The Oberlin Stories Project

On the freedom of a month of independent study

Emma Marshall ’18

“Winter term at Oberlin has taught me to follow my instinct. Winter term isn’t about finding a perfect project that will make your life story more exciting; it’s about finding yourself in a project.”

Emma takes a selfie with two calves on a winter day

At the beginning of my freshman year, any mention of winter term would send me into a frantic Google search of “where to go in January” and “winter term at Oberlin,” leaving me feeling more and more hopeless as the nights of fruitless searching continued. My feelings of despair were not from a lack of ideas but the thought that my winter term wouldn’t live up to my expectations. Going into Oberlin, I wanted to see the world but had already decided that once I graduated, I should plunge straight into the work world. To ensure I still was able to explore every inch of the planet, I decided I should travel to faraway places during my winter terms.

I brainstormed multiple exotic places to visit and thought of various activities to do that I would enjoy. I looked into the trips that Oberlin offered and attended the winter term fair. At the end of all of this, I was still met with agony. Trips were too expensive, others didn’t have adventures that I wanted, and some trips required fluently speaking languages I didn’t speak. My friends knew what they were going to do, and I felt stuck.

That was when I thought of farming. I had always dreamed of doing something called WWOOFing (Willing Workers on Organic Farms). WWOOFing is working on a farm and, instead of receiving payment, the WWOOFer receives food and board. I signed up on the official website so I could view the potential farms. Before long, after a few quick emails, I had signed up to stay at an organic vegetable/animal farm in Pennsylvania called Quarry Hill Farm. People questioned me about living with strangers, people asked if I would be able to survive the cold Pennsylvania winter outside, and others wondered if I would be able to deal with the smell of so many animals. I had absolutely no idea. I wasn’t even completely confident in my decision to go WWOOFing. I still had a feeling at the back of my mind that maybe there was something more impressive to do. However, the idea of farming excited me, and I had already told Quarry Hill Farm I would be at their door ready to go.

Looking back on those first few months at Oberlin, I understand I was more afraid of what other people would think of my project than about finding a project I would enjoy. Living on a farm was one of the most different yet extraordinary experiences I have ever had. I fell in love with the sheep, I collected thousands of eggs, I learned how to take selfies with cows, I was chased by over 200 chickens, I met a wonderful friend, and I became part of a family in Pennsylvania.

Winter term at Oberlin has taught me to follow my instinct. Winter term isn’t about finding a perfect project that will make your life story more exciting; it’s about finding yourself in a project. I was focused on finding something that I thought would make a huge impact on my life instead of following my simple interest in farming. I thought my perfect project would be exploring the world; instead I spent my time confined to the same 10 acres of land on which the animals lived.

The farm gave me the opportunity to reflect on my life in a new light. During my stay, I talked with other WWOOFers about their life adventures. One woman had lived in South Africa for many years with her children, while another woman had joined the Peace Corps after college. These stories, combined with the fresh air of farming, made me realize there are other options besides working in an office immediately after college. Additionally, instead of finding a “nice” internship the following summer, I found a farm to work at and continued my newfound passion of working outdoors.

Winter term doesn’t have to relate to your major, or what your friends are doing, or even be remotely impressive. It’s the chance to explore outside of your comfort zone and follow whatever crazy dreams you have. Oberlin gives you the chance to explore what you want to do. I am realizing over time they have countless resources to help you in whatever way you need. Since my first winter term, I have been able to live for a month with a family in Guadalajara, Mexico, and I experienced an amazing internship in Washington, D.C. Both of these wonderful opportunities came through Oberlin. Don’t let your thoughts get in the way of what you want to do, because in January at Oberlin, nothing should stop you.