Oberlin’s history has been on my mind lately as I read the spate of articles about the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, one of the galvanizing events of the civil rights movement.
Since its founding in 1833, Oberlin’s students, faculty, alumni and local residents have changed the course of history in profound ways. We are, for example, justifiably proud that our early leaders admitted students irrespective of color and educated students of all races, classes, and genders together. Their actions helped lay the foundation for the civil rights movement, women’s suffrage, and much more.
Regarding the March on Washington, Melanie Eversley ’83, a reporter for USA Today, wrote an interesting piece today about the confusion some people are experiencing because of the various celebrations of the march, including events that took place this past weekend. As Melanie points out, the original gathering on Washington’s National Mall took place 50 years ago today, on August 28, 1963.
So, as we commemorate that landmark gathering, please take a moment to consider the contributions that Oberlinians such as Vernon Johns, the great civil rights leader from our Class of 1918, and countless others have made to the cause of social justice.
That’s the family you are joining Class of 2017. On behalf of everyone here I welcome our new students, transfer students, parents, families and friends to Oberlin. And welcome back to our returning students, especially our fall sports student-athletes who have been on campus training hard for their upcoming seasons. Seeing the campus and town suddenly bustling with new students and their parents and families is always an exciting, somewhat anxious rite of passage shared by generations of Oberlinians.
I had the honor of speaking to the Class of 2017 and our transfer students yesterday afternoon in Finney Chapel. I thought I would share those remarks with our wider campus community.
Welcome New Students
Good Afternoon. Class of 2017, transfer students, parents, families and friends—welcome to Oberlin!
To our new students, congratulations on being selected to pursue your education here. This is one of the finest institutions of higher education in the world. Gaining admission is quite an achievement.
Coming to Oberlin is also the beginning of a significant life change for you and your parents and family members. I know firsthand how this transition feels because the eldest of our three children left for college two years ago. So, parents, I’ve felt that mix of pride in your child’s accomplishments and anxiety because this marks a major change in his or her life—and in yours.
Let me reassure you. Your son or daughter is at an extraordinary college and conservatory. We do everything we can to support all our students and to ensure they receive a wonderful education. We will make sure they receive personal support inside and outside the classroom. Oberlin’s faculty and staff will provide many sources of advising on academics, internships, fellowships, scholarships, and careers.
New students, Oberlin offers you a wealth of educational opportunities. We offer so many opportunities—here on campus and through our alumni network—because we possess some unique strengths. We are the only top liberal arts college in the country that has a world-class conservatory of music, one of America’s finest teaching art museums, and a first-rate science center. They are the pillars of Oberlin’s traditions of interdisciplinary study and student-faculty collaboration on research.
Seizing those opportunities and taking advantage of Oberlin’s strengths is now up to you. Today, I am going to talk about two things which will be of central importance to your success here—passion and balance.
Passion and Perfection
Oberlin people are passionate about their intellectual, artistic, musical, and athletic pursuits. They are also passionate about civic engagement and their extra-curricular activities.
This college and town—and the reputation we enjoy as one of the world’s great colleges—were built by fervor. Oberlin was founded in 1833 by Christian utopians.
They believed that a person’s earthly life could be made perfect by piety, hard work and education. Hence our motto—“Learning and Labor.” Our early leaders also took the radical steps of admitting students irrespective of color and of educating students of all races, classes and genders together.
In her book, When I Was a Child I Read Books, writer Marilynne Robinson has an essay titled “Who Was Oberlin?” that explores the remarkable legacy of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the Alsatian pastor for whom our college and town are named. She describes how Charles Grandison Finney—the giant of 19th-century American evangelism and abolitionism whose name this chapel bears—came to Oberlin, which he described as a great swamp in a mud hole, because he wanted to “help create a little society organized around equality of classes, races, and genders.”
Over the past 180 years, Oberlin has evolved into a non-denominational institution. But the idealism of those early days remains. We still believe that working hard and acquiring a broad and deep education can transform individual lives and the world.
A Faculty of Teacher-Scholars
That ethos is powered by our faculty. Oberlin professors are outstanding scholars, musicians and artists who are passionate about their fields of study and about teaching undergraduates. We are nationally recognized for the excellence of our teaching.
Let me give you an example. Just a few weeks ago, Katie Oertel, associate professor of chemistry, was named a 2013 Henry Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation. She is one of only seven professors in the country to receive this honor. And she is the fourth Oberlin chemistry professor to receive a Dreyfus over the past decade.
These awards are made each year to promising scholars early in their careers in the chemical sciences. The recipients are recognized for their accomplishments in scholarly research with undergraduates and their commitment to high-quality teaching.
So, what does the fact that Professor Oertel and all our faculty are passionate teacher-scholars mean for our students?
It means you are learning directly from outstanding professors—not grad students or adjuncts. In science, it means the day you walk into an Oberlin classroom or lab, even for an introductory course, you are working directly with a first-rate scientist. Even as first-years, you will find opportunities to become engaged in independent research. Students at larger universities usually don’t get those opportunities until they are juniors or seniors—if then. Here, you can start becoming a scientist from day one.
Get to know our faculty. Talk with them after class and in office hours. Invite them for coffee or a meal. They have chosen to teach at Oberlin because they want to work with you and share your passion.
That is just part of what makes studying at Oberlin exceptional. Because we have the brilliant faculty and the resources of the College of Arts and Sciences, the Conservatory of Music, and the Allen Art Museum, our science students—like nearly all our students—become engaged with the humanities, the social sciences, and the arts.
That engagement broadens their thinking. It pushes them to look at the world from multiple perspectives, and to see connections between disciplines. At Oberlin, you will develop a deeper, more meaningful understanding of how science, music, history, politics, economics, art, and literature interact. That will enhance your creativity, your critical thinking, and your problem-solving ability. We believe that studying the arts spurs creativity, which drives innovation, insight, and entrepreneurship.
That belief is borne out by the accomplishments of our alumni. Through the years, young men and women who sat where you are today have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, MacArthur Fellowships, Academy Awards, Grammy Awards, Tony Awards, Emmy Awards, Obie Awards, National Book Awards, Pulitzer Prizes, and countless other honors in their chosen fields. Oberlin graduates have been elected to the United States Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, state legislatures, city councils, and have served as mayors of major American cities.
Over the years, Oberlin has produced three Nobel laureates, and nine MacArthur Fellows, the so-called genius grants. More of our graduates go on to earn PhDs than those of any other four-year baccalaureate college in the country. We have led that category for many years. About one-third of those PhDs are in science.
Those accomplishments tell you how passionate Oberlin faculty and students are about their fields of study and about teaching and learning.
So, my advice to you—our newest Oberlinians—is follow your passion. Look for opportunities that excite you. Then pursue them. If you have vision and drive, Oberlin can help you turn your ideas into actions. This institution supports a broad range of student initiatives. Every year, for example, some of our students establish nonprofit organizations, musical groups, and businesses through our entrepreneurship program, Creative & Leadership. Others participate in our Health Careers, Law Scholars and Business Scholars programs.
Oberlin’s Office of Career Services offers 140 internships to students. Many of those involve working with Oberlin alumni during winter term or over the summer. Winter term is a special opportunity Oberlin provides for you to explore subjects and do independent projects. Make the most of it.
Parents, your student doesn't need to make any decisions quite yet about his or her future. But please encourage them to visit the career center.
Speaking as a Parent
Speaking as a parent, I humbly offer this piece of advice—we should look for ways to carefully manage our own anxiety about our child’s professional future. We want to encourage them to explore their passions and their career paths. Then, we need to support them in their own plans.
At Oberlin, we prepare them by providing an exceptionally broad and deep liberal education. We teach students to be innovative, interdisciplinary thinkers; engaged citizens; and agents of positive social change. We teach them to value facts and evidence. We teach them to think critically and to see the world from multiple viewpoints and academic disciplines.
In this era of big data and predictive analytics, we teach them how to determine the significance of data and separate real insights from desired outcomes. Oberlin doesn’t prepare you for just one job or career. It prepares you for any job and for a variety of careers. And Oberlin prepares you to lead a richer, more meaningful life.
That begins now. The benefit of residential education is not just what happens in the classroom but also out of the classroom. There are so many wonderful events and places on this campus. During the academic year, our students can pick and choose from a phenomenal array of more than 500 concerts, recitals, performances, and exhibitions. We also have robust athletics, club sports, and intramurals. Through the Allen Memorial Art Museum’s art rental program, students have a chance to hang an original work by artists such as Picasso or Toulouse-Lautrec in their dorm rooms. Besides the conservatory’s auditioned ensembles, there are student-run theater and musical theater associations, comedy groups, dance troupes, and the great OCircus.
We also bring in a broad range of speakers and visitors. On the evening of Tuesday, September 10, our Convocation Series will kick off with Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, two giants of environmentalism and sustainability, speaking on this stage. On September 20, Nobel laureate Toni Morrison will be with us. On Friday, September 27, we’ll welcome legendary singer-songwriter Randy Newman. So mark your calendars.
Health and Wellness: It’s on You
Because there is so much going on at Oberlin, there never seems to be enough time. Which brings me to my second theme: balance.
More specifically, how important it is for you to create balance in your life at Oberlin by effectively managing your time and making sure you take care of your health and wellness.
If your family is like mine, up until now, managing your time involved your parents. No more. Your parents won’t be here to get you up in the morning. They aren’t going to transport you to where you need to be or make sure you eat right or remind you to study or nag you about writing papers and preparing for tests. That’s on you now. You have to plan your schedule, eat right, get exercise, and get sufficient sleep.
Skimping on sleep will be tempting. Besides classes and studying, there are—as I said—so many extracurricular and co-curricular activities. Lectures, films, concerts, sporting events, or just hanging with your friends talking for hours. That’s part of what makes Oberlin great. But sleep is important. It seems like every day another research study confirms the importance of sleep on cognitive function, weight management, and mental health.
My advice is to pick and choose. Explore new things. Have some fun. But don’t try to do everything your first year. You have a lot of freedom here. You are free to choose what you want to study and how intensely you want to study it. But be aware that our students work very hard. Our classes are rigorous. Your work load will be heavy. That means you are going to have to think and work harder than you have before.
Making the transition to Oberlin life can be stressful. Please remember that you are not alone. Our faculty and staff are here to help you. All of us want you to have a great career at Oberlin. If you have questions or need advice or counsel—academically or personally—please don’t hesitate to reach out. You will find we are a caring community with terrific support systems.
A Caring Community
Caring about people, trying to better the lives of all men, women, and children through education is why Oberlin was founded.
Marilynne Robinson alluded to this in her Oberlin essay, writing “What would this country be now if justice, as it was practiced at Oberlin 160 years ago, had released the talents and energies and the goodwill of the great majority who in fact remained excluded?”
Many of you are already active in positive social causes. Studying at Oberlin will help you be even more effective. You may get involved with the Oberlin Project, which is transforming this college and town into a model of sustainability and economic uplift based on education and the arts. Or you can help teach local school children through the Bonner Center or our Spanish in the Elementary Schools project. And more than 30 of you have applied to be part of our Social Justice Institute.
We are proud that Oberlin’s students, faculty, and staff are able to engage in sometimes difficult conversations about some of the hot-button issues facing our society—issues such as race, class, ethnicity, priorities, and fairness. Having those conversations—learning to negotiate our differences—requires open minds, respectful listening, and a genuine desire to learn.
We’ve had many of those conversations here this past semester. Our community’s shared values were tested when we experienced incidents of bias that hurt and unsettled us. While we believe in free speech, we can not and will not tolerate hateful acts and threats. The freedom you have here to act on your beliefs comes with responsibility to your community.
I am proud that our community responded by turning these events into an educational opportunity. Led largely by our students, we came together to teach, to learn, to listen, and to appreciate our wide range of life experiences. When we listen to each other, when students bring up issues and ideas in a constructive way, we can work together to make Oberlin even stronger.
We continue to build on Oberlin’s amazing legacy and we are thrilled that you are now part of it. I urge you to take full advantage of your opportunities to become an engaged and informed citizen on campus and in the wider Oberlin community. Register to vote and be sure you exercise that right in the elections this fall. Let your voice be heard.
Last but not least, I look forward to getting to know you. Beyond that, to paraphrase Andrew Bongiorno, our late, great Dante scholar and professor of English, I look forward to seeing the education you receive here unfold and blossom for the rest of your lives.
I wish you all great success.
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