I was miserable for the first several weeks of my first year at Oberlin, in the fall of 2009. I had nice roommates and interesting, challenging classes. I loved the academics at Oberlin as soon as I began. What I lacked was a community. Sure, I made a few friends here and there, but I couldn’t help comparing myself to the people I saw walking around campus in large crowds. They seemed so happy, and I felt so inadequate. I trudged through those first several weeks, trying to keep myself occupied with my classes, with my position as a copy editor/fact-checker at the Oberlin Review, with co-op shifts and Women’s Chorale rehearsals. But I felt isolated. It didn’t help that my family was across the country — other than listening to my tearful phone calls, there wasn’t much they could do.
And then, suddenly, something changed in me, and I was happy at Oberlin. Maybe it was when I visited my friends at the local state university when I went home for fall break, and was astounded at the number of sorority girls on campus and the lack of soymilk availability in the dining hall. Maybe it was when a girl in my chemistry class came up to me and invited me to join her Harry Potter Trivia Night team. But I think it was the leaf pile.
I’m pretty sure it was the first week after fall break, but it might have been the last week before it. It was one of the Tuesday or Thursday afternoon sessions of my first-year seminar, Beyond Disbelief with English professor DeSales Harrison. There were 14 or 15 of us in the class, and while everyone seemed nice enough, I hadn’t made any real connections with anyone beyond sharing a few laughs about the antics of enigmatic Professor Harrison. But then, on that beautiful fall day, Professor Harrison let our class go early so that we could work on writing our papers. I don’t remember who it was, but somebody suggested building a leaf pile in North Quad, because it was one of those crisp, fall days where you simply need to be outside playing with leaves rather than inside working on a paper.
So nine or 10 of us from the class — friendly acquaintances living in different dorms and different communities on campus — raced out to North Quad to build a leaf pile. And it was glorious in so many ways: in the leaves flying up into the air as we jumped into the giant pile, in the crunch of the leaves under our feet, in the blue of the October sky, but mostly in the connection that I felt to these people who I didn’t really know, who all I had in common with was this one class and the fact that we were all Oberlin students. Maybe it wasn’t that hour or so spent playing with leaves with a bunch of people in my first-year seminar that gave me the bravery to make friends, to seek out the opportunity to do research in the chemistry department, to explore. But it definitely felt like a turning point, because it was then that I realized that Oberlin was not just a college for me, but a home.