The Oberlin Stories Project

On watching his son attend Oberlin

Peter Rathjens ’81

“As much as Jake’s experience is distinct from mine, I’m glad that Oberlin is in no rush to move past the values and culture that provided me with so much 25 years ago, and that are serving Jake so well today.”

Peter with his son as a toddler.

As we emerged from the new science center onto North Quad, everything became more familiar. While I hadn’t seen North Quad in 15 years, all of Oberlin’s development in that time had left it largely unchanged. Most importantly from Jake’s perspective, there was an ultimate frisbee game underway in the middle of the quad. Jake grinned, and appeared to relax for the first time since we’d left Boston.

My wife Hillary and I met at Oberlin in 1978, when she was a freshman and I was a sophomore. We married in 1985, and Jake appeared on the scene three years later. If he’d never seen Oberlin before this trip, he had certainly heard stories, and had the clothing to prove it. He was now, amazingly, a junior in high school, and we were on a midwest trip to visit some liberal arts colleges that we thought might be of interest to him.

My own experiences at Oberlin had been incredibly positive. I’d had the good fortune of being taught by professors who were not only renowned scholars in their fields, but were skilled in communicating both complex concepts and their love of the subject matter to their students. The insights that I gained in classes with David Walker in the English department, Robert Neil in the History department, and Harlan Wilson in the Politics department continue to inform and enrich my life.

I chose to double major in economics and mathematics, and there again I was lucky to be able to take classes from a wonderful faculty. More unusually, I was able to work closely with many of these professors, both as a research assistant on their research as well as on my own senior thesis.

My social experience at Oberlin was also terrific. I not only developed strong and lasting friendships, but met my future wife. If periodically stressful and chaotic, my four years there were primarily exciting and rewarding.

I worried, as a result, that I would invariably set expectations for Oberlin that could only lead to disappointment for Jake. The itinerary, therefore, included not only Oberlin, but a sampling of other midwestern colleges such as Carleton, Macalester, and Grinnell.

But at that very moment, Oberlin kids were playing ultimate frisbee right there on north quad. And they were inviting Jake to join in.

All of the schools that he’d visited held some appeal for Jake. Oberlin, however, stood out. He first focused on the wide open spaces populated by energetic and enthusiastic, if not always skillful, athletes. Most remarkable was how inviting and encouraging they were to an intimidated high school junior. He was even more impressed after having met with several professors whose doors happened to be opened when he passed through the corridors of Rice and King. In some instances he had a parental entre; in others, just his own curiosity and initiative. Finally, he thoroughly enjoyed the class he sat in on, noting afterwards how stimulating it was notwithstanding the fact that the professor barely spoke during it, instead merely nudging along a spirited discussion among well prepared students.

By the end of the campus tour, Jake was sold. He ended up applying for early decision, and matriculated in August, 2006.

Two and a half years later, all of our misgivings have given way. Jake has found his own way at Oberlin. He’s busily pursuing a double major in English and Politics. He has been working as the Assistant Treasurer for Oberlin’s Student Finance Committee. He has developed his own friendships and interests, including deep and sustaining relationships with wonderful professors. My wife and I love visiting him at school, and remembering our time at Oberlin, while thoroughly enjoying how fully he is embracing his own Oberlin experience.

When we took Jake to Oberlin at the beginning of his freshman year, my wife and I were amazed at how many of our professors were still active and engaged 25 years after our time there. When I commented on this during a conversation with David Walker, he wryly responded that Oberlin was really Brigadoon. As much as Jake’s experience is distinct from mine, I’m glad that Oberlin is in no rush to move past the values and culture that provided me with so much 25 years ago, and that are serving Jake so well today.

Jake is much more relaxed and comfortable in Oberlin than he was as a nervous prospective student just a two and a half years ago. And as much as I constantly expect to see the ghosts of 1980 during every stroll thorough Wilder Bowl or Tappan Square, this is clearly Jake’s time to experience all that Oberlin can offer him. If he’s lucky, those ghosts will continue to visit him, too, long after other students have made Oberlin theirs.