“Oh, honey,” I hear from the other end of the phone, “your lungs are just covered in scar tissue.” I laugh and then wince as my newly fractured rib sends shooting pain up my side. It’s simultaneously hilarious and deeply frustrating that my first broken bone is from coughing.
Two weekends ago I was exposed to toxic mold and had a severe reaction. Although I immediately began trying to detox the mold, I have spent the last week and a half sleeping for most of the day and coughing uncontrollably. This has been a disturbing reminder of what my entire next year could easily look like.
Since my orientation week three years ago, my experience at Oberlin has been tainted by my inability to go into many buildings and by the constant fear of seriously damaging my health. After publishing my first article in The Oberlin Review, several people reached out to me saying that they had left Oberlin for the same reasons. Others said that they knew people who left Oberlin or had to take medical leave due to the unsafe physical environment caused by the conscious neglect of buildings. I know of multiple buildings with black mold and, while the school says they took care of the mold, I still cannot walk into those buildings without getting extremely sick. It seems to me that Oberlin’s version of taking care of a problem is simply masking it. If the problem were effectively dealt with, I wouldn’t still see paint bubbling off the walls from moisture, or see years-old water spots on the ceiling, or smell the unique combined smells of built-up mold, grime, and bodily fluids that you get when you walk into certain buildings.
During the pandemic, distance from campus lulled me into a false sense of security, and now I’m reminded of what fully returning to campus means for me. I’m reminded that the next year could very well mean every joint hurting to the point of not being able to lay down comfortably. It could mean my mental health spiraling, and constant physical illness, leading to more injuries like my fractured rib. Worst of all, it could mean a setback in the treatment program I have been doing for over a year. Since starting treatment last June, my symptoms have improved greatly, but I know that if I’m not careful — and honestly even if I am careful — all my progress could be undone, and I could be sicker than I was before treatment.
It’s incredibly frustrating to see the lack of effort and care put into keeping students safe and giving disabled students the same opportunities as other students. When it’s time to register for classes each semester, I face the same dilemma: What buildings will do the least damage to me? Can I take the classes I actually want to take or are they completely off-limits for me? How much exposure do I think I can tolerate this semester?
It doesn’t escape me that, were I not constantly exposed to mold and toxins at Oberlin, I might not have become quite as sensitive over the past few years. Like any toxin, each exposure to mold adds up in your system and you become more and more sensitive. After exposures, your immune system is compromised, and you become more susceptible to other illnesses. To imagine putting myself in such an unsafe position again for another two semesters is horrifying. Instead of excitement for my last year, I feel a sense of dread about returning to on-campus classes. A large part of the dread is from thinking about the direct effects of constant mold exposure, but another part is thinking about the indirect effects, such as catching every illness that sweeps across campus.
With the mask mandate gone, people’s immune systems are becoming re-adjusted to being exposed to germs constantly, and lots of students have been getting sick this summer. While that’s unfortunate for everyone, it’s especially dangerous for me because it enables a cycle of compromising my immune system with both mold and viral illnesses on campus. It’s difficult to imagine a worse set-up going into the fall semester.
This isn’t the first time I’ve spoken about these issues. I fought with the administration for most of my first year here, but I felt defeated, dismissed, and gaslighted — eventually, I stopped putting energy into something that felt hopeless. Maybe this will be another futile attempt to make student safety a priority, but I have to at least try again. I’m asking Oberlin to take accountability for the harm their intentional neglect has caused and to invest in creating a safer environment.
I am exhausted from constantly fighting to be heard and for the slightest bit of respect, all while struggling to maintain my health. I am so angry that the only times I’ve been listened to are when I publicly share very personal things about myself and my disabilities. I’m tired of waiting. I want to see accountability and action now.