The Oberlin Stories Project

On learning from peers

Sarah Cheshire ’14

“My education at Oberlin has occurred not only in the classroom, but through living and constantly engaging with so many different people from so many different life contexts.”

Sarah and friends.

At midnight on the first night of spring break my freshman year, while most of my friends are headed home or gearing up for trips to the beach, I find myself at the wheel of a giant white van, lost in the backroads of West Virginia. We are headed towards the tiny town of Hillsboro, where we will spend the next four days volunteering at a girls’ empowerment organization called High Rocks, sleeping in a rustic lodge, and hopefully bonding with each other and strengthening the unity of our group. All of the people crammed into the back of this van are in my class of Bonner Scholars, a program designed to provide support for students interested in pursuing community service in college. This is the beginning of our mandatory freshman service trip.

We are an incredibly diverse bunch, comprised of people from everywhere, ranging from inner city New York to Ethiopia to rural North Carolina. Most of us hang out in different social circles at school—we are artists, math majors, musicians, and athletes. Some of us grew up with the wilderness in our backyards while others have never spent a night in a sleeping bag. During the first 24 hours of this trip, everything that can go wrong does go wrong. The other van gets stuck in the mud on top of a mountain and there is no cell phone service so the rest of us are convinced that they have all been eaten by bears. We dont get to the church we are supposed to stay in the first night until 4 am and have to wake up at 6:30 to help direct traffic at the organizations annual 5k race and fundraiser. We are exhausted, dirty, cranky, half of us want to go home and, by day three, we are all ready to tear each others’ eyes out.

Perceiving the tensions in our group, High Rocks assigns a member of their staff to mediate. We all go in to the cabin at the edge of the camp and sit in awkward silence for a few minutes. Slowly, through prompts from the mediator, we open up. We compare stories about our homes, our pasts, what inspires us, the obstacles we have faced, and the experiences that have brought each of us to this space. Our walls come down. We get angry. Tears are shed. When we leave the cabin two hours later, although we aren’t quite best friends, we are able to understand each other better and ultimately finish the trip on a high note.

When I look back on my time thus far at Oberlin, the two hours spent in that cabin in West Virginia always stand out. For me, the magic of Oberlin is epitomized in moments such as these; moments of intense, honest, and sometimes painful dialogue. My education at Oberlin has occurred not only in the classroom, but through living and constantly engaging with so many different people from so many different life contexts. The times when this is the most challenging often also end up being the most fulfilling.

Every day that I am at Oberlin, I am expanding my worldview, whether through late-night pillow talks on love and gender in my dorm room, classroom discussions on how academic theories apply to our own campus spaces, or the dialogues I facilitated on subjects ranging from race to town-gown relations to responsible transnational activism after I was accepted to be a peer mediator with the Oberlin College Dialogue Center my sophomore year. More than anything else, Oberlin has taught me the value of actively listening to those around me. Dialogues I have had at Oberlin have been difficult and emotionally charged sometimes, but when we are able to successfully negotiate all of our identities, experiences, and ideas and come to a place of mutual understanding, I have seen true connections formed.