For some students, the department of their major is simply the place where most of their classes are held and where their advisor’s office is situated. For others, their department holds more significance. While there is no right or wrong way to relate to one’s department, in my case, having struggled to find my place in college, the Oberlin Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry came to mean the most to me, and my journey to this epiphany has brought me many meaningful friendships and relationships both inside and outside my major.
One early January night halfway through my sophomore year, I sat in the car of Professor Rebecca Whelan, chair of the chemistry department, at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, destined for Oberlin and buzzing with a mixture of excitement and exhaustion. We happened to be on the same connecting flight from Chicago to Cleveland when she offered me a ride, and having just been on a 16-hour flight inbound from Hong Kong meant that there had been plenty of time for me to think and reflect after an emotionally and academically trying semester. On top of that, I was just about to begin my very first winter term at Oberlin, conducting research under Professor Albert Matlin, an organic chemist. I was eager yet nervous to begin research experience at Oberlin, as I knew of almost no one returning to campus during the month of January and hoped to make something of myself.
Professor Whelan and I had met a mere one semester earlier, at the start of a weekly Friday pizza dinner that I highly recommend attending, called Socializing with Scientists. At our introduction, she was confused at why she, the department chair, had not yet met me, a declared major. This brings us back to nearly a full year before our car ride, to the tragic death of Professor Jesse Rowsell, my mentor and the late husband of Professor Whelan. It was after his death and during Professor Whelan’s subsequent leave that I realized I knew almost no one in the now grief stricken department, and, determined to become a part of what I had come to know as close and supportive community, declared a major in biochemistry as a second semester freshman. I’d introduced myself as a chemist since orientation, but a spark had been lit in me to really try to be a part of something bigger.
Several deep conversations and about 30 miles later, we arrived in Oberlin. I quickly crossed the span of freezing midwestern January air and made it to my dorm, praying that swipe access had been activated for the start of the term. I waved to Professor Whelan, who kindly waited for me to enter the building, and readily crossed the threshold into warmth, commencing winter term.
That January set the foundation for one of my greatest semesters at Oberlin. Over winter term and under Professor Matlin, I gained confidence in my lab work and got to befriend older student researchers who were already engrossed in the chemistry department and greater scientific community. When the bulk of the student body returned for the semester, my good habits continued, and I spent more and more time with some of the most compassionate students I had met who also had a drive for knowledge and a passion for school, both inside and outside my major. I spoke confidently with professors across departments during office hours, was more visible to the student body by starting my job as a resident assistant, worked hard and performed well in my classes, and felt like a lighter, brighter individual in general.
Those months marked the turning point I needed to begin a positive climb in my own personal history. It’s never too late to start a pattern of personal growth – my freshman-year wish to become closer to my department finally came true by the end of my sophomore year, and at the conclusion of my spring research in Professor Matlin’s lab, I made sure to thank him for being a part of my change. Having the opportunity to get involved in my department by meeting faculty and getting to know other students did a lot for me.