College Visits: Oberlin College

And the college search begins. Yes, my older son has three years before he heads off, but we’ve decided to start seeing what’s out there now. For now, this likely means visiting what’s close to us or on our way to somewhere we are already headed. In addition to exposing both of us to a wide array of higher education options, these visits will hopefully serve to ignite some enthusiasm about the future for my older son. I’d imagine most 15 year olds could benefit from a bit of that fire.

Oberlin College and Conservatory

Location: Oberlin, Ohio (west of Cleveland and just south of I-80)

Enrollment: 2,800 (2,200  College of Arts and Science, 600 Conservatory of Music, with 175 double enrolled.)

Oberlin College and Conservatory isn’t the first college my older and I have visited. We toured the University of Michigan several years back with a group of similarly-aged children. He’s been on the campus of the University of Wisconsin to visit with a Chemistry professor and tour a lab and has repeatedly visited my father’s Biology lab during his tenure at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He’s walked through the campus of my mother’s professorial home as well, Edgewood College. Oberlin, however, is the first school we’ve vetted in a serious manner.

Oberlin popped onto our radar via an email list. I’d been sometimes skimming and usually deleting posts about colleges, finding them a bit overwhelming and feeling they just didn’t yet apply. I can’t recall why I stopped my skim and toss approach a few months back, but a conversation about small liberal arts colleges with a social action bent caught my eye. Oberlin College and Macalester College (St. Paul, MN) received high marks from a family searching for a school that emphasized intellectual growth and responsible living in the world. Oberlin is on our way to visiting family, so we decided to start there.

In short, we were immediately smitten. We attended a campus tour with a few other families and were led by an enthusiastic rising junior who regularly stopped for questions. She spent a fair amount of time on campus life and the residence halls, which are a mix of older and newer building and include meal options and co-op opportunities unlike what was available in my day. With no Greek system (hurrah!), themed dorms, freshman dorms,  and co-ops where housekeeping and meal preparation are shared, are the centers of residential life. Plenty of options for intentional community based on shared values and interests abound. My son was taken with the emphasis many of these communities placed on sustainability. A few of the co-ops place environmental and food issues at the center. These are common talking points at home and at our Unitarian Universalist church, and I’m delighted to see him adopt those interests as his own.

With the school year over, few students were on campus. The ones we saw were often toting instruments to or from the Conservatory or, as my son noticed, tucked into a book. After discussion about residence life, our guide moved to more academic topics. Oberlin holds two traditional terms, Fall and Spring, while also sporting a third Winter Term for about three weeks in January. This term offers students a chance to delve into one subject deeply, either through research, internship, musical study, travel, or just about anything else. It’s a chance to step beyond the (vast and varied) curriculum of the rest of the school year and learn perhaps more organically. That sounded suspiciously like what homeschooling can offer, which delighted me.

Oberlin offers 47 majors, both in the arts and sciences. According to our guide, many of her classes consist of ten students or less, which seems in line with the 11:1 student to faculty ratio of the school. (The website notes that 73 percent of classes have less than 20 students.) It’s perhaps telling that, according to our guide, the largest class on campus is from the Physics department: Einstein and Relativity, a course for non-majors. Certainly this is not a campus where a student would be just a number, which for my easily-invisible son would be ideal. We were reminded that a benefit of a post-secondary school without graduate students that I’d forgotten: undergraduates have far more opportunities for research. (Research at larger universities is largely in the hands of graduate students.)

Among the usual courses (and not so usual, such as Mathematics: What is It and Why Won’t it Go Away? and Books Behaving Badly), Oberlin offers — for up to five credits toward graduation — Experimental College (ExCo) courses. ExCo courses are taught by just about anyone — students, faculty, Oberlin residents. They can be about just about anything, our guide informed us, from a foreign language not offered otherwise at the school to how roller derby subjugates women. Between the wide offerings of the college and conservatory proper to the unlimited areas of study of ExCo and Winter Term, this is clearly a place designed to stretch strong young thinkers and expand the meaning of school.

This visit to Oberlin gave my son plenty to consider. He was clearly energized by the tour, an energy that’s been lacking in his studies and view of the future. (Did I mention he just turned 15?) After filling his grandparents in on the visit, albeit in the taciturn way many children his age communicate, my father asked him a question: “What quality of a college is most important to you?” My son’s immediate answer brought a flush of relief and pride: “Intellectual stimulation.” Ah, perhaps we’re getting somewhere.


2 thoughts on “College Visits: Oberlin College

  1. A great review Sarah. Thanks for sharing! You know that we’re not there yet but it really helps to hear there are places left where students still have their heads in books!

  2. Sounds like a great visit! You might want to check out St. Olaf College as well. One of the original “Colleges That Change Lives”, it is particularly strong in math, science, music and social responsibility. Excellent gateway school to top graduate schools as well.

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