College Must Prioritize Student Happiness

As the academic year comes to a close and further consequences of, and navigation through, Oberlin’s financial austerity ensue, the administration and student government must prioritize student happiness to ensure that both mental health and morale are addressed as fully as possible in the immediate and coming years. With Student Senate and the Office of the Student Treasurer’s anticipated changes to the structure and efficiency of the Student Finance Committee, the College may be in a comfortable position to do just that.

Most Oberlin students would laugh if you asked them whether the student body was generally happy. It’s a symptom of pressure-cooker academics paired with with the more student-centric fabric of a liberal arts college — how are we supposed to maintain a positive mindset in the midst of a heavy workload designed to prepare us for an even less forgiving world? In “Senate Survey Reveals Student Dissatisfaction” (Feb. 16, 2018), the Review reported that based on a survey conducted by Student Senate, nearly 49 percent of students have previously or recently considered leaving Oberlin College.

This problem isn’t new — colleges and universities have had to cope with the increasing loss of students in recent years as extra-collegiate opportunities have broadened. However, the issue is compounded by another difficult pairing: the increasing demand for mental health and disability services at an institution whose financial struggles already led to disappointment long before our current deficit. Considering that Oberlin is cornered into spending vast sums of money on completing facilities specifically funded by donors and left with a minimal portion of the endowment available to freely allocate to actual student needs, even when governing bodies make every effort to address the issue, student happiness often feels like an afterthought. Whether the efforts of the administration and Senate have been adequate is not the point of this editorial, nor are they our place to determine. Yet it’s clear that there is much work to be done.

One recent action made in collaboration between Senate and the Office of the Dean of Students was to knock out walls in the lobby of Wilder Hall, creating a common area meant to bring students together. Anyone who has walked through the lobby can tell you that despite that honest and understandable intention, there’s little difference between sitting in that nondescript, stuffy room and any other nondescript, stuffy room anywhere else on campus; take your pick. The truth is, there just isn’t enough to draw students to one space like that over another — the Science Center Atrium is prized for being well-lit and spacious, but it can’t accommodate many students. The first floor of Mudd library offers some couches, but the adjacent Azariah’s Café tends to function as a workspace rather than a communal hotspot.

We’ve addressed the issues with dorm life at Oberlin in previous editorials, but they’re worth mentioning here nonetheless. Besides dorms in the First Year Residential Experience cluster, students have few living opportunities that help foster a closer bond with the rest of their class — and given the fluid reality of course selection, there are few ways to reliably connect with other people in the same year.

It’s time to get creative. If community lounges built for specific class years were to pop up around campus, students could have more specialized spaces that serve to mend divisions both within their class and between North and South Campus. Class presidents could help organize activities, furnish these spaces with comfortable couches and bean bags, and install televisions, game consoles, and board games. Student organizations interested in reaching out to a specific class could facilitate sponsored events in these lounges as well, creating a much more tangible and reliable avenue of outreach than the current method of posting in class Facebook pages.

In this issue, we report on upcoming changes to the Student Finance Committee meant to increase its engagement with student needs. Providing funding to create and maintain these lounges would be an excellent way to do so. With increased flexibility, class-specific events based on the interest levels of students would become more viable, bringing classes together and providing a greater sense of community.

We’re not going to pretend that adding a handful of lounges will fix the rampant strain of unhappiness running through Oberlin. But as the SFC moves toward more flexibility and a more intimate degree of communication with students, the responsibility will fall on us to advocate for the funding we need to raise the community’s spirits. We have an incredible resource in this fund, and taking advantage of it, as College junior Kameron Dunbar said, to “our last student dollar” would help mend some of the rifts that leave so many students feeling isolated.