Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. I did not plan to spend the last four months of my Oberlin educational career spearheading the exchange of 10,000 energy efficient light bulbs for old inefficient ones in all corners of the Oberlin community. Nor did I expect to choose to stay in Oberlin after graduation. Rather, I thought that by volunteering for the “Light Bulb Brigade” in December 2007, I would get to dress up in a brightly colored jumpsuit and go door-to-door in dorms offering spiral-shaped compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) to Oberlin’s already environmentally-minded student body.
In early February, my advisor John Petersen (OC’88) stopped me in the hallway and expressed excitement at hearing I was interested in coordinating the Light Bulb Brigade. In collaboration with John, an anonymous donor funded the Brigade as a pilot project for replication at other institutions, stipulating that CFLs must be exchanged for old incandescent bulbs to ensure real energy savings, that the effort must be student-led, and that exchanges would reach outside the boundaries of the College and into the larger community. I assured him that I had signed up on the volunteer list and hoped to play a role. Within the next few days, I received an email with a few documents attached and a plea to step up as “uber brigade coordinator.” I thought, “Why not?”
Two weeks later, I was prowling the halls of the Adam Joseph Lewis Center for Environmental Studies (AJLC) looking for a snow shovel. I had spent a frantic few days on the phone giving directions to the delivery guys and scheduling a forklift for unloading the truck. My first priority was to secure the light bulbs where I could have constant access, in the storage room of the neighboring AJLC Annex, and my lack of experience led me to think I could pull it off mid-winter without a loading dock. The snow piled up on the frosty February delivery day and after spending the half hour prior to the truck’s arrival shoveling the driveway, I learned that conditions were too dangerous for a forklift to operate outdoors and relayed to the incredulous drivers that we would have to unload 1,000 boxes of light bulbs by hand and two-wheeled dolly. Three guys from Oberlin’s Facilities Office showed up to help, and I tried to hide my embarrassment at “planning” such a debacle by offering “thank yous” every other minute.
From this shaky start, I embarked on the mission of distribution with the help of five student groups in Environmental Studies 101 doing light bulb exchange projects for credit and upwards of 70 student, faculty, staff, and community volunteers. The student groups were charged with distributing bulbs to different groups, from Oberlin College employees and students to Oberlin High School students to one group tentatively assigned “community door-to-door.”
Two students and I scheduled the first light bulb exchange for late March at a breast cancer awareness dinner hosted by members of the Mount Zion Baptist Church. A few people brought in light bulbs and more signed up for door-to-door exchanges. That evening, I called my Professor to inform him that we had exchanged our first 20 light bulbs - I was ecstatic. Over spring break, I borrowed a Prius from my Paleontology Professor to embark on my first door-to-door exchanges. When I showed up on an Oberlin resident’s doorstep with a few boxes of light bulbs in late March, she asked, “Can you change all 65?” Sometimes I left houses not only with boxes of incandescent bulbs but also with a full stomach, a bag of coffee, or a homemade bracelet.
From meeting with church and other community leaders to organize exchanges to collecting and analyzing data on energy savings, I kept quite busy through my last semester of college. Yet the work was worth the overwhelming success and visible results. We exchanged light bulbs with over 800 individuals, impacting the energy use over 1,800 Oberlin residents. That’s almost one quarter of the population of the City of Oberlin! We estimate that these light bulbs resulted in the reduction of 6,500 tons of CO2 emissions, a carbon offset that can be credited towards the college. This program is the first, of hopefully many, local carbon offset programs in Oberlin where money and resources from the College can benefit the community and carbon savings can be credited towards the College’s goal of carbon neutrality.
Ten months, 10,000 light bulbs, and one bachelor’s degree later, I still look on this project in some sense as something that happened to me rather than the clear goal of a set of choices I made as a student. However, this is something that for me has come to define Oberlin. Oberlin is the kind of place where my advisor knows me well enough to understand my capabilities and to trust me to take on an important project with minimal oversight, where a professor I knew for only two months would lend me her Prius, where I can readily connect with community leaders outside of the college, where I can find opportunities to put my education to practical use and achieve tangible goals, and where these opportunities are unexpected, challenging, and gratifying. Oberlin is Oberlin, and that is precisely why I am still here.