Tough Semester? There's a Dean for That

October 1, 2014
Erich Burnett
Chris Jenkins arrived in Oberlin in the summer of 2014, after spending a year teaching viola students in the West Bank. Photo credit: Tanya Rosen-Jones '97

Chris Jenkins’ path to the Holy Land wouldn’t make a very good movie.

“I googled ‘viola teaching’ and ‘West Bank,’” he says. “I found a job and applied for it, and there I was.”

There he was, teaching wide-eyed young students in Ramallah for the past year, making do with very little and making musicians where at first there had been only underprivileged, undereducated children.

“The students were really cool and very energetic,” says Jenkins, who quickly learned not to take for granted such Western luxuries as e-mail and telephones and functional computers.

“Sometimes they didn’t understand why music was important. Teaching them that is the most difficult thing—trying to help them get in touch with their feelings. It’s not reinforced so thoroughly there as it is here. Here in America, we have things like American Idol in our pop culture, so it becomes a given that you express yourself through music.”

Appointed over the summer as the Oberlin Conservatory of Music’s first assistant dean for academic support, Jenkins has been expressing himself through music for as long as he can remember. And he knows well the challenges that go along with a life built around intensive study.

Born and raised in Manhattan, he focused on music theory and psychology as an undergrad at Harvard. “But I confess,” he quickly adds: “Most of what I did there was play in chamber music groups.”

He continued his studies at the New England Conservatory of Music, where he earned a master’s degree in viola performance under the tutelage of Martha Katz. It’s also where his horizons began to expand from classical repertoire to jazz, then to Indian sounds, and to numerous other stops along the musical map. He honed his improv chops at the Manhattan School of Music, gaining invaluable experience on the side. He performed with the New York Philharmonic and toured with Diana Ross. And somewhere along the way, he experienced a crucial epiphany.

“I was freelancing and playing in ensembles and subbing on Broadway, and it sort of occurred to me that there were other things I was into that I figured I’d better explore before I got too much older.”

And so he enrolled in the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University, earning a master’s degree and setting a new course that united his musical passions with an administrative calling.

For seven years, he served as dean of the Sphinx Performance Academy, a music program for underrepresented youth. It was in this role that he found himself visiting the Oberlin campus four consecutive summers, and where he found a welcoming world far different than any he had previously known.

As dean of academic support, Jenkins’ role is to guide students through the rough patches that are all but inevitable amid Oberlin’s rigorous regimen. “We’re here to help them learn how to realize their potential and how to recognize the pitfalls that can happen when they’re overextended,” he says.

Overextension can be a way of life at Oberlin, where even students who are singular in their focus can find themselves challenged to balance demanding schedules. Added to that are the many who commit themselves to the pursuit of double majors and even double degrees—a signature option at Oberlin, where violinists might also specialize in neuroscience, or where composers split their time with politics.

It’s a comprehensive education like few others, though it’s one that Jenkins knows well.

“Having been a music student at Harvard, I understand that split academic and musical focus—what it’s like when you’re in regular classes all day and you’ve got to practice all night,” he says.

As the fall semester wears on, more and more students are making their way to Jenkins’ door. He looks forward to each one of them, with an upbeat and congenial personality that’s freshly road-tested in Ramallah.

“Most of all, I’m just trying to connect with students and present myself as open and friendly and relaxed,” he says. If it works for him, he figures, it just might work for them too.

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