Oberlin College (visited 4/14/12)
On the Sunday morning after I toured Oberlin, I was sitting in the local coffee shop to get breakfast and check email before getting on the road. When I arrived at 9 am, a handful of students were already there with laptops and books. By the time I left at 10, the place was packed, mostly with college students. Computers and books were everywhere, and the students were focused on their work – on a Sunday morning! Maybe I should check out more coffee shops in college towns, but I don’t think this is something you’ll see every day. There were all types of kids in there, which is typical of Oberlin – in that Oberlin students aren’t typical. They are hard workers, though.
Typical for my travels through Ohio (which seems to have a disproportionate number of colleges in the middle of towns in the middle of nowhere. . .), I suddenly was in the town of Oberlin – and then in the middle of the Oberlin College campus. Buildings there are as impressive and as varied as the students seem to be. There doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to the architecture: there was gothic, Spanish, “Radiator Deco” (the façade did really look like a radiator). The campus sprawls around most of the Tappan Square (home to a couple of albino squirrels, the unofficial mascot of the college). The campus is mostly attractive, but other than the part of campus directly around Tappan Square, there is not the feel of a separate campus, per se. However, the town of Oberlin is about the size of a postage stamp, so it’s hardly necessary to have a separate campus. The tour guide told me that the movie theater in town is currently closed for renovations . . . so they can add a 2nd screen. When I asked her what she’d like to change about the college, she told me that she wishes that the students could get into Cleveland more easily and more often.
Oberlin, in addition to being a highly selective liberal arts school, might be better known for its Music Conservatory; the two parts of campus blend beautifully. The admissions counselor described the music talent on the entire campus as “not-so-hot to quite fancy.” The students are described as “Liberal Arts students with a music bent and Music Students with an academic bent.” Oberlin offers a 5-year dual-degree program in which students can earn both a Bachelors of Music and a Bachelors of Arts/Science. Non-music majors can and often do take classes in the Conservatory, including private lessons which cost $7.50/30-minute lesson which is a steal!
I visited during Admitted Student weekend as well as the Multi-Cultural Recruitment weekend. One of the math professors was on hand in the admissions office to talk with prospective students; she told me about a Freshman Seminar in which they read both non-fiction and fiction (A Beautiful Mind, Proof, several others). It’s the sort of class I wish I had access to. I also had a chance to talk to one of the directors of admission; unfortunately, the NC rep was not in since the reps rotate on Saturdays.
Housing and dining on campus got high marks from the students I spoke with. Dining options are plentiful, ranging from two large dining halls to several food co-ops, including a kosher co-op. Housing options include First Year Experience and Special Interest Housing, including Co-ops, language houses, and Social/Justice housing. The co-ops, particularly when food was involved, were very popular; about 1/3 of the students eat at one of those on a fairly regular basis. As members of co-ops, they have to put in about four hours a week towards keeping it running and to eat there for the reduced rate, but if the student is on work-study, this can count towards their hour allotment. In addition to this kind of work, students complete a lot of community service. They tend to be passionate and excited about something, whether it’s academics, community service, or a club; whatever they decide to do, they pursue with a passion.
Students tend to jump into academics in the same way. Although they have several classes with more than 80 students (mostly at the introductory level), this doesn’t deter the students; they know that the size drops quickly as they move past introductory levels, but the students are also the type to actively seek help, form study groups, or in other ways make sure that they make the most of the classes, even without individual attention. Research is very popular among students, and they seek chances to do this both with professors and independently; they often come up with interesting, interdisciplinary work such as combining physics and music. Oberlin also has implemented giving grants of up to $30K to students to pursue Entrepreneurial enterprises.
More interesting – and something unique to Oberlin (at least I haven’t run into it) – is the Experimental College or “ExCo.” This provides an opportunity for students to learn from each other in areas not offered by traditional classes such as Korean or a martial art. Students can earn up to 5 credits in this way. Students also have to complete at least three Winter Terms on campus. Many students will do internships, participate in study abroad trips, put on productions, work on research, or complete other types of experiences that are not always so accessible during the regular semester. It’s not uncommon for students to complete all four Winter Terms simply because they’re interested in what they’re doing. The college provides other hands-on and unique experiences for students, as well, such as opening up the large telescope twice a month for anyone who wants to come check things out. They have an active theater department that puts on more shows than most other schools I’ve visited; students do not need to be a theater major to participate in shows, and they have enough interest across the student body for every production – in fact, many of the shows are proposed by the students because they look for more opportunities.
The last thing to mention is their art-rental program. Every term, the museum decides which artwork it will not be displaying and then offers those pieces to the students for $5 a term – including Picassos and Warhols. Students camp out for chances to rent the art of their choice. In the 60 years they have done this, not a single piece of art has been lost or damaged.