The Oberlin Stories Project

On solidifying cross-generational friendships

Eleanor Van Buren ’17

“From the first reply I received from Francine Schutzman ’67, I knew we were on to something.”

Eleanor in front of a building with a tall clock tower

Somewhere between dusk and dawn, moonlight kissed the black water atop the Rideau Canal. We snaked along Colonel By Drive—the namesake for “Bytown,” the former name of Canada’s capital—north, towards the city.

Windows rolled down, wind whipped around us, and the few remaining Timbits™ rattled around in a cardboard carrier.

“Do you want a tour?”

I could barely hear the words, let alone the question mark at the end.


The introduction was inevitable. So we set off into the early morning, no other cars around, to see my new home for the next three months.

I tried to hold my breath as I listened to my voice mail, but I could see my slow exhales, white against the early December air. I was waiting to hear back from the U.S. Department of State regarding a student internship I applied for in October. As I listened to the message in the art building's courtyard after class, the kind voice on the recording picked up with more eagerness, and I began to register what I was hearing.

"We'd like to invite you to a post in Ottawa."

I sent only one inquiry looking for summer housing in Ottawa, Ontario to an alum in the Oberlin alumni network. Our email chains between February and late May reached into the late teens in terms of replies, but from the first reply I received from Francine Schutzman '67, I knew we were on to something.

"Foreign Service" in Canada lacks certain imagery and implications—seeing as Ottawa rests just an hour north of the New York border—but between the British spellings (the National Arts Centre) and Québec across the river (le français c'est partout), this contemporary city simultaneously represents the country's past while also housing the government that dictates its future. And as I've learned through my internship, the successes of Canada and the United States are codependent.

The U.S. Embassy stretches along Sussex Drive like a ship docked along the Ottawa River. On my first day I walked the scenic route along the canal, passing the historic Chateau Laurier, and climbed Major Hill's Park for views of the Canadian Parliament buildings. One of the many surrounding rivers flowed into the Rideau Falls, which acted like a curtain opening to reveal the city, and I paused to enjoy the moment.

Inside the embassy, I had some explaining to do. During the orientation, my new colleagues were surprised to hear where I attend school, and upon mentioning "Oberlin" and "Comparative Literature" in the same sentence, indeed, it was clear I was unlike the other interns who were studying international relations at large research universities. Though once inside the Management Office where I was assigned, I was relieved to find two English majors were my supervising officers. Armed with wicked senses of humor and backgrounds in teaching before joining the State Department, I'd like to believe the two were made for me, and—as I later found out—as their hand-picked office intern, I was made for them.

I looked forward to each workday to spend time with these personalities, and they made my office work less conventional and dull than I expected. My duties varied from delivering envelopes and making scans, to designing a mini putt-putt game during an office section open house for embassy employees—including the U.S. Ambassador.

Over time I became friends with a seasonal hire. We ate lunch outside when the weather wasn't too hot and complained about the way our business casual clothes trapped the humidity. Aside from learning tangible skills for the working world—reporting to meetings on time, responding with immediacy to tasks, behaving in a professional manner, and remembering names—we had fun, too. We called each other from phones at various desks throughout the day, a name assigned to each phone appearing on the caller I.D. I was "Rhonda," while I greeted him as "Tiffany." There were concerts on the weekends with his family and celebrations together on holidays. I invited his family to a Canada Day barbeque hosted at Francine's. I was happy to bring together two families whose friendship has meant so much to me this summer.

As a student with an unpaid internship, I realized the importance of reaching out to my resources, and utilizing the Oberlin alumni network proved the best place to start. Francine graciously provided me with a place to stay and looked after me with the utmost generosity. When Francine put me in touch with her fellow Oberlin Conservatory alum, Ms. Barbara Todd Simard '68, a flutist one year behind her in school, I was met with the same generosity. A trend began developing.

On a special visit to Québec City with my father, we met Barbara in the early evening, sitting outside on the garden patio of her centuries, literally, centuries-old home in Vieux-Québec, or Old Québec. For two hours, our topics ranged from her learning French as a young musician in a symphony in Québec, to memories of Oberlin and how much it has changed—and how much it has not. The most poignant moment to me was when Barbara relayed her time at Oberlin as a young white woman from Mississippi in the late 1960s. Stereotypes, mixed with her slower speech and Southern drawl, made Oberlin not as welcoming as she imagined it to be, and I couldn't help but reflect on instances during my time on campus when "Oberlin's open-mindedness" held double standards. I left Québec with a lot of respect for her wisdom.

My lively conversations with Francine not only lessened the distance in time between us—I often forgot 50 years separate our graduating classes—but also our difference in passions. She graduated from the Conservatory and worked as a professional oboist for 43 years, but as we moved into deeper conversations and laughed like old friends the differences did not compare. Grateful for Saturday morning bike rides with John, Francine's husband, and after-work table talk with Francine, I have felt so fortunate to have found two outstanding hosts. Throughout my I experience I thought Francine was the exception when it comes to demonstrating kindness and empathy—and I am right that Francine is exceptional—but as an Oberlin alum, Francine is the exception and the rule because all Oberlinians carry themselves with a sense of service to others in the community.

At the Canada Day barbecue, I introduced the mother of my friend to Francine, and the two began chatting away fervently. The mother found me later, only roughly knowing my connection to Francine before they met.

"So you're both Oberlin? I could tell."

When Francine visits campus this September as a part of an alumni function, I look forward to introducing her to my friends. And I'm sure we will both advocate for my friends to meet with her fellow alumni friends, too. Upon telling me of her visit, there was a slight pause before she continued. Francine asked me a question, not unlike the way she enthusiastically asked if I wanted to tour Ottawa, an hour after arriving, at two in the morning.

"Want me to stay an extra day in Oberlin? We could spend that Friday together."

We both knew the answer as soon as she said it.