This post was originally published on the Oberlin Blogs.
As the annual All Roads Lead to Oberlin program begins, I can’t help but to reflect on my own experiences as a prospective student. Granted, I applied EDII—the cake was already cut. Alas…
Around this time last year, I saw a headline floating around Twitter. It had something to do with a professor refusing to accommodate a group of students’ request for a finals period reprieve. It was clearly sensationalized, and carried the “spoiled/coddled crybabies of Oberlin are at it again” tag that I’ve become mildly familiar with. As curious as I was, I started poking around the internet trying to find out more information about the situation. Eventually, I came to find that the scope of the situation was not nearly of the magnitude and severity it was described as, and that I had been fed headlines that were simply misleading, journalistically lazy, and carried ulterior motives.
Now I, as a prospective student, with all the (inaccurate) information I was consuming, started to question my future at Oberlin. Is this what Oberlin is like? Do students really do this? Is this what the professors are like? Will this hurt my institution’s and consequentially my degree’s reputation or credibility? To be frank, these were all fair questions to ask. College is an investment. Not only are we investing in ourselves, but we are investing in the greater welfare and continuity of the institution by many means.
Looking back, I think I may have benefitted from actually talking to someone about what was going on. I should have engaged in some of these deeper, important questions face-to-face. So, for anyone out there who is wondering what’s going on, I pledge to keep it real:
Oberlin has its challenges. Oberlin is not unique in the fact that it faces challenges; it is unique in the practice of addressing our challenges head on, refusing to sit in the comfortable seat of complacency and avoiding an easily adoptable sense of institutional apathy. Oberlin has a strong history of progressive activism and igniting social change. With that comes a bit of a reputation. I’ve seen people characterize us (students) as “social justice warriors,” and I’ve seen people attack the institution because of this. Yet, in these same demonizations, I have yet to see anyone comment on our stellar conservatory, the amount of fellowship and national scholarship recipients we foster, our dynamic student organizations, our renowned faculty, or any other objective measure to which we should judge an academic institution.
Furthermore, Oberlin isn’t a fairy tale, and contrary to what some may think, it is not a place devoid of the world’s social ills. Oberlin truly is “the real world,” to state otherwise is to carry a reductionist view and to minimize the day to day challenges that people face, struggles people will and do face in and outside of the boundaries of Oberlin College.
Oberlin isn’t a place where free speech is suppressed. Our ability to say what we think and to engage in dialogue is exemplified in the accessibility of our administration. Few institutions facilitate the opportunity to speak one-on-one with their college president, with minimal bureaucracy to overcome. Oberlin does not carry a mob mentality. Sure, a lot of people may harbor similar opinions on a variety of topics. Even more honestly, your opinions may go against such a common grain. But your ability to express yourself is a complement to someone else’s ability to disagree.
I have had some hard times. There have been moments when I was greatly challenged both socially and academically. There have been moments when I have challenged my place at Oberlin. I am very fortunate, though, because during all these trying times I have been supported by loving professors and administrators who have worked to accommodate and mitigate my tribulations, and truly some of the best friends I could ever ask for.
I’m not being indoctrinated; it’s really quite the opposite. I have been challenged to think critically and analytically of all things—to not accept the status quo as being morally absolute. To assume that we, as students, are whiteboards being freely drawn upon without reservation is mildly insulting. I am becoming an engaged citizen of the world.
Oberlin had the great fortune of having First Lady Michelle Obama speak at Commencement last spring. In her speech, she spoke a passage that truly resonates with me today and every day. She said, “I want to suggest that if you truly wish to carry on the Oberlin legacy of service and social justice, then you need to run to, and not away from, the noise… I want to urge you to actively seek out the most contentious, polarized, gridlocked places you can find. Because so often, throughout our history, those have been the places where progress really happens—to the places where minds are changed, lives transformed, where our great American story unfolds.”
Oberlin is a place where minds may be changed, lives are transformed, and where our own personal story begins to unfold. Oberlin is my story, our story, and possibly your story as well. We are the current and future holders of the pen. Let the story of Oberlin be written in our own consciousness. Let it be unaffected and undetermined by an outsider, someone who lacks the nuance, subtlety, and complexity required to write a story bound by the fabric of truth. Let us bear our own personal truth, because it is a collection of our own individual narratives that compose the greater collective truth.
I reaffirm my faith in Oberlin College; it is truly a fine institution, and one that I’m proud to attend.