Oberlin Blogs

You Must Be Like Fish!

April 26, 2023

Sean Norton ’25

Now, I know how much no one in your position wants to hear this, I certainly didn’t when I was applying to school, and I’m acutely aware as I write this how much I sound like my own uncle, but it’ll be fine! Honestly if you read no further, take this: The notion that there is an American higher education institution that’s the “perfect fit,” whatever that means for you, is bullshit. Seek that which makes you happy and regret not!

That being said, I think Oberlin is a pretty good place to be! I wouldn’t be here if I didn’t.

For your consideration, and to set up my punchy closer, here’s an abridged version of my path to Oberlin.

I went to a teensy tiny alternative school with no tests, no grades, and a huge emphasis on being intentionally anti-competitive, and in fact highly cooperative in everything we did. As a core component of that, the students had control over every aspect of the school and we, together with the staff, managed the school democratically. Did I mention this was a public school? Gotta love Ithaca. 

I could wax poetic about the alternative education theory and practice that shaped much of my teenage years, but the point here is that Oberlin has always been a popular choice of college for people at my high school–I think we’ve sent at least one person every year for over a decade. Oberlin is so popular there for two reasons: one, the cultural and aesthetic flavors of the two institutions are similar. I definitely felt right at home with the Oberlin crunch. And two, OSCA. I won’t give you the full rundown on the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association in this post, there’s lots of content about it elsewhere on the blogs if you search for “OSCA” or “co-ops” or something in that vein, and you should definitely check out their website I linked above.

A major part of the appeal of OSCA for folks from my high school–beyond the similar logistical structure of the day-to-day democratic practice of running the co-op–were the shared foundational concepts of power in loving community, radical self-governance, explicit anti-competition, et al. 

As such, Oberlin had been on my radar as a possible path for myself for many years. And being able to apply with just the base CommonApp made it a no brainer. 

I had a somewhat similar experience with Cornell University. I grew up in Ithaca, NY–a small college town that’s home to three universities including Cornell, although notably Ithaca is roughly 7 times larger than the exceptionally petite college town of Oberlin, OH. Cornell as an institution was present–in some form or another, both directly through spending time on the campus with my friends in middle and high school or being there for afterschool programs or summer camps, and indirectly as the main engine of my hometown–for most of my life. Consequently, although I was, and am, very critical of the institution, sticking around and seeking whatever it was I thought an Ivy League could offer me at the time was another path I saw for myself after high school. 

They weren’t the only schools I applied to, of course, I think my total was 6 in the end. It was almost seven, as I had a brief period of wanting to apply to MIT, just to see if I could get in, before discovering that they accepted approximately 0% of people with ACT math scores as low as mine, and promptly giving that up. So six it was, but there were only three I actually wanted to go to: Oberlin, Cornell–for all the reasons mentioned above, and I was curious if they’d even let me in, with my hippie-dippie 40-page gradeless transcript full of years of self-reflection about each course–and Brown, because I was pretty sure they would let me in with my aforementioned hippie-dippie application. 

I was jazzed about both Oberlin and Brown, and I interviewed for both places. I barely even recall my Oberlin interview beyond that I didn’t schedule it and just sat down across from the admissions rep at a coffee shop I saw him in after school, but I killed that Brown interview. It was great, the interviewer was a grad student studying education, and we just sat in a co-op grocery store and talked for 90 minutes about alternative education theory and how it compared to our practical experiences of it. She said it was the best interview she’d ever done, which of course left me feeling very very good, both about myself and my chances of getting into Brown. Unfortunately it wasn’t until much later that I learned how little interviews actually matter in the rather byzantine college admissions process. 

So there I was, sitting pretty, waiting for admissions decisions to come out, and lo and behold, I got accepted to Oberlin, but rejected from Cornell and Brown. This was admittedly disappointing, but it was also a great weight off my shoulders, because I really didn’t have a decision to make! I decided then and there that I was off to Oberlin, and life got much less stressful. 

Well lucky him, you might be saying, but I’m not in that situation, probably most people reading this aren’t, so big whup. What’s the point here, where’s the helpful advice and aforementioned punchy closer, huh? 

Well, the core of it is really what I said in the opening of this piece: it matters way less than it feels like it does right now. There'll be positive and negative aspects and experiences anywhere you choose to go, and of course you know that; I knew it, even if it didn’t feel true at the time.  

Let me put it this way. I’ve been studying in Athens this semester and fretting about my path in life, how to find meaning, yada yada. But recently a middle-aged Greek friend of mine, a delightfully charismatic man named Dimitris, with a sunny radiance to him that feels like the most supportive uncle you’ve ever met, told me that maybe I should go to culinary school, and followed with “Life is like a river! You know I went to school to be an HVAC technician on cargo ships that transport frozen meat, and now I own a bakery! You must be like fish!” (this accompanied by a swimming-fish hand gesture). 

Now I’m paraphrasing here, but the gist of his point was to embrace impermanence in life! Do something for a while, then do something else! But if there’s one thing Dimitris would never compromise on is: have a good time while you do it. 

It’s this more than anything else, that Oberlin has given to me. In the end, come May 1st, the choice I had to make was an easy one, but it was absolutely the right one. Few other places, at least at this scale of school, would I have had the space, flexibility, and opportunity to pursue the things that make me happy in life! Ceramics, strange art, funny little light shows, co-operative living, circus, glassblowing, you name it. 

There’s no one “right place” for you, or anyone, and anywhere and everywhere you go in life there’ll be good and there’ll be bad, but when it comes to college, I like it here. And I bet you will too.

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