The Oberlin Stories Project

On opportunities and the people who help you grab them

Jane Clark ’16

“The people I have met at Oberlin have recognized potential in me that I did not know existed and held me together when I felt that I might crack.”

Group of people posing on steps

My sophomore year was a whirlwind. Many opportunities came my way to which I could simply not say, “No.” (Undoubtedly, it was a privilege to have this problem.)

It began in November. As Food Safety Coordinator of Harkness Dining Co-op, I prepared to do my rounds through the kitchen. Entering through the swinging kitchen door I winced to see that one of OSCA’s cleanliness and maintenance coordinators (CMCs), Abby, was lugging a couple of crates of milk over to the sink: they were past the expiration date and I had missed it. I hastily dropped my backpack and started the process of emptying the jugs, apologizing for my oversight as I did. It had been a small mistake. Nevertheless, while I popped off the tops and broke the seal of cream at the mouth of the jug, every doubt I had about my tenure as an FSC came bubbling to mind.

It took me by surprise when a couple of minutes later Abby asked, “Have you thought at all about applying for CMC?” I had. In fact, the application was sitting on my desk just one floor above us. The paper had been lying there while I pondered whether I was ready to make the leap. Was I ready to work with eight co-ops and 600-odd people? Abby seemed to think I was. A couple days later OSCA’s food safety advisor asked me the same question. At dinner that night, OSCA’s president said, “You’re applying for CMC, right?”

They were simple and straightforward inquiries, but they were delivered with smiles and heart-warming affirmation. That night I pushed my doubts aside and filled out the form.

In the spring my duties as CMC began, as did an unbelievable streak of opportunity. I seized each new possibility with relish and tried to rebalance my ever-increasing workload.

Walking up to the library one day, I ran into my former advisor, a professor of East Asian studies. “Jane, have you thought about applying to the Associated Kyoto Program?” Between my language classes, upper level seminars, geology exams, and OSCA duties, I hurriedly put together application materials for the Japanese study abroad program.

With summer coming up, I searched for jobs and internships. The man who had run my winter term project—an Oberlin alumnus and executive director of a sustainability non-profit—emailed me: “I want to touch base with you on our summer internships and ascertain your interest in serving as the project manager.” Every day, the birds were chirping as I climbed into bed after working on applications for summer stipends and housing.

In a meeting with one of my advisors, she said, “Oberlin has received a grant from the Luce Initiative on East Asian Studies and the Environment. We may be looking for an assistant. Would you be interested?” I squeezed in meetings to prepare for my duties the following year.

My planner never left my side and my color coordinated Google Calendar filled up like a Christmas tree. Every new possibility put a spring in my step, but I wondered which would be the straw to break the camel’s back—

Sorry to disappoint, reader. There was no final straw. The shoe doesn’t drop. Finals were a doozie, but I pulled through (although I was a little dazed and averse to daylight by the end). How? There’s no big secret, no ultimate trick. I ate my vegetables every day. I took each assignment one step at a time. In some ways, it was just the little things that you can’t let yourself stop doing.

Above all else, it was the fact that I wasn’t doing this alone. The straw that would have broken me alone couldn’t break me and the support I found in the people around me: the people who entrusted me with wonderful responsibilities and the people who showed me the small kindnesses that made me resilient. My professors graciously gave me (many) extensions on my papers and (many) words of encouragement. My loved ones dragged me away from my work when I couldn’t do that for myself. My friends and peers—many of them similarly overloaded—always had a moment to hear me vent my frustrations.

I’ve heard it said that Oberlin students can do anything. There are two sides to that phenomenon: first, that Oberlin students constantly challenge themselves to achieve a higher standard; second, that we are glorified for pushing ourselves to the point of collapse. I suppose that is the case at many institutions of higher learning. As I started the college application process I knew that there were many places I could get a world-class education: the kind with rigorous classwork and exciting opportunities to develop a fulfilling career, the kind that would push me to my limits.

But there was really only one place where I could meet the kind of people who would help me live a world-class life. The people I have met at Oberlin have recognized potential in me that I did not know existed and held me together when I felt that I might crack. This upcoming semester as I add “academic ambassador” to my list of responsibilities, I look forward to watching some young Obies’ new lives unfold: their trials, their triumphs, and the network of support that stands with them through it all.

Take care of each other, dear Obies.

(But don’t forget to take care of yourself, too.)