Longing and Belonging / Oberlin Alumni Magazine / Winter 2012

Oberlin Alumni Magazine

Winter 2012 Vol. 108 No. 1 OAM Home | Oberlin Online

Longing and Belonging

Yolanda Walker

Oberlin alumni opened the door for Yolanda Walker '09. Now she wants to keep it open for the person behind her.

On a campus as diverse as Oberlin's, unique back stories are abundant. Yet Yolanda Walker '09 brought with her a tale like few others.

The native of South Africa arrived in Ohio at age 19 — not to take her first steps on Oberlin's campus, but to escape the poverty of her childhood by finding work as a nanny.

To Walker, it was the fulfillment of a steadily brewing dream: She would follow in the footsteps of her housekeeper mother while charting a brand new course in America. Up until that point, Walker's family knew little of dreams.

Raised under Apartheid near Cape Town, young Yolanda and her three brothers fought off hunger pangs by day and settled for restless, cold sleep by night. Her family often subsisted on no more than $4 a day, and by age 10 Walker herself took to sweeping up classrooms to ensure there would be bread on the table. Through it all, she was determined to peer beyond the hopelessness.

"I knew I didn't want to be a factory worker, I didn't want to be a housekeeper," Walker says. "I wanted to be more." After becoming just the second person in her family to finish high school, she found herself on a plane bound for America. She settled in as the nanny for a family near Oberlin, hoping to earn a decent living for perhaps a year before returning to Cape Town. Working 50 hours a week, she also enrolled at Lorain County Community College.

It was there that she met Malcolm Cash '90, an English professor who was taken by Walker's tale and the tinge of Afrikaans in her voice.

"When he heard my accent he said, 'Sit down,' and he started telling me about Oberlin's history," Walker recalls. He spoke of the college's deep roots in fighting racial injustice, and of the campus boycotts of Apartheid he took part in as a student. And he told her she belonged there too.

Walker couldn't see how a struggling immigrant could find a way into one of the nation's most prestigious colleges, but she found faith in Cash's credo: Never say no to yourself.

So she visited campus and soon found that not only had she fallen in love with Oberlin, but Oberlin had fallen in love with her too. With support from a generous financial aid package — including a benefactor she never knew — she left her job and enrolled full time. Throughout four years on campus, she found reassurance from every corner: from the dean who identified her as a leader on day one, to the students who shared her boundless sense of possibility, to the faculty and staff who encouraged her to believe in herself.

And through Oberlin, Walker found her place in the world. She devoted a summer to studying economics in France. She learned to speak Mandarin in China. She spent a winter term living with villagers in Ghana. And she emerged with a degree in economics, a position with one of the world's largest investment firms, and a freshly minted sense of pride.

"I had an education, but not one that came solely from books," she says. "I was much more aware of my role in the world and much more aware of the effects of the things I do. Being at Oberlin gave me that perspective."

And now, only three years removed from her graduation, Walker has found that it's time to give back to the campus that gave so much to her. She has established the Carol P. Walker Endowed Scholarship Fund for Educating Future African Leaders. Named in honor of Walker's mother, the fund will provide scholarships for Oberlin students of African heritage.

"The fund is a meaningful way to give back to Oberlin, but also to the broader African community," Walker says.

"I remember as a student, I opened up the letter that described the person whose money was funding my education, and I remember being really moved by that. Now I envision, five or six years from now, a student opening up that same kind of letter. It feels good knowing that I will be able to do that for others."