The Oberlin Stories Project

On changing intellectual pursuits

Joshua Morse ’12

“Oberlin [gave] me the chance to see that I could find that same level of fulfillment and meaning in any field that struck my fancy.”

A small bird is perched on Joshua's finger

It is senior spring, unseasonably warm, and the American toads have come out to spawn weeks early. A friend and I are passing the small pond by the environmental studies building, and for a lark I whistle them up with a high, trilling note, sustained just long enough to inflame their competitive spirits. When I stop, the whole pond is alive with an amphibian chorus. My friend is delighted, and surprised.

“How’d you learn to do that?” he asks.

I smile as I answer. “Aural Skills 101.”

My interest in the local amphibians is perhaps to be expected. Following a life-long interest in natural history, I graduated in 2012 with a degree in biology. The pitch-perfect imitation of a courting toad, however? That speaks to something more essential, a quality which brought me to Oberlin as a double-degree student, and which has continued to flourish here even after I dropped my degree in French horn performance.

I came to Oberlin knowing I wanted to play French horn, but not to the exclusion of all else. Enrolled in the double-degree program, I figured I’d probably major in English or environmental studies in order to preserve my sanity, and devote the bulk of my energy to the love of music that had become the cornerstone of my sense of self in high school.

Even just a few days into my freshman fall, it was clear that I’d come to the right place. I saw the same drive to improve and grow and share that had led me to the conservatory mirrored in every student in every field, in the college and in the con. In high school, the only people who exhibited a similar kind of motivation to master a skill and then take it out into the world were my fellow musicians. But by the end of my first Oberlin semester, I had discovered a community of 3,000 where cooking, activism, atmospheric chemistry, and swing dancing were all approached with the same wonderful energy.

That energy proved infectious—not in the sense that it spread from Oberlin to me, since I’d possessed it as a musician from the start—but because at Oberlin it rapidly spread from music to every other corner of my life. Topics that I’d never been led to believe were worth pursuing, like my age old interests in birds and fish and amphibians, were suddenly becoming the subject of 2 a.m. conversations with people I’d never met before, and were prompting me to drop by professors’ offices with questions I would never have thought worthy of academic consideration in high school. By spring semester, I had signed up for an introductory biology course. By spring break, I had decided to drop my horn degree.

This sea-change shocked my family and many of my friends, who had never dreamed I would abandon the musician’s path. It surprised me too, but for a different reason; the choice to end my formal study of music felt as intuitively right as the choice to begin it back in high school had. Over the course of just a few months, I had realized that my attention to detail, drive to perfection, and desire to share something of myself with the world didn’t apply exclusively to music. They are perhaps a much more fundamental aspect of myself than my passion for French horn. It wasn’t that college had somehow erased my love of the instrument, as many of my friends in the music world seemed to fear. Instead, Oberlin had given me the chance to see that I could find that same level of fulfillment and meaning in any field that struck my fancy. I had discovered who I was, and needed to reevaluate what I wanted that person to become.

Oberlin has a wonderful way of bringing out the most essential qualities in a person. More than that, it gives us the support and the space and the opportunity to figure out all the myriad ways that these qualities can manifest. Over four years, I came to see this process as less change than realization. You might have trouble recognizing me in the boy who came to Ohio four years ago, horn in hand. I’m a biologist now, instead of the classical musician I’d thought I would become. But, the energy and excitement that sustain me when I’m up to my waist in ice-cold water sampling crayfish on a rainy day is the very same drive that woke me up at six every morning during high school to practice French horn. If you have the good fortune to encounter me by a pond in springtime, you may even be able to detect the perfectionist’s attention to pitch and timbre that characterized my horn playing as I whistle back and forth with the local toads. You’ll certainly find that I’m still interested in sharing the things I’m passionate about with the world.