Oberlin College is so distinctive from Northeast Ohio that driving just 10 minutes away can feel like entering another world. An oddball-liberal college in a state that voted red in 2016, Oberlin is uniquely positioned. For students who come from conservative areas in Ohio, the transition to Oberlin College culture can be a disorienting experience, despite their hometown’s geographical proximity.
“It’s so crazy how different it is,” said Paige Monyak, a second-year College student from Elyria. “When people say it’s like a bubble here, it’s like an actual bubble. … Right when you pass the [Allen Memorial] Art Museum [and step] on campus, it’s just completely different.”
College fourth-year Susana Thomson Lince, who grew up in Wooster, echoed this sentiment.
“My experience in Ohio has been so different from my experience at Oberlin that I forget [I’m still in the same state],” Thomson Lince said.
Part of the reason for this difference between Oberlin and other towns in Ohio is the demographic of Oberlin College students. Delaney Kelly, a College fourth-year from North Royalton, said she was shocked by the socioeconomic status of some of her peers when she first got to campus.
“I hadn’t really experienced wealth and privilege to the extent that I see some people at Oberlin [have],” Kelly said. “Especially [first] year, I became really jealous of the other opportunities and stuff that people had growing up. Not to be misconstrued, I [wasn’t] struggling or anything, but, in some ways, [the opportunities more privileged students had] made me feel inadequate to come to Oberlin.”
In addition to demographic differences, many students from conservative towns in Ohio are struck by the political nature of typical Oberlin conversations. Conservatory second-year Steven Cozzuli, who is from Ashland, described being shocked when he heard students talking about progressive topics that he hadn’t encountered prior to Oberlin.
“The first time I actually got [on campus] was for the Brenda Grier-Miller Scholars Program, which is for low-income/first-gen students,” Cozzuli said. “In that group, it was the first moment that I was, I guess, culture shocked … [We started] to talk about things like social justice, which just never was a concept to me before leaving high school, which is, I guess, the fault of myself, location, family.”
Monyak also had a difficult time understanding the political topics that often come up in conversations with Oberlin students.
“[In Elyria,] everybody’s very conservative, very religious,” Monyak said. “That’s all I’d grown up with and was used to. And then coming here, all of my knowledge of liberal [or] feminist topics was all from the internet, and I wasn’t able to really talk about it or gain knowledge from it at all from my hometown [or] anybody in real life. So I came here, and I was really shocked by the way people talked about things and thought about things.”
Even for students that had strong ties to social justice before coming to Oberlin, the transition can be difficult. Justin Godfrey, a College fourth-year from Westlake, described that he was one of the only Democrats in his conservative town, and he expected to be among like-minded people at Oberlin. What he found, however, was a new world of leftist thought beyond what he had previously encountered.
“When I was in high school, I was a big Bernie Sanders guy,” Godfrey said. “And people [in my hometown] were like, ‘You’re a communist,’ basically. I came here, and I was like, ‘Am I just a moderate Democrat? I know none of this [stuff] you guys are talking about.’”
Though he is able to laugh about it now, Godfrey explained that it was hard to adjust to the climate at Oberlin.
“I think it was very frustrating, as is the beginning of anything,” Godfrey said. “You’re picking up an entirely new cultural set of norms, right? What is acceptable, what’s not acceptable … [and there is] just constant anxiety, like ‘Am I going to say the wrong thing?’”
In Oberlin classes, both Godfrey and Monyak have felt anxiety talking about subjects that their public schools didn’t cover. This is especially due to the prevalence of cancel culture on campus, in which students harshly call out peers who make problematic comments. This call-out can also lead to the social rejection of an individual.
“Cancel culture scares me a lot,” Monyak said. “In classes, I’m so afraid. I’m taking a [Introduction to Gender, Sexuality, and Feminist Studies] class this year … [and] I try not to talk in class. I was discussion leader a few weeks ago, and I did not know how to talk about things because I’d be afraid I’d say one wrong thing and then people would be like, ‘Well, what did you just say?’ … Half the time, everybody is very understanding and totally gets [that] everyone comes from different backgrounds. But at the same time, I feel like I say one wrong word and then people will not even want to acknowledge me.”
Godfrey experienced similar fears in his classes as a first-year. While he went to a good public high school in an upper-middle-class area, Godfrey was still shocked by the depth of topics covered in the private schools of his peers. He urges Obies to remember the difference in education before “cancelling” others.
“Is [the comment] out of ignorance or out of malice?” Godfrey said. “I think that Oberlin needs to understand that a little bit more, especially cause we’re a very bi-coastal campus. It’s a lot of people from New York and people from L.A., and big city people as well. … [In] smaller [conservative] communities, we’re not having discussions like this in our classes in high school. And that can be a bit frustrating when you first get here.”
Despite these frustrations, Oberlin culture has been a positive experience for many students from Ohio. Thomson Lince explained that she was one of a small handful of Latinx students at her high school in Wooster, and she was excited to come to Oberlin because, though it is still a predominantly white institution, it is more racially diverse than her hometown. She feels that Oberlin classes helped her to better understand her past.
“There was a lot of stuff, even my own personal experiences, that had always felt weird to me, looking back, but I didn’t know why they felt weird,” Thomson Lince said. “And then coming to Oberlin gave me the vocabulary and understanding as to why I felt weird about those experiences, and it made me realize a lot. It just put my past into a little bit more perspective.”
Like Thomson Lince, Kelly was really excited by the culture at Oberlin. Kelly is a Theater major who said that a career in the arts wasn’t encouraged in her hometown. She feels that Oberlin supports her passions.
“Even when I was touring [Oberlin], I got the sense that you could really just do anything, people will support you and help make whatever you want happen,” Kelly said. “I really appreciated that environment because I feel like at my high school I didn’t really get that kind of support. That was a huge draw for me.”
Even for students that did struggle with transitioning to Oberlin, campus culture can be a positive experience. Many students cite culture shock as an essential part of their personal growth and College education.
“I think [culture shock] makes you a better person,” Godfrey said. “It just breaks you down, and then you can get to build yourself up. … It was a good experience for me to realize, ‘Oh, I know nothing, let’s figure it out.’”