The Oberlin Stories Project

On being at Oberlin

Teresa Heinz Housel ’94

“I could safely question the cultural values that had been drilled into me as the truth, and with that security, I could intellectually and emotionally reach my full potential. ”

Teresa Heinz Housel

As a young girl growing up in rural northeastern Ohio, I spent hours staring at world maps, dreaming about the places I would someday go. No one in my family had yet attended college, but somehow I still knew that getting an education was the ticket to achieving my goals.

Now, more than 20 years later, I appreciate the experiences that higher education has afforded me. I have lived in four countries and traveled in more than 30 others. My career as a tenured college professor mentally challenges me, and I have a house filled with books and artifacts from my travels. I often reflect on how these experiences directly resulted from my Oberlin education that confidently launched me into the world.

In February 2012, I visited Oberlin’s campus to speak about my recent books on first-generation college students as part of the college’s First in the Family Speakers Series, sponsored by Student Academic Services. I drew from the educational research on first-generation students to share advice about helping them successfully navigate college. As I spoke to the Oberlin students, faculty, and staff, I emphasized how my Oberlin education has been the critical foundation for my life.

In my day-to-day job, I often encounter students who want the book knowledge and skills necessary to find employment. Although these attributes might help secure an interview, they are not the same as having creativity and critical thinking skills. Oberlin graduates usually don’t just go out into the world to get a job. Instead, many seek to change the world in some way. We are typically out-of-the-box thinkers and doers, not afraid to ask the tough questions, and certainly not often at a loss for ways to challenge our minds.

Choosing Oberlin was the best decision I ever made. I knew Oberlin was right when I first visited as a high school junior in early 1989. I clearly remember the visitation weekend that included staying with a student in North Hall, attending several classes, and watching an organ recital. Oberlin’s intellectual and progressive political environment was a breath of fresh air after growing up in a stiflingly conservative town. My family had no idea how we’d pay for Oberlin, even with financial aid, but my father vowed we would find a way.

When I arrived on campus as a first-year student in August 1990, I was eager to start over in a new place with other students who enjoyed learning as much as I did. I had attended schools governed by a social hierarchy in which bright, offbeat, and book-loving girls were usually relegated to the bottom rung. I was thrilled to be in a place where I finally felt validated.

As a first-generation college student, it took me a semester to learn how to effectively study for rigorous college classes, but I soon flourished at Oberlin after I found my sure footing. I joined campus organizations, spent hours in thoughtful, late-night conversations with friends outside class, studied abroad, completed media internships, and gradually worked my way up into leadership at the Oberlin Review.

Best of all, I loved my classes. After growing up in social environments in which academic achievement was not a fashionable pursuit, I was stunned on that first day in Professor Robert Longsworth’s Approaches to Literature class to see other students actively raising their hands to speak and debate in class. There were no behavioral problems such as students passing notes, and the professor did not have to kick anyone out of class. I knew I was in the right place.

In the years since graduation, I often wonder why Oberlin’s campus is such a catalyst for creative and critical thinking. Many liberal arts colleges have highly dedicated faculty and the sense of community that helps create strong relationships between students, faculty, and staff. Other liberal arts colleges also offer the smaller faculty-student ratios that encourage interactive classes. Why is Oberlin different?

I believe that the answer lies somewhere in the freedom that I felt at Oberlin to learn, test new hobbies and ideas, and speak my truth. I discovered intellectual courage I didn’t know I had. By being in a place where I felt affirmed, I could safely question the cultural values that had been drilled into me as the truth, and with that security, I could intellectually and emotionally reach my full potential.

Oberlin just didn’t prepare me for a job and to exist in the world. Rather, my Oberlin education prepared me to take on the world.