On identifying with her students: "I know many of the students and some of their struggles, in part because their struggles were once my own... But I also know that as these graduates walked off that stage, they felt exultant."
During extended family gatherings when I was a young adult, my dad would often call to me across the room. "Hey, Melissa, you went to college...." he'd begin.
In the silence that inevitably followed, he would ask me to verify an obscure fact or come up with the answer to a question unrelated to my field of study. I think he did it partly to brag (I was a first-generation college graduate), but also to remind me that I didn't know everything. At some level I'm sure he wondered if the cost and time involved in my liberal arts education were worth it; it's something I've wondered myself at times.
My memories of college classes are not uniformly remarkable, but there were some defining moments. One occurred in a poetry appreciation class I took as a sophomore. I chose the course because I needed an English credit, and I assumed it would take less time to read poems than novels. I was daydreaming in the overheated, smoky classroom one day when the professor began to play a recording of William Stafford. I don't recall the poem, but I will never forget the sound of the words. I was instantly alert and acutely conscious, in one of those moments Annie Dillard describes in An American Childhood. So, Professor Salman, if you're reading this: thank you.
Did I go on to "do" anything with poetry? Not in the strictest sense of the word. Although I don't write poetry, I like to think it informs my prose, and my favorite part of the daily e-mail from The Writer's Almanac is the featured poem. I have a shelf of well-read poetry books in my living room, and I've found ways to weave poetry into my teaching. I've learned to better recognize and appreciate the poetry in the Bible after hearing Oberlin poet Lynn Powell explain it. So, like many of my college experiences, Professor Salman's class enriched and affected the life I lead today in unexpected, yet enduring, ways.
College also afforded me some career flexibility. I was able to stay at home with my daughter and work part time for many years. Then, I was able to transition to a related field that has brought my life full circle. I now work with many first-generation college students at Oberlin. It's a complex, sometimes frustrating, but mostly rewarding job, and one in which I constantly find myself doing new and unexpected things.
Recently, I was invited to guest coach a women's basketball game. I agreed to do the stint, only to be plagued with my usual array of second-guessing: I'm not an athlete. What am I doing? I kept myself awake at night, imagining the ways in which I might embarrass myself. But I quickly remembered, as always, that this job is not about me, it's about the students. I went to the game, had a great time, and learned a lot — and I'm glad to have had the experience.
In 2006, I sat on Oberlin's Commencement platform. It was one of the hottest, most humid May days on record for Northeast Ohio —not the ideal time to be wearing a long, scratchy, black robe.
The heat was worth it, though, to watch the Class of 2006 — which included my daughter — walk across the stage to accept their diplomas. I know many of the students and some of their struggles, in part because their struggles were once my own: family members who wonder aloud when they will get a "real" job, constant money worries, and the feeling of always being unprepared when compared to one's peers. But I also know that as these graduates walked off that stage, they felt exultant. With any luck, something of that feeling will last them for the rest of their lives.
President Dye cautioned the graduates that an Oberlin education would complicate their minds. I expect it will also complicate their lives. That's not a bad thing. Complicated, after all, can mean profound, deep, or mysterious. As it has for me, a liberal arts education will surely lead the members of the Class of 2006 to yet unimagined people, places, and rich experiences.
So, when I look back on my dad's unstated question, my answer is, "Yes, Dad, I went to college. And it was worth it."
Submitted by Melissa Ballard, a class dean and an instructor of study strategies at Oberlin. This piece has been adapted for the forward of The Invisibility Factor: Administrators and Faculty Reach Out to First-Generation College Students.
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