In high school, I had always done some type of community service/social justice work. I was involved with Big Brother Big Sister and a music honors group, among other organizations, but I decided to skip out on joining any groups my first semester at Oberlin, thinking that I should just deal with classes and get settled into college life before taking on something else. By the end of that first semester, I realized that something had been missing for the last three months. It wasn’t until I walked into the ExCo Fair at the beginning of my second semester that I realized what it was: I missed being involved.
To me, Oberlin’s Experimental College (ExCo) program is one of the most unique things about our school. What other place allows any undergrad student with a decent idea to create and teach their own course? The ExCo Fair allows you to shop around for different classes not found in your standard course catalog. It was here that I found the experience that has had the greatest impact on my time at Oberlin: Music Mentors.
Music Mentors was started around 2005 to bring Oberlin students, from both the college and the conservatory, into the local middle school band. Each Music Mentor goes into Langston Middle School and gives weekly lessons to a band student or small group of students. Since the instructor, Annie, took over, the group has expanded in design. Now there are bimonthly meetings in which the Oberlin College Music Mentors are given lessons on how to teach. More importantly, the group has become more “mentor” focused; while we are there primarily to teach kids music, we also become mentors for them, during the trying teenage years.
For the last year and a half I have taken this ExCo and given oboe and clarinet lessons to my students. As a listener and mentor to them, I have been lucky enough to get to know my students well. Knowing the students so well has led to some intense experiences for me; as a mentor who still remembers the difficulties of middle school, I become the one that hears the stories of their lives. Often these stories are upsetting, but I would never trade my role as mentor. I love seeing students make breakthroughs, both in their music and in their personal lives. My passion for my students has allowed me to help expand the program even farther; now the mentors are permitted to use some of the conservatory’s instruments to teach our students, a first in the conservatory’s history.
After my first semester in the group, Annie asked me to be a co-instructor with her, and I could not be more thankful for that opportunity. This role has given me insight into what I want to do after Oberlinwork with disadvantaged youth and create programs that pair older college students with younger students, much like this program. It also has filled a gap in my life that was missing before, inspiring me to continue on with this kind of work. I just completed a Kodaly music education course to allow me to further my work in the music education field.
I think that this route rings true with a lot of Obies: we feel that something is missing until we find an issue that is our own, and we immerse ourselves in this cause for the rest of our lives.