Siobhan Wilson
(photo by David Inman)

A Campus Suffused with Thought

The “buzz” referred to by Getsy—the academic intensity that sweeps into all corners of campus—was greater at Oberlin than at graduate school, say many students.

“The only ‘B’ I ever got in mathematics was at Oberlin,” says Gareth Roberts ’92, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science at the College of the Holy Cross. “Oberlin was much harder than I expected. I remember struggling in one of my early classes in discrete mathematics. I read the book twice and really studied until I finally figured it out. That experience changed how I viewed mathematics. It was not just about solving problems, but about thinking analytically and doing proofs.”

After landing top honors in the mathematics department—the Rebecca Cary Orr Memorial Prize—Roberts received a Presidential University Graduate Fellowship from Boston University, earning his PhD in dynamical systems, more popularly known as chaos theory, in 1999.

“There is something at Oberlin in terms of academic intensity,” he says. “It is challenging all the time. You have very meaningful discussions over dinner. Many students were involved with co-ops, so we were buying food, organizing meals, baking bread, and running our own dining halls. I also played on the soccer team with some brilliant thinkers. We talked about great historical and political questions, even in the shower and on the buses. No matter what I did at Oberlin I always felt like I was expanding my knowledge.”

Laura Lowe Furge ’93, associate professor of chemistry at Kalamazoo College, says that being surrounded by other extremely bright students was a major benefit of being at Oberlin. “Having the influence of classmates who were talented and goal-oriented cannot be underestimated,” she says. “After spending the previous 12 years of my life being the top student in my school, it was tough to suddenly just be average.”

David Getsy
(photo by Matthew Gilson)

While other students made strong connections with faculty mentors, Furge did not. “But that’s OK,” she says. “I had other great experiences. Classes were small, labs were taught by professors, interactions were personal, and expectations were high.” Since leaving Oberlin, she adds, she’s sought the mentorship of numerous Oberlin faculty while developing a career at a liberal arts college.

James Dobbins believes there are several things at play that make Oberlin students so engaged. “Some of it is the pre-selection. We have a fair sprinkling of students who come from academic homes, from a certain culture where study and learning are not disengaged from what people do for leisure.”

In fact, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year that Oberlin is the first choice of colleges in the Northeast among the children of professors who leave their home regions.

“Oberlin ends up being the school of choice for faculty kids because they are keyed into education,” says Dennison Smith, professor of neuroscience. “Students are attracted to Oberlin because they are seriously interested in exploring ideas and opinions. As they progress from undergraduate to graduate school, students go from being consumers of ideas to producers of ideas.”

Gareth Roberts
(photo by John Buckingham)

This intellectual curiosity, say administrators, makes the drive for the doctorate natural. “Many students have had an intellectual orientation from an early age and see working in the academy as a way of exploring knowledge—and creating new knowledge as a way of challenging convention,” says former provost Clayton Koppes.

Indeed, for “faculty brats” such as Alex Goddard ’99, an Oberlin biochemistry and neuroscience major from Cincinnati, the academy was nothing new: his parents are college professors. Still, he found little distinction at Oberlin between himself and his classmates who were the first in their families to go to college.

“Oberlin fosters an attitude, an anti-authoritarian attitude, which questions the standards of how the world works; students want to know how it can be changed,” he says. “In the fields of medicine and law, for instance, people have to fit into a mold. Academics are the antithesis of that: good ideas are the only true commodity. As in the rest of academia, Oberlin is a meritocracy; intellectual muster is the thing that gains people’s respect.”

Now a PhD student in neuroscience at Harvard Medical School, Goddard enjoys approaching “big-picture” problems. “I’m trying to figure out how the brain controls its own development,” he says. “It uses the ability to see, hear, and feel to get wired up properly.”

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