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Sharing the Oberlin Experience

Oct. 28, 2016

  Photo by John Seyfried

I’ve been traveling quite a bit in recent weeks, meeting with a wide range of Oberlin alumni on various initiatives including raising more money for scholarships and financial aid. As always when I meet with our alumni, I hear how their Oberlin experiences have served them well in living lives of purpose and meaning.

Since I became Oberlin’s president in 2007, I’ve had the privilege of getting to know many Oberlin alums. Whether the person is a recent graduate getting their theology degree at Harvard Divinity School, a high school English teacher in Portland, Oregon, who graduated 25 years ago, or a mid-70s graduate who majored in religion and now runs major investment funds, I’m always struck by how their Oberlin experiences have shaped and continue to shape their lives.

Sometimes the effect of what a person learned at Oberlin isn’t immediately evident. I’ve always loved the story that Jad Abumrad ’95 tells about how things he was exposed to in his Oberlin classes—he majored in composition at the Conservatory but took a wide range of classes in the College of Arts & Sciences—just didn’t make much sense to him when he was here. But as he pursued a career, which eventually led to him being the co-producer and host of National Public Radio’s “Radiolab” program with Robert Krulwich ’69, he continually found himself having minor epiphanies. He would see, hear or do something, the light would go on and he’d realize “oh, that’s what professor so-and-so was talking about at Oberlin.” Jad calls these his “Oberlin moments.”

From the stories I’ve heard from generations of alumni, I suspect thousands of Oberlin graduates have such moments frequently.

Another common denominator among our alumni is their determination to be engaged citizens and active members of their communities. This willingness to help make the world a better place for all takes many forms: volunteering to register voters; serving on a city council; running a non-profit social service agency; being active in environmental causes; or helping organize their church’s relief outreach to Haiti; and so much more.

Living in this small town in northeast Ohio, we sometimes forget what a tremendous effect our College, Conservatory, and community have had on tens of thousands of students over the years. Students who graduate and go on to share their Oberlin moments with countless others.

NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES REUNION AND SYMPOSIUM

I am very much looking forward to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Reunion and Symposium which we are hosting this weekend. Titled “Oberlin and the National Academy of Sciences: Celebrating the Impact and Promise of the Science at Liberal Arts Colleges,” the event will feature 12 of the 22 Oberlin alumni who are NAS members. That is an astonishing and unrivaled number for a small liberal arts college.

It speaks directly to Oberlin’s long and dynamic tradition of student-faculty collaboration on research.

Perhaps the most famous example of that tradition is the close mentoring relationship between Charles Martin Hall, who graduated with a degree in chemistry in 1885, and Frank Fanning Jewett, his professor.

Inspired by a remark Jewett made in class to the effect that whoever discovered a practical way to refine aluminum from bauxite ore would become wealthy, Hall launched his quest to do just that. After much trial and error, and with advice and assistance from his professor and his sister, Hall discovered, the process for electrochemical aluminum refining here in Oberlin on February 23, 1886.

Since then, Oberlin alumni have made tremendous contributions to advancing scientific knowledge. Three science alums—Robert Millikan 1891, physics; Roger Sperry ’35, medicine; and Stanley Cohen ’45, medicine—are Nobel laureates.

So if you get a chance to attend the symposium, please do. And many, many thanks to these outstanding scientists for taking the time to come to Oberlin to share their thoughts with our faculty, students, staff, and their fellow alums.

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