The Oberlin Stories Project

On succeeding through adversity

Yolanda Walker ’09

“Oberlin takes those with ambition and provides them with a world of opportunities. I entered Oberlin as a housekeeper and graduated four years later with a degree in economics.”

Yolanda at graduation.

Whether in an interview or a casual conversation, my answer to “why did you choose Oberlin?” always puzzles my audience. “Because Oberlin,” I say, “chose me.”

At the time that Oberlin chose me, I was 21 years old. As well as being a full-time student at Lorain County Community College (LCCC), I worked 50 hours a week as a housekeeper and nanny. Oberlin came in the form of Malcolm Cash ’90, an Obie to the core.

Upon meeting me, Cash was intrigued by my journey to the U.S. The daughter of a humble domestic worker, I left South Africa when I was 19 years old, searching for better opportunities. My intention was to work as an au pair for a year, then return home, become an airhostess and travel the world. But after some encouragement from friends, I applied to LCCC to obtain an Associate’s degree in hotel management. As I’m only the second member of my family to obtain a high school diploma, an Associate’s was a big deal. I was content — until I found Oberlin, that is.

After hearing me talk about life in South Africa, Cash insisted that I apply to Oberlin. “Yolanda,” he said, “you belong at Oberlin.”

Naturally, I thought he was crazy. First, even though I was excelling at LCCC, I had a high school GPA of around 1.3. Second, I would have to give up my job and my mother’s income was a mere $200 a month. How would I pay Oberlin’s tuition? In my mind, the chances of attending Oberlin were slim to none. But Cash’s philosophy, one he nursed during his time at Oberlin, was, “never say no to yourself.” With this notion, I went with Cash to Oberlin.

Upon walking into Associate Dean Brenda Grier-Miller’s office I introduced myself: “My name is Yolanda Walker, and I want to attend Oberlin so that I may become a leader.”

Her answer was short, but powerful. “My name is Brenda Grier-Miller, and you, my dear, are already a leader.” I was startled at her faith in me.

However, after being accepted to Oberlin, I realized that Grier-Miller and Cash’s idealism was not unique. In the Oberlin family, everyone from President Krislov; the workers in the cafeteria; my Economics and Math professors; to even the staff in Safety and Security, had tremendous faith in me. They continued to encourage me and constantly reminded me that despite my adverse background I too am able to go out and change the world. They believe this to be true for all Oberlin students.

Oberlin takes those with ambition and provides them with a world of opportunities. One summer, I studied economics in Europe; I spent a semester learning Mandarin in China; for a Winter Term, I lived in a village in Ghana. I entered Oberlin as a housekeeper and graduated four years later with a degree in Economics. My experiences at Oberlin have helped me, a girl from the slums of South Africa, to believe in myself and be proud of who I am.

Oberlin helped me develop the skills to obtain placement in The Associates Program (TAP) at The Capital Group Companies Inc, one of the world’s largest managers of international investment funds. TAP is a global rotational program that combines MBA finance coursework with hands-on assignments, exploring a variety of jobs in the investment management industry.

As I gear up to start my new venture in September, I look back at my time at Oberlin College and count my blessings. I could never have imagined that I would go from being a housemaid to starting a career in finance. All this because Oberlin saw a determined individual with a desire to succeed, and took a tremendous leap of faith.