The Oberlin Stories Project

On choosing Oberlin

Diane C. Yu ’73

“I had devoted countless hours in high school to efforts to better integrate the Rochester school systems and didn’t want to go to a place where diversity was an afterthought.”

Diane Yu

I first heard about Oberlin from my father, who liked to listen to Oberlin Conservatory concerts on the radio. I remember visiting Oberlin during my senior year with my uncle and aunt, who lived in nearby North Olmsted, and my sister Lorraine. After we drove around the town, my first reaction was, “Is this all there is?” I wasn’t sure Oberlin was for me. I was worried that I might get bored — one of my great fears in life. Fortunately, that was never a problem.

When I went home and read more about Oberlin, I changed my mind — especially upon learning it was the first college to admit students regardless of gender, race, and religion. That legacy was important to me — the notion of a pioneering institution at a time of intense exclusion. I had devoted countless hours in high school to efforts to better integrate the Rochester school systems and didn’t want to go to a place where diversity was an afterthought. I also liked the idea of small classes, meaningful faculty-student interaction, and, truth be told, a chance for home-cooked meals at my uncle’s house from time to time.

Favorite Oberlin Recollections:

  • My freshman roommate, Susan Somers, was a Russian major, and we quickly named our room the “Bureau of Sino-Soviet Affairs.” We had a blast together.
  • My advisor, philosopher Dan Merrill, and his family more or less adopted me, hiring me as one of the family’s regular babysitters.
  • The most influential course I took my freshman year was a Winter Term project on Chinese Brush Painting and Calligraphy, taught by a visiting Chinese artist. The instructor spoke minimal English and told me that I had talent but really needed to master the language. So I signed up for a year’s worth of Mandarin Chinese at Stanford that summer. That move changed my life in numerous ways — I fell in love with California, which later became my home for 22 years, made my parents very happy, and found my major. I became Oberlin’s first inter-disciplinary major in East Asian Studies.
  • While living at Asia House, my favorite dorm, I co-founded the Asian American Alliance with some of the other Asian American students, and am delighted that it is still thriving. I also became involved with the Special Educational Opportunities Program and went with Oberlin’s first Native American student, Bob Yazzie, on an amazing trip throughout the Southwest, Northwest, and Alaska to develop ideas for a Native American-Alaskan Native Students’ Program at Oberlin.
  • I thought it was terrific that at almost any time of day, one could wander over to the Conservatory and hear a concert.
  • Oberlin was also the place I learned how to drive a stick shift, go backpacking, and run a movie projector (for the Social Board’s classic movie series).
  • One of the most unforgettable experiences was being part of the Oberlin Community Chorus, which conductor Robert Fountain assembled in May, 1970. We sang Mozart’s Requiem in Washington National Cathedral to honor the slain Kent State students.
  • Oberlin also gave me a memorable leadership opportunity — I was one of two students appointed to the Education Commission in 1970-72, which included deans, faculty, and administrators. Perhaps it was a precursor to my current employment at New York University — I couldn’t have predicted that, but it certainly was great to spend so much time with some of Oberlin’s top leaders as we grappled with trends in higher education and brainstormed about how Oberlin should prepare for the future.
  • I spent my senior year in the Oberlin-in-Taiwan program, intensifying my East Asian Studies work and enjoying the contrast in culture and society. For once, I was not the shortest person in the room! I stayed a second year to teach English as a Second Language at Tunghai University, and corresponded with several Oberlin professors. In fact, I asked five of them for advice on my next step, and four of them urged me to go to law school. Although I had never visited a law school, barely knew a lawyer, and had heard stories that women and minorities had to struggle to succeed in that profession, I took their advice. The only woman among 40 males, I sat for the LSAT at the U.S. Air Force base in Taipei and applied for law school.

That advice made a huge difference, and influenced virtually everything good in my life that has happened since: I got to return to California by attending law school at Berkeley; met the love of my life and husband, Michael Delaney; became a judicial officer; was appointed a White House Fellow; became General Counsel of the State Bar of California and won a case in the U.S. Supreme Court. All the while, I continued my advocacy on behalf of women and persons of color in the bar. After a stint as a Monsanto executive, I came to NYU, where I serve as Chief of Staff and Deputy to the President, as well as Executive Director of the Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Scholars Program in Abu Dhabi. It’s exhilarating to be where new frontiers are being shaped daily.

In the end, Oberlin gave me the tools and the confidence to enable me to find meaning in life. It’s been a great gift. Thank you, Oberlin.