Oberlin Blogs

Winter Term, Part I

January 11, 2015

Brendan Nuse ’17 and Frances Casey ’17

I'm writing this post from Sarasota, Florida. It is 70 degrees and sunny. This is a far cry from where I was this time last January - Oberlin, Ohio in the middle of the polar vortex, when it got down to -40 degree wind chill. That's Winter Term for you.

Winter Term can be confusing for people who haven't experienced it, so I'll try my best to explain it. Basically, in between the Fall and Spring semesters, we have a one-month period to do a project. That project can be pretty much anything you can think of. This can be pretty daunting, especially if you are someone like me who is not especially creative. Therefore, Frances and I have decided that we will do a mini-series of blog posts about Winter Term - one at the beginning of Winter Term and one at the end.

The best way to understand exactly what Winter Term is to see as many examples of Winter Term projects as possible. One thing that confused me when I was a prospective Oberlin student was that I had pretty much only heard about "quirky and fun" projects when it turns out that you can also do more "serious and boring" projects, which are a little more my style. As much as I think it would be cool to work on my pirate impression for six hours a day for an entire month, it's not really something I see myself doing. Hopefully this post will realize that no matter what kind of person you are, there is something that you will enjoy doing for Winter Term!

For this post, I enlisted a couple of my friends to write a little bit about what they did for Winter Term last year, what they're doing this year, and their expectations for their Winter Term this year. At the end of this month, we'll check back in with them and see how their Winter Term turned out.

Caroline '17

Last year I spent my winter term on campus working with the Environmental Dashboard, which is an ongoing project headed by Professor John Petersen in the Environmental Studies department. The Environmental Dashboard is a multifaceted project whose main purpose is to provide visual feedback regarding energy consumption (think the flashing energy orbs you see in most Oberlin dorms...also Ecolympics) and to educate people about natural resource flows. (They also have a website if you're interested in finding out more: www.environmentaldashboard.org/.) During the month of January there were a variety of tasks I had to complete which ranged from helping form lesson plans for environmental education in Oberlin's public schools, developing questions (with Brendan!) for a survey measuring systems thinking skills, helping co-present the Dashboard at a meeting related to the Western Reserve Land Conservancy, and getting to write a blog post for the Dashboard about my experiences.

Overall, I liked the variety of the things I did as part of my winter term project and being involved in an organization that interacts heavily with the community of Oberlin. My participation and interest in this project extended past the end of winter term since I took a private reading for work on the Dashboard this past spring and I took a class called "Practicum in Ecological Communication" (ENVS 354) - which is based around doing projects for the Dashboard - this past semester as well.

Another thing I really enjoyed during my on-campus winter term was eating (also with Brendan!) in the Kosher-Halal Co-op (KHC), which is located in Talcott. I hadn't eaten in a co-op up until that point and it was great to have a (literal) taste of that experience without having to commit for a full semester. It was fun to get to know people within the co-op, which was fairly small at least for the month I ate in it and the weekly - and delicious - Shabbat dinners the space hosted were something I looked forward to.

Things I disliked about my winter term didn't really have to do with my winter term project. Oberlin received two rounds of the "Polar Vortex" last January as well. Though I come from a cold part of the country, I was not prepared for how miserably frigid Oberlin became on several occasions this last January. That's not to say I didn't enjoy spending winter term on campus, though, since a lot of people from my dorm who I knew were also spending their winter term in Oberlin, so it was nice to bond with them. Despite the cold, there's also something kind of nice about Oberlin when there are only a fraction of students present on campus, so I definitely don't regret my decision to stay there for winter term.

For my current winter term project I am going to be completing an informal internship at the Craftsbury Outdoor Center in Craftsbury, VT. I live about 10 miles from this outdoor center, which is a non-profit that specializes in lifelong sports (which in the winter means cross-country skiing) and environmental sustainability. The bulk of my internship is most likely going to be working with school-age children and teaching them to ski.

I am an avid cross-country skier and I'm looking forward to spending a month in my home state spreading love of the sport and doing activities related to it.

Sami '17

Last year for winter term I read books by Dickens and Theodore Dreiser and wrote a paper about religion and capitalism. It was fun and I learned a lot, plus I got the opportunity to read some books that had been on my list for awhile.

This year, I'm interning with a theater company in New York. It has already exceeded my expectations in the sense that I am actually onstage in the play and I even have to dance, but I had thought that I was just going to be helping out backstage. I have no experience in theater, so I am certainly learning.

Brendan Nuse aka The Best Person in '17

As Caroline mentioned, I did pretty much the exact same project that she did last year and she did a better job of describing it than I ever could, so I will not go into much detail about that except in how it inspired my project this year.

My first semester at Oberlin was really awesome, so I was sure that I wanted to stay on campus for Winter Term. While my reasoning made sense at the time and I really enjoyed my January, it was not something I wanted to try again this year. Winter is my least favorite season and I hate the cold - don't ask me why I decided to go to school in Ohio. I also ate in the Kosher-Halal Co-op, and, while that was overall a good experience, meals got cancelled enough that I wanted to make sure I had a more secure source of food in future Winter Terms. Also, while I love Oberlin, spending such a long time in a row with the same people in close quarters can make anyone a little testy. Despite all this, I loved getting to work on the Environmental Dashboard project.

That led me to my situation this year. I decided that I had to get out of Oberlin and head for somewhere warm, so I am staying with my grandparents in Florida. I managed to find an internship with the Sierra Club in Sarasota, and it has been going well so far. I am working on a clean water campaign and seeing what the activist life is really like. I've accomplished all my goals from last year - I am getting out of the Oberlin bubble and into warm weather with food available. I'm looking forward to the rest of the month!

These are just a few of the unlimited options for Winter Term. I have friends who have done Aikido, learned Russian, built a 3D printer, blogged, learned to cook, gone to Guatemala, written a book, researched bats, worked at a zoo, and pretty much anything else you can come up with. While I was originally intimidated by how open-ended Winter Term is, it is really this open-endedness that makes Winter Term so great. This is your time to do whatever you want to, so do what you want!

Greetings from San Rafael, California, where I am surrounded by books about herbalism and botanical medicine, the smells of lavender, chamomile, and blue vervain, and several black cats vying for my attention. Where's my broom? I have never felt more like a cartoon witch in my life.

This Winter Term, I am going to be teaching myself about herbalism (with a lot of help from some library books and the internet) and attempting to make some herbal remedies and medicines at home in California. I'm going to be doing a lot of reading about the origins of herbalism around the world, and will be journaling about my experience. A couple of months ago, when I was trying to decide what I was going to spend the month of January doing, it was a particularly stressful week during which I had to write two giant papers, it was getting colder, and at the time, chilling out at home and making my kitchen smell like a giant tea bag sounded like exactly what I wanted to do.

So far, things have been going well. In Northern California, there is no shortage of shops that specialize in alternative medicine and sell all the different ingredients I may need to make infusions, tinctures, and teas. There are plenty of books in the local library about indigenous herbalism and herbal recipes--some of them even have a waiting list. I can buy hunks of beeswax at the grocery store. Overall, I'm not worried about having access to the ingredients I need.

I'm also happy to be away from the Oberlin Winter™. One of the reasons why I've spent the last two Winter Terms away from the Midwest is because I honestly think I wouldn't be able to handle it. This Californian will take her 50-degree winters, thank you very much. I sometimes wish all my friends on the Oberlin campus right now could be transported here, though. I'm sure they wouldn't mind, either.

I asked my friend Katie about her Winter Term experiences, and she had this to say:

"Last year I made an Independent Project from two half projects. For one half project I took a sign language course in New York, and for the other half I went to some art workshops at a school near my house. I really enjoyed both of my halves! I had previously taken the sign language ExCo at Oberlin and absolutely loved it, so taking a secondary level class was really cool and fun! I also enjoyed the art classes I took, though I found them more difficult. I purposefully took courses that employed mediums and styles I don't normally use to try to push myself out of my comfort zone, and I found the experience equally rewarding and frustrating. This year I'm doing an Independent Project again. I took an introductory Shakespeare course in the fall and I'm taking a course on Shakespearean tragedies in the spring, so I decided to read four Shakespearean comedies I hadn't read before. I'm reading Much Ado About Nothing, Measure for Measure, The Taming of the Shrew, and Twelfth Night, and am writing two comparative essays discussing various themes in the plays. So far it's been great! I love having the flexibility to create my own schedule and to do my reading wherever I want."

I also came home for my Winter Term last year, and it was overall a good experience, but it definitely could have been better. I created a black-and-white photography project, which consisted of me photographing people I knew at their favorite place outside in the natural world, places like a Eucalyptus grove, a hidden beach, and wetlands in a state park. I then developed the film and printed the photographs in a darkroom. I used the darkroom at my old high school, which was really convenient because I was able to use it for free, but also involved me seeing a lot of people I knew and feeling really weird being back at my old haunts that I was so happy to leave behind six months earlier. The amount of time I spent working each day was also super irregular; there were days I would spend waaaay too much time in the darkroom (I could practically feel the chemicals damaging my neural pathways), and some days when I wouldn't devote nearly as much time to the project as I should have. This happened mostly because I had to coordinate with the schedules of the people I was photographing, my high school photography teacher's schedule, and the weather. I ended up being satisfied with what I had accomplished, but I would advise anybody putting together an independent project to consider where and how their time will be divided every day, and how factors outside of their control could interfere with their enjoyment of the project. Winter Term is supposed to be fun, after all.

There are limitless possibilities for Winter Term projects. I've known Obies who have traveled to places like Israel and Rwanda, studied poetry or read the complete works of a specific author, had an internship relevant to their career interests, and watched the entirety of Breaking Bad. I think that Winter Term is one of the most valuable ingredients to an Oberlin education, because it allows you to fully immerse yourself in education outside of the classroom, in whatever way works best for you. It's also unique in that many similar liberal arts colleges do not incorporate anything similar to Winter Term into their curriculums. Expect another Winter Term dispatch at the end of January, and stay warm!

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