Progressive Passions Define Archetypal Oberlin Student

CJ Blair, Contributing Writer

During a college-visit odyssey throughout the Midwest during my junior year of high school, my family decided there was time to tour a school that wasn’t on our list: Oberlin College. My mom had thrown her back out that morning, and we knew Oberlin was well out of our price range, so we were pretty close-minded about the excursion. But at the end of the tour, after seeing the Adam Joseph Lewis Center and hearing about Science Fiction Hall declaring war on Fantasy Hall, it was official: I was going to do everything in my power to go to this school. Now that I’m enrolled at my dream college, I’m faced with a unique and intriguing question: What is an Oberlin student?

As a first-year, I may be one of the least qualified people to provide an answer to this, but at the same time I’ve yet to become so invested in and knowledgeable about the campus that I can’t provide an objective view. So let’s give this a shot.

First off, I was reasonably surprised to find that many students here aren’t what I considered archetypal Obies. On some level, I guess I assumed that all Oberlin students looked, dressed and acted like the same breed of ultra-liberal, pot-smoking hippies. That is in no way a condemnation of hippies, but I must’ve been expecting Oberlin’s purported diversity to encompass just racial and ethnic diversity. I had no idea that a community could lean so far left and still have room to represent such a wide variety of social groups.

So how does a college that represents so many different people manage to radiate such progressive vibes? Again, I’m new to this place, and I’m sure I’ll learn more later. At this point, though, I think it requires a lofty analogy explaining what it means to be liberal.

Answers to the question of “What is liberal?” will vary (and maybe include a furrowed brow and a trembling upper lip) depending on who you ask. In most popular contexts it refers to leaning left on the political spectrum — which Oberlin does, perhaps aggressively so. But I’m inclined to say that being liberal permeates deeper than voting for Democrats and advocating healthcare reform. Nor is that to say that everyone at Oberlin is liberal, but with this analogy, I’ll try to define what an Oberlin student is, rather than what a liberal is.

It goes something like this: To be liberal is to stand on the threshold of everything that has ever happened and everything that hasn’t, then leaning your body towards the latter to see what you find. Sounds pretty abstract put that way, but of course that metaphor neglects to mention how trying it is to be at the front of a movement and to support it gung-ho with the unshakable knowledge that it may totally fail.

If it sounds like I’m trying to glorify liberalism, that’s because… well, I am. I think there’s always something to learn from traversing uncharted waters, and having the capacity to at least acknowledge the merits of a new idea is one heck of a practical skill.

This is where Oberlin comes in. Even though it’s perhaps the most liberal college in the country, Oberlin still has its fair share of jocks, geeks, quasi-fraternity guys and even conservatives. The difference here is that almost — if not every — student has at least one thing they are immensely passionate about to which they apply their impressive intelligence and energy. Even if not everyone is the most environmental, most pro-choice or most globally-minded person, it’s almost certain that someone here is, and the sum of all that activist zeal is what makes this place special.

It’s only the second week of classes, of course, and these are opinions I’m making very early in the game. I have no doubt that they’ll change, and I’ll be quite disappointed if they don’t. Until then, I hope to take advantage of the resources available and have one heck of a good time, too. My girlfriend told me that coming here would teach me how to be a good liberal. Already, I can tell that she was right.