I deeply admired Alex Cunningham since my days as a prospective student. I first learned who she was after browsing through the Oberlin Blogs. Her blogs impressed me—she was able to articulate some of the most intimate parts of her college experience to a broad audience. Lengthy and substantive, I must’ve read through every one of her entries before I stepped foot on campus.
It soon became clear, after finally starting my time at Oberlin, that the excellence I witnessed online was just as magnificent in person. I admired how she carried herself around campus. Seeing her proudly represent her authentic self to everyone—whether that was the president or a prospective student—was both mystifying and intimidating. Watching her both commit to scholarship with multiple majors and continue to actively engage in work around the Africana community and enjoy the leisures of life at Oberlin was as awe-inducing as it was horrifying.
Why horrifying? I saw so many things in her that I wanted to imitate and replicate. So many excellent qualities, stuff that I couldn’t read in a book or buy off Amazon. I wanted to be Alex, or at least I thought so at the time.
Luck would have it that as I started to ground my footing at Oberlin, Alex took me under her wing. She encouraged me to apply to various campus job opportunities, including the Oberlin Blogs. She told me what professors to make sure I took courses with before I graduate. She held me when I was low, and on many occasions fed me when I was hungry.
Eventually, she left (read: graduated) at the end of the year. Oberlin had its time with her, and she was free to change the world in the profound ways she saw fit. I was still here, and it felt like my time to take on Oberlin was here.
I’ve been thinking about Alex a lot lately. Three years down in the books with one year left to go and I really can’t help but think a lot, often. Like Ed Sheeran, I started thinking out loud with one of my friends a few weeks ago. I was telling Alex’s story, talking about the qualities I’d seen in her, and what I had hoped to be.
In the middle of our conversation, my friend interrupted. “You know you’ve also become those things, right?” I paused. It hadn’t occurred to me until that moment in Mudd, sitting in a hot small study room with dim lighting, that all this time later I’m exactly what and where I wanted to be.
There’s something rather straightforward about goals when you set them explicitly. They can be static: “I’d like to finish this essay by 5pm.” Finish the paper at 4:45pm and boom. You’re done. Paper complete. Some goals exist in the abstract. “I’d like to learn to be this thing, to exhibit these qualities, to practice these virtues, etc.” These goals are much more opaque. The finish line isn’t clearly delineated, measuring your progress can be difficult, and often they leave you without the satisfaction of being able to say “Yes, I’ve finished this. I’m done.” I had a goal to be something, but I didn’t know what I wanted to be.
What I once perceived as a desire to be Alex I eventually discovered was a gift from her, a fruit of her sweet and generous personality. Alex gifted me a vision in which I could dream of who I wanted to be, with representation that allowed me to believe without constraint. She was the representation and an elevation of the very things I'd been too naive to think I could ever achieve. I’m where I wanted to be, and I’m so happy it’s as marvelous and fulfilling as I thought it would be.
I’m thankful for people like Alex. Folks who can give themselves to others so that others can realize themselves. And it only works because they’re authentic. We are often not trying to mimic their gifts, but their gift of sharing themselves with the world so authentically that it drives others to share their own. That’s special. And if I leave nothing else at Oberlin, I hope I was able to help someone live authentically, without reservation, in their richness.