Give many college students the option of taking January off from school, and they’ll gladly hop a bus back home for a few weeks of free food and laundry. Not so much at Oberlin, where the beloved winter term gives students the opportunity to pursue interests that aren’t listed on the usual course schedule. Without actual classes, students can devote all their time and energy to one special project, which can be completed as a solo or group endeavor, pitched by students or faculty, conducted on campus or elsewhere in the world.
From hand-making paper to overhauling one’s personal fitness regimen, from recording radio programs in El Salvador to working at a socially responsible investment firm through the Business Scholars Program, winter term is designed to give students the chance to focus on something that matters to them—or try out something they think might matter to them. “I use winter term as a time to express some creative part of myself that is not as well nurtured as it should be during the academic year,” wrote an African studies/sociology major on the Oberlin student blogs. And a math/creative writing major wrote, “There will never again be a time in my life when I can drop everything for four weeks and do whatever I want without having to worry.” Plus, being able to conceive of, line up, and execute a month’s worth of fruitful, self-directed work is inarguably a fantastic experience for the working world—regardless of what month of the year you do it in!
Each year, 63 percent of Oberlin students rally to contribute more than 100,000 hours of community service through the Bonner Center for Service and Learning, a college organization that teams up students, faculty, community partners, and alumni to solve pressing problems. Students frequently work within the community of Oberlin or the greater Northeast Ohio area, but in recent years they’ve also spread their good work to more than thirty countries, too. Opportunities include acting as Ninde Scholars to mentor students attending Oberlin City Schools (often so they can be the first in their families to attend college) and joining AmeriCorps as part-time members through the Bonner Leader Program to work on initiatives in public health, the environment, veteran issues, education, and clean energy, to name a few. For fifteen incoming freshmen who are especially passionate about kicking off lifetimes of community service, the center offers the Bonner Scholars Program, a generous, four-year scholarship initiative that requires several hours of weekly community service and participation in seven weeks of summer volunteer programs. “I’m a Bonner Scholar and it’s quickly turning out to be one of the most rewarding decisions I’ve made since coming to Oberlin,” one computer science major blogged. “I work at America Reads and the Du Bois Fraction Club right now and I love both sites.” There’s also the Dalai Lama Fellows Program and Projects for Peace, competitive scholarship programs that reward and facilitate cross-cultural, inter-faith, and conflict-reducing projects at home and abroad.
Oberlin may seem like a hippie’s haven, but that doesn’t mean it’s not keeping up with the entrepreneurial spirit of our times. “As a word that describes money-centric capitalists, yes, entrepreneurship has always been a little antithetical to Oberlin’s values,” blogged one two-time LaunchU participant and the current Creativity & Leadership Program fellow. “As a skill set and state of mind, however, it defines nearly everything that makes Oberlin what it’s proud to be today.” The Creativity and Leadership Program offers loads of mentorship and funding opportunities—in the case of the LaunchU accelerator, up to $45,000 in funding. Held during winter term, LaunchU is a three-week boot camp that helps students develop business models and hone pitches to venture capitalists at its annual pitch competition. LaunchU participants receive ongoing support from Oberlin alumni—in the form of venture coaching and connections to industry experts and investors, for example. Students of all stripes can participate: There’s a venture track for those with the next big tech ideas, social track for nonprofit visionaries, and small business track for innovators in the performing arts, food, and so forth.
For those students who aren’t quite in pitch mode yet, there’s the Ignition Fund, a smaller grant that will help them take their ideas to the next level. And for conservatory students, the Flint Initiative Grants are music-specific endowments that allow them to dream up big new artistic endeavors. Creativity and Leadership programming also offers workshops that coach students through the various application processes. Examples of ventures include a startup that provides a solar-run education platform to schools in developing nations, which they then use to hold interactive video sessions; an indie record label and collective; a running app that pairs up the best music for your workout; and a Moroccan rug collective that gives back to weavers back in Africa.
Not all colleges can count a nationally ranked art museum as a major facility, but then again, Oberlin isn’t just any college. The Allen Memorial Art Museum is considered on par with museums at Harvard and Yale, and it boasts 14,000 works of art—some of which students can rent for five dollars a semester. You read that right: In the dorm rooms of Oberlin students, original works by Renoir, Picasso, and Dalí hang on the walls next to the usual Jimi Hendrix and Pulp Fiction posters. This is one school that trusts its student body!
Beyond being a beautiful place to take in the works of the Dutch Masters for free, the Allen Memorial Art Museum is a huge draw for students interested in pursuing museum work as a career. There’s the Student Docent Program, which introduces students to the theory of museum learning, trains them in leading guided tours, gives them exceptional access to the collection, and exposes them to a variety of practical careers within the museum world, often inspiring them to become curators or art educators. “[The] museum … is a place where students can get all sorts of experience as undergraduates,” Professor Erik Inglis told us. “Which then means that when they are applying to . . . grad school or internships, they really have more experience than students from other schools. You can go through any museum of significance in the United States and find Oberlin grads.”