The Oberlin Stories Project

On a day in the life of a double-degree student

Woan Foong Wong ’09

“I was congratulated by friends who had either attended my honors economics presentation or had played my piece in the orchestra... how impossible my life would have been had I taken my diverse interests to another school.”

Woan stands by a grand piano.

In Malaysia, I was educated within the very rigorous public school system. Students take classes either in the morning or afternoon, with private tuition classes the rest of the time. I had one to two tuition sessions a day, beginning when I was ten years old. The competitive culture within the system ensures that students who don’t attend these additional classes will fall behind their peers.

Eventually, it was time to stream into either arts — humanities and social sciences — or natural sciences. Arts stream wasn’t even an option. Arts were for people who could not make it into the sciences. Though I had been learning piano since I was 6, it never crossed my mind to make a career of it. At home, most students are not taught to think or to question the knowledge that is fed to them. Now, I believe that education is about being exposed to options, being able to explore them, and developing ideas and thoughts of one’s own.

I came to Oberlin to be a film composer, after studying in India for two years at a United World College. In Mumbai, I wrote music for a friend’s play that performed at the Alternative Theater. The experience solidified my interest in composition. I chose to be a double degree student because I wanted more exposure.

For the college part of my education, I planned on studying mathematics or physics. But in my second semester at Oberlin, I randomly signed up for an economics class that was recommended by a good friend. Though I had never taken an economics class in my life, the course completely changed my career path. I studied economics with the same verve that I applied to my study of music.

My most memorable experience at Oberlin was my last day of classes.

That Friday went fast. First, I finished my last shift at Admissions. I worked as an intern that year, interviewing prospective students, answering their numerous (but very interesting) questions, and developing a passion for filing. As a long time OSCA member, I enthusiastically encouraged a few prospective first years to join our amazing co-ops.

With ten minutes until noon, I rushed over to King where I presented my economics honors thesis to the general public. In my theoretical paper, I attempted to quantify the huge positive impact of education on rural developing economies in order to come up with effective education subsidies for these countries. (With suitable data, I hope to test my model empirically and develop meaningful policy implications.) Thanks to my honors thesis, I got a research job at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, specifically in the areas of international trade and climate change. My career goal is to help structure economic growth policies in developing countries.

Right after that, I left for the Central 25 room in the Conservatory for a reading of my ‘tall’ piece by the Oberlin Orchestra. Time flew as I worked with the conductor to make a few changes. First, I wanted the strings section to perform whispering tones by placing the bow near the bridge and muting strings with their left hands. Then, I asked the winds section to make audible key clicks by slapping the keys against their instruments while holding it up. Finally, I worked with the brass section to inhale and exhale through their horns without pitch in order to mimic breathing. Initially, the orchestra members were skeptical about the techniques that I introduced in my piece, since they are not that widely used. However, as the collective sounds come together, it was very rewarding to see their faces register and comprehend the kind of music that I choose to write.

As I walked over to the mailroom after the reading to check my mail, I was congratulated by friends who had either attended my honors economics presentation or had played my piece in the orchestra. At that moment, I was struck by how impossible my life would have been had I taken my diverse interests to another school.