The Oberlin Stories Project

On civic engagement

Rachel Benson ’08

“Fast forward four years, many hours of community service, a lot of growing up, and one Oberlin degree later, and I found myself back in a place where I sought solace and found empowerment - through community service.”

Rachel Benson

Many students come to Oberlin with big goals and big dreams — they believe they can change the world. This wasn’t the case for me. I came to Oberlin because I loved what it represented — what I hoped I might become one day. Many people whom I loved and admired had gone to Oberlin and excelled. But I wasn’t quite ready to be at college yet. It took me 2 weeks to figure out how to get to the gym. My bike would not stop getting stolen. I accidentally enrolled in a 300-level neuroscience class and almost failed. I called my mother every single day. I was certainly not at a point yet where I could think about changing the world. Changing the world — talk about pressure!

At Oberlin, I quickly realized I was surrounded by incredibly talented, beautiful, strange, brilliant, passionate, and dedicated people. My roommate was an artist to whom academics came easily, my friend group was made up of a gifted composer, a brilliant trumpeter, a talented voice major, and a politics major who planned on being president one day. My neighbor down the hall was a beautiful dancer and part time fabulous drag queen, across the hall was a triple major with perfect SATs that came in with 33 AP credits. I was terrified.

Everyone I passed seemed so much more interesting than me. They were smarter, cooler, more talented, more multi-faceted, more dedicated, more beautiful. Faced with anxiety that left me many nights in my Fairchild dorm room with Carrie Bradshaw and the rest of the Sex and the City gang, instead of at parties, the ’Sco, or activist events, I found solace doing service within the greater Oberlin community.

I taught soccer to local home-schooled, low-income teenagers at Phillips Gym. Running around, playing, and laughing with them lifted my spirits and helped get them moving. I used my work study award to tutor reading through America Reads, forming a relationship with a 10-year-old boy who felt isolated at school. He was far behind his peers, and could barely read a sentence, but he taught me how to play chess. I’ll never forget him.

Every chance I got I would play with the abandoned kittens fostered by Liz Burgess at the Ginko Gallery downtown (and later adopted one who is now a little piece of Oberlin in my home). I spent many an afternoon hanging out at the Oberlin Public Library, surrounded by children, teens, and seniors, people I missed interacting with in the college environment. These community places were safe spaces for me. I felt like I belonged. I never felt judged, and I could be myself, away from the stress of academics and extracurriculars. Just stepping a few hundred yards off campus, to the library or to the Arb, felt like a huge pressure was lifted off my shoulders — the pressure to succeed, to be smart, to be beautiful, to be special, to change the world.

Little did I know, in my own small way, I was changing the world. It may not have been newsworthy, but my work with Oberlin youth provided valuable tools to the kids I worked with, and my commitment to the collaboration between Oberlin College and the greater Oberlin Community reinforced the vital and ever-changing link between the two.

Fast forward four years, many hours of community service, a lot of growing up, and one Oberlin degree later, and I found myself back in a place where I sought solace and found empowerment — through community service. In my work at the Bonner Center for Community-Engaged Learning, Teaching, and Research as an Americorps VISTA, it was my turn to help students looking for opportunities to get involved in civic engagement. I hope in my work at the Bonner CSL, I provided a lost or lonely student (like my former first-year self!) the opportunity to get involved in the Oberlin community.

Currently I am a graduate student in Counseling Psychology, and I humbly yet proudly admit that in many ways, I am miles ahead of many of my classmates as a result of the rich experiences I had at Oberlin, both in class and out. I am keenly aware of the way lack of privilege and oppression can affect a community, a school, a person, a child, and the way that one person, no matter how small, CAN make a difference. I proved that in my time at Oberlin by getting involved in community service, and I will prove it again in my future career as a mental health professional working in underprivileged communities.

I didn’t come into Oberlin thinking I could change the world, but just by being there, surrounded by courageous and compassionate students, professors, staff, and community members, and by being myself to the very best of my ability, I did. I don’t think I could have been “myself,” quite so well, anywhere else. Thanks, Oberlin.