Oberlin Fails to Support Students

Sam White, Contributing Writer

In September, when my dear friends and classmates return for their final year at Oberlin College, I’ll be going elsewhere. I’ll be joining the unspoken masses of Obies taking time off to go anywhere, frankly, that isn’t here. Miraculously, through luck and persistence, I’ll be leaving in good academic standing, on personal rather than medical leave, with good prospects for returning and finishing my degree. Stories and numbers from semesters past, however, serve as reminders that there are no guarantees and that some of these students will not be so fortunate.

My ambitious, half-baked, exciting, eccentric plans for the fall — an unmapped road trip, a journalistic video blog on food justice and hopefully a few performances of my original music along the way — don’t fully capture my urgent need for a leave of absence. I’m excited about the project, but I’m equally excited to be out. After a hellish journey through Oberlin’s uncoordinated bureaucracy sparked by comparatively simple health difficulties, I’m excited to temporarily escape an environment that has grown toxic for me. After two years of trying to prove to dean after unbelieving dean that I am in fact chronically ill, I’m excited to leave an institution that has grown intent on proving me unworthy of its education.

My situation, as the deans like to remind me, is unique: I’m the exception to the rule. I had the misfortune of getting sick mid-semester, forcing me to withdraw from courses after add-drop deadlines. I had bad luck finding good doctors who would advocate for me. I fell through cracks in the College-offered health insurance. And I happened to come down with two chronic illnesses of the hard-to-diagnose kind — the kind with the names that don’t mean much on paper, with the kinds of treatments that don’t translate into profits for the doctors or pharmacies. I was unlucky.

“Just get more documentation,” the deans said paradoxically, “and we’ll be here to help you.”

To help me.

I want to believe these deans, these administrators of an institution known for using its educational power to help turn the tides of oppression. I want to believe that they share their institution’s historical commitment to justice — justice, in my “unique” case, for those with invisible disabilities. I want to believe that they’re there to help me, but more importantly, I want to believe that they’re there to help every student who faces exceptional challenges in navigating an educational system designed by and for the privileged. I want to believe that they’re there to help students from any number of marginalized communities to gain access to the reins of power, so that future students who follow in their wake will no longer face the same challenges.

This, I believe, is the job of every Oberlin College dean and administrator: to carry on Oberlin’s legacy of challenging and dismantling oppressive power structures and to do this by prioritizing the student — every student — before the system, the status quo or the bottom line. This, I believe, is the job that Oberlin’s deans and administrators are not doing, so long as students fall through the cracks. So long as there are exceptions to the rule. Unique, unlucky exceptions like me.

Education, so the saying goes, is the great equalizer, but each year, students are pushed out of Oberlin College and its peer institutions because they are not given the tools necessary to overcome their individual setbacks. When a college has the power to accommodate these setbacks but chooses not to, it is reinforcing those setbacks and using its power to discriminate.

Relative to some students, I have unique advantages. I stand to benefit, unjustly, from many of the systems of oppression that have contributed to other students’ exclusion. I’m also fortunate to have made it through the worst of my own bureaucratic struggles, and I likely would not have been able to take course incompletes and appeal an academic suspension without a stable home environment, a supportive family and middle-class cultural capital.

I am not the exception that Oberlin’s administrators should worry about, as my own safety nets will catch me where theirs have frayed. Come September, though, I will become one more data point of proof that they need to worry about my peers. The deans’ purported desire to help, their good intentions and their institution’s legacy will do no good unless matched with action and leadership. Oberlin must work tirelessly to dismantle an education system that reproduces privilege and power for those who already have it, and it must lead the effort to replace that system with one that produces equity and justice. Each exception to the rule — each unique, unaccommodated student pushed out of a college that claims to be diverse and inclusive — represents one big institutional step toward the former and away from the latter.

Yes, I say to the deans: My circumstances are unique. But so too are the circumstances facing every student who struggles to graduate on time — or at all — because of challenges their more privileged peers (myself included) do not share. And it would be ironic, to say the least, if individual uniqueness is truly an insurmountable challenge at a school that professes to prospies that “one person can change the world.”

At heart, I believe that most of these deans are sincere in their desire to help. However, they must stop using their intentions as excuses for their increasingly flagrant failures. It is up to them to take the initiative to make Oberlin accessible, not the students who are already on the verge of being pushed out by administrative inaction. It is up to them to practice empathy, not the students to practice respectability. It is up to them to include and amplify the voices their current practices disenfranchise. It is up to them, in short, to practice what they preach.