The Oberlin Stories Project

On an eye-opening class

Sarah Willette ’16

“I’ve found during my time at Oberlin that, when faced with the crossroads between easy ignorance and more strenuously acquired knowledge, most Obies choose the hard but ultimately more rewarding road.”

Sarah with a group working in tall grass.

“So why exactly did you want to intern with Ngati Kahungunu?” My new supervisor inquired cautiously across the table. Palms sweaty, heart beating abnormally fast, I took a deep breath, looked her in the eye, and began.

“Well, it’s a bit of a long story...”

It’s funny how one course can completely change the trajectory of your college experience. Comparative American Studies (CAST) 223, Introduction to Native Studies, was just another class that I had tacked onto my freshman year schedule. I entertained a mild interest in the subject that had been inspired by my time spending summers on creek beds looking for fossils and artifacts with my geologist parents. The first day of class we went around the room explaining our reasons for wanting to take the course. Unfortunately for me, I was called on first to introduce myself to the class. I quickly scrambled to find a way to articulate myself in the best way possible.

“Sarah. She/her/hers,” I mumbled from my seat. “I spent my weekends when I was younger looking for fossils with my family, and sometimes we’d find arrowheads. I’ve always wanted to know the culture behind the arrowheads. I want to know how the Native Americans lived, and how they were.”

Silence. The person next to me started her introduction, and as we progressed through the class of 15, my stomach started sinking. The words “advocacy,” “imperialism,” “oppression,” “contemporary,” and “systemic violence” were some of the highlights of the introductions. When going over the syllabus, the teacher affirmed many of these words and reinforced that it was going to be a brief study of history with the prominent focus being contemporary issues that indigenous peoples face in the United States. Arrowheads and frolicking around in creek beds was not going to be discussed. It was one of the first times in my life that I felt slapped cold with the realization that I had a lot to learn.

Immediately after the class period ended, I was torn between succumbing to my embarrassment and dropping the class so that I’d never have to see my classmates again or acknowledging my ignorance and rising up to the challenge of educating myself. One option was clearly the easy way out, and the other much more difficult and humbling. If it weren’t for a classmate who lived across the hall from me who felt similarly intimidated by the class, I may have chosen the first option. I’ve found during my time at Oberlin that, when faced with the crossroads between easy ignorance and more strenuously acquired knowledge, most Obies choose the hard but ultimately more rewarding road. We jointly committed to knowledge and accepted that to be knowledgeable is to understand that we will never know nor fully understand everything. We committed to the attempt, believing we had kissed our GPA goodbye. We gave our attempt everything we had. I have distinct memories of staying in on Friday nights on the third floor of Dascomb with a box of Domino’s, watching my hallmates go out to concerts, while I typed away at my computer, writing essays and catching up on readings. At times the process was frustrating and the demand of the class caused me to crack (such as calling my mom at 12 in the morning to ask if 200 pages of reading a week was normal), but I’ve never seen the time invested into a class pay off so well in the end when I turned in my final paper and received a congratulatory email from my professor.

Although I did not end up majoring in CAST, my newfound interest manifested itself in different ways. My two majors, English and anthropology, have catered very well for the exploration of indigenous issues and identity. Even the most seemingly random classes—such as Environmental Archaeology and Nature in Early American Literature—have yielded very interesting research about contemporary indigenous issues.

After taking more than 24 classes now at Oberlin, no class has ever awoken me so profoundly as the first class I ever attended. Although the process was difficult, the readings intense, and the workload heavy, all of the work manifested itself in a newfound passion for advocacy and the satisfaction of turning in my final 15-page paper with the knowledge that I had given it my all. I had no idea stepping into CAST 223 would lead me to New Zealand to work for a Ngati Kahungunu, a Maori community services agency.

I told my supervisor of this, my continuing battle to combat ignorance with education. This, a freshman year elective, was the reason I found myself in the most beautiful country in the world, pursuing my dream of working for an indigenous advocacy agency. A smile appeared on her lips.

“Haere mai,” she said, taking me in for a hug. Welcome.