I stuck around for the regularly scheduled programming--no absence, no withdrawal. So, what happened? While I cannot divulge all the details here, I can say that the decision to stay was a very conscious choice. The opportunity I was presented with was (perhaps) of greater musical value than continuing my studies at Oberlin–which feels very strange for me to say and even now I don't fully know if I buy into that. The flip side of that situation was that I would have had to abandon this place, or at least, that’s how it was framed to me from the other party involved. The opportunity was perhaps the most monumental choice I’ve had to ever decide. Staying or leaving--that’s the ultimatum I was presented with. Everything was framed in a very black and white manner. "Which bridge to burn." No in the middle. Nothing.

It sounds dramatic, and honestly it was. Stressful; strange; a whole slew of other descriptors could be used to illustrate the situation. My life in music so far has taken me down some pretty strange paths, that’s for sure. Especially after coming back from being abroad, the thought of leaving Oberlin “permanently” was odd. The situation was especially confusing as it was happening, but although I felt like I was mentally imploding, everyone here at Oberlin met me with care and concern.

"What's happening with Ben? Is he okay?" – words I overheard from friends and professors alike.

Of course, some people had strong opinions about my decision--I was choosing to leave, after all--but I was told that, should things not work out, I was welcomed back.

“Just know that Oberlin will always be here no matter what happens.” – from a phone call with a dean two days before my decision. 

I can't emphasize enough that it was such a relief to hear those words back then. Every person I interacted with at Oberlin approached the situation with rationality, and their concern for my well-being meant a lot. 

When I was particularly stressed at Oberlin during my first two years, I found this place to be a little claustrophobic. You can't walk around this place without running into people you know; it's an hourly occurrence. Although this still holds true, I don't think I understood how it can actually be healing to have a community that supports you if you allow it. At the beginning of this semester, those small daily encounters were really soothing when my life felt like it was in shambles. No talk about the stress of moving across the world within a week's notice, no mentions of the emails that were making my stomach drop, no reference to the conditions I was being pressured into regarding the sacrfice of my personal freedom. The word about my situation only got out to my closest friends; thankfully I was able to undo the withdrawal quickly and get back on track. Likewise, most of my friends didn't know anything about what was happening to me behind the scenes, so this meant we just interacted as per usual. These friends couldn't have realized how helpful that was for me at the time. The feeling of normalcy, the re-realization that all I had to do here was go to classes and practice; how easy everything felt then! What was happening in my personal and professional life was unimaginable, but it allowed me to see that life here was much calmer by comparison.

Of course, life is never simple. Everyone everywhere has things going on that are bothering them, exciting them, stressing them, motivating them. Despite this, though, I've found this campus to be a place where I've felt comfort. Oberlin is not the only place where a person can feel this, but it's reassuring to know that it is one of them. As I go into my final year with this crazy semester nearly behind me, I'm looking at this place in a new light. It's weird that Oberlin is so small, yet I'm still discovering little things here and there that make me grateful things turned out the way they did--that I ended up here in this place with these people around me. 

Close up shot of pink flowers in bloom in Wilder Bowl.
And these flowers in Wilder Bowl, too--they're winners.


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