The Oberlin Stories Project

On being a life-long learner

Hidong Kim ’87

“The same crackling energy I felt at Oberlin when immersing myself in new learning I now feel in medical school... Once again, the academic rigor I acquired at Oberlin lights my path.”

Three people, one wearing a lab coat

“Just when I thought I was out...they pull me back in.” Immortal words of Michael Corleone from The Godfather: Part III. They came to mind during my recent move back to Cleveland, back to northeast Ohio, 22 years after I graduated from Oberlin.

I’d crisscrossed the country after leaving Oberlin as a chemistry major. Right after graduation it was off to Harvard, where I earned a Ph.D. in protein X-ray crystallography. Then a cross-country drive west (I-80) from Boston to Seattle, where I was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Washington. When it came time to find a job, a colleague and I started our own biotech company in the Seattle area. I managed to keep myself employed there for ten years, even through two acquisitions.

Through all those different places and positions, I never stopped thinking about Oberlin. Oberlin was, and is ever more, a fantastic place to be and attend college. No doubt you’ve heard from friends, family, and alums of the amazing and unique learning opportunities available at the College, Conservatory, Allen Memorial Art Museum, and Apollo Theatre. While I was living in Seattle, I had the great delight of attending the Conservatory’s 2009 West Coast Tour performances in Seattle and Los Angeles. How many other colleges could offer such opportunities for their students and alums? (My guess: none.)

Holding all of this great educational experience together is academic rigor. For me, “Learning and Labor” was a way of student life. The teaching and learning at Oberlin are nonpareil. When I left Oberlin, I knew that I could compete with anyone in my field. All of the prized fellowships won by Oberlin students since my time on campus show that academic rigor continues to shine bright at Oberlin.

And now to my present time, in Cleveland. It turns out that “Learning and Labor” wasn’t just a student way of life for me. It’s my total way of life. I recently decided to quit my job and return to school. I drove east, back across the country (I-90 this time, much more scenic than I-80) from Seattle to Cleveland. I’m now a student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, Class of 2013. Here’s a picture of me with my parents (the boy finally made it to medical school!) on the eve of my first day of class, July 2009. It’s quite a thrill being back in school, especially when most of my classmates were born the same year I graduated from Oberlin. The same crackling energy I felt at Oberlin when immersing myself in new learning I now feel in medical school; and likewise I don’t know how they expect us to learn so much material. Once again, the academic rigor I acquired at Oberlin lights my path.

To all Oberlin students, alums, parents, and prospects: you’ll never know what your life will become. The life of a middle-aged medical student would’ve been too outre for me to imagine. Ever. Even now, almost. And yet, attending medical school isn’t the most unexpected thing that’s happened to me. The most unexpected thing that happened to me was being elected to the Oberlin College Board of Trustees. When I was a student at Oberlin, I barely even knew what the board was. Now that I’m on the board, I’m able to see what an amazing operation Oberlin is. The extent of Oberlin’s efforts to profoundly change people’s lives humbles me.

The best way to prepare for the unexpected life is to surround yourself with the best. At my Ph.D. commencement, our dean told us that it’s better to be a chicken sitting on an eagle’s eggs than it is to be an eagle sitting on a chicken’s eggs. There’s no better place to surround yourself with the best teachers, students, and experiences than Oberlin. Be excellent.