As I was beginning my final year at Oberlin, I felt I needed to choose once and for all the one path my life would take. From day to day my plans would change: I would become a social worker, or an Italian professor, or an interpreter, or maybe a translator. I wanted to combine everything I loved to do and find the one perfect profession that would encompass it all. My biggest concern, though, was the divide I thought existed between academia and civic engagement. I feared that if I pursued a career in academia, I would spend all of my time in a classroom or typing at a computer, only able to really help my community by donating my money or my limited time. Conversely, if I chose to work for a non-profit, I wouldn’t be a part of an academic community, which I love and have no desire to leave.
I have come to realize that academics and civic engagement can (and at Oberlin often do) go hand in hand. Although I didn’t know it then, finding a job at Oberlin Community Services (OCS) in my junior year was the first step towards bridging the academic/civic engagement divide. OCS is a non-profit organization on South Professor Street with a myriad of programs that help local low-income residents acquire food, pay their bills, receive presents for the holidays, and more. It was at OCS where finally, after two years here, I began meeting Oberlin residents who had little connection to the College. Regularly interacting with Oberlin and Lorain County residents was one of my most rewarding college experiences. I began to understand that I could both attend classes and become more connected with the town of Oberlin.
Because I had a Federal Work-Study award as part of my Financial Aid package, I was paid for my work through the Community Service Work-Study Program (CSWSP). I attended events with other CSWSP students where we reflected on the skills we were building and how we were helping various organizations. While my work at OCS did not explicitly connect with my academic courses, my Oberlin experience was much richer because of my time spent there. Furthermore, sometimes what I learned in school allowed me to be of extra assistance to the organization. I helped sign a monolingual Spanish-speaking woman up for a holiday food basket using the Spanish I had learned in hours and hours of class time. At first, the woman tried to use her limited English to communicate with me. However, by the end she was thanking me and calling me “mamita.”
I graduated in May 2008, but I’ve stayed to live and work in Oberlin because I love it here. I now work at the Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research on campus, which coordinates vast numbers of community services opportunities for college students, from the Community Service Work-Study Program to the Community Engagement Institute (both of which I have coordinated since graduating). I am still immersed in the rhythm of the college, but I am also more part of the City of Oberlin than I was as a student. I have met amazing people working at many of the local non-profits that provide much-needed programs for Oberlin and Lorain County residents, and also the incredible local service opportunities for Oberlin students. One of my very few regrets from my time at Oberlin is that I did not learn about the Bonner CSL until my third year.
I do not expect to remain in Oberlin much longer, however, wherever I go, I will take what I have learned with me: that academics and civic engagement can and should be combined, producing something far more enriching together than either alone. Whatever careers lie ahead me, I am confident that I will be able to do something with my life that will be both intellectually stimulating and will better my community.