Oberlin College is the kind of school that puts the "liberal" in "liberal arts education."
The student body comprises quirky, creative individuals who are socially, politically, and environmentally conscious, as well as being out to “change the world.” Its reputation as a “hippie school” comes from programs such as the Experimental College (ExCo), a student-run department that lets undergrads teach their own classes for a limited number of credits, and the Oberlin Student Co-op Association (Oberlin’s fraternity substitute), which provides alternative housing and dining options to approximately one-third of the student population.
Classes at Oberlin are challenging, but the emphasis is on
learning for learning’s sake, rather than exams, deadlines, or a lucrative career. Small seminar-style classes allow professors to be engaging and personable, and it’s not uncommon for students to grab a beer with their professor outside of class. The rural/suburban location—-a small city 35 miles southwest of Cleveland—means that students are more likely to see a free concert at the school’s renowned Conservatory of Music or grab a drink at “The ‘Sco” (The Disco) than hit the bars in town. The lack of a true “college town,” however, paired with the school’s small size (about 2,200 students in the College of Arts and Sciences and 600 in the Conservatory), means that there’s nowhere to escape if students are feeling stifled.
To say that Obies walk to the beat of their own drum would be an understatement (not to mention a cliché unworthy of this unique institution). As one of the most progressive schools in the country — a trait the school has maintained since becoming the first college to accept African-Americans — it attracts a quirky, creative, and socially-conscious student body. “Quite frankly, I am here at Oberlin because this is where the ‘freaks’ are — real people who aren't afraid to act like themselves and do whatever they please,” writes a senior physics major. “Nothing is unusual here, from nudity in the quad to puking contests in the name of ‘art’ to men wearing dresses around campus. We are the social conservative's nightmare.” Students typically describe the campus as overwhelmingly accepting and open to just about anything, allowing students to experiment and come into their own, which is, to many Obies, what college is all about. “The best thing about Oberlin is the freedom you have. From class work to outside activities, you can choose your path and basically what you do every day. No right or wrong way exists on this campus,” writes a sophomore majoring in politics.
Oberlin's campus is diverse in that every student seems to have something unusual to bring to the social mix. One area in which this is most apparent is in the modes of dress: “There is the bathrobe guy, the guy wearing a onesie he made out of leaves, the guy dressed as Dick Tracy, the girl who looks like Flashdance, the girl who is wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt from 7th grade, the girl dressed as Rocky from 3 Ninjas, others with thick-rimmed glasses and a mélange of neons,” writes a junior English major. With so much self-expression on campus, political correctness and sensitivity are important components of the social atmosphere, though some students feel that people get a little carried away with the PC-speak. “I would change how politically correct everyone seems to be; to a point it’s necessary but sometimes it feels so forced and unnatural, like people are just reciting what they're told they should say instead of what they really want to,” writes one freshman studying biology. But no matter how PC students’ vocabularies may be, intellectual conversations and debates still flourish at Oberlin. “I'll never forget one time when I was walking around campus and I passed three groups of people in a row, the first discussing a symphony one of them was in the middle of writing, the next debating philosophy, and the last heatedly discussing the primaries — I thought, wow, where else could this happen but here?” writes a junior majoring in physics.
Academics at Oberlin are challenging and stimulating, but most students seem to find their coursework manageable. Only science majors seem to suffer from a crippling workload. Enthusiasm for learning and self-improvement is the main motivation for students, as most agree that an Oberlin degree is more likely to lead to a Ph.D. or a position at an NGO than a six-figure salary. “Education at Oberlin is definitely geared toward ‘learning for learning's sake,’ even in the conservatory. In fact, it is so much this way that many seniors find themselves at a loss when it comes to considering life after Oberlin,” writes a recent alum of the college’s world-renown music conservatory. She adds, “The college is working on improving resources for life after Oberlin — there is now a pretty helpful Career Resources Center located in Stevenson Dining Hall.” Classes are enlightening and engaging, and after the large, introductory freshman-year courses, most rarely enroll more than 30 students, allowing Obies to develop individual relationships with professors inside and outside of class. “Oberlin classes are very personal and interactive, which is wonderful for student-teacher relations. But you have to want it, you have to get to know your professor for them to get to know you,” writes one freshman. “I know many students who not only talk with all their professors on a first-name basis but have meals with them, babysit their children, and share opinions on why Blood Diamond is worth paying $3 or not to see at Apollo on the weekend.”
Oberlin’s small size (only 3,000 students) not only helps facilitate close interpersonal relations between students and faculty, it also fosters community among students themselves. “The fact that it's small just makes socializing all that much better. My friends at large schools only hang out with their nuclear group of friends they made freshman year; I can hang out with pretty much anyone, and it's not weird to make new friends daily, or to make those new friends your new best friends,” writes a sophomore from California. The school’s location within a small rural town (population 8,195) also contributes to the sense of community on campus, but the remote location can be somewhat stifling. “The campus is small and the town is even smaller. After a while, you city kids may be yearning for some good restaurants and multiplex theaters, among other things,” warns an alum. Nevertheless, the town has many charms and is equipped with almost everything a college student may need, with the exception of a thriving bar scene. That doesn’t seem to present a problem for Obies, however, who usually argue that there is far too much to do on campus as it is. “There is ALWAYS something going on [at] Oberlin. More often than not, there are several conflicting things going on. I'm telling you in advance - you WILL have to make tough decisions,” writes a senior music major. “Many students will go on ‘epic event weekends,’ where they will go from a 7 p.m. recital to an 8 p.m. play to a 10 p.m. jazz concert to an 11 p.m. rock-out in the campus club, before arriving at a party at midnight.”
The abundance of activity largely stems from the student body’s collective creativity and passion. Not only is the music conservatory always putting on great concerts in every genre imaginable, but a large percentage of students at the college are also musicians or music enthusiasts, which means that hip, big-name bands are always passing through. “The Sco (the nightclub on campus) hosts great bands. (ex. Caribou, Explosions in the Sky, Gods and Monsters, Crystal Castles, etc.). The Con doesn't only draw future musicians to the school — students who enjoy music (whether they play or not, whether they aspire to be a musician or not) are drawn to Oberlin because of the sheer amount of concerts on campus each year,” writes a sophomore majoring in art. Aside from music, a popular student organization is the Oberlin Student Co-operative Association (OSCA), which houses several hundred students and feeds over 700, effectively taking the place that Greek organizations hold on some other college campuses. “For many students the co-op system at Oberlin provides an affordable and better-tasting dining option with the added bonus of an incredible community,” writes a freshman. “I eat in Fairchild, the vegetarian/mostly vegan/no cane sugar co-op, and I can say completely certainly that I made the best decision of the last few years of my life when I checked the box saying I wanted to eat in a co-op. It provides me with a home away from my home away from home.”