Established in 1833, Oberlin College in Ohio has long been associated with and reputed for progressive causes. It was the first educational institution in America that admitted black students in 1835 and the first to grant bachelor's degrees to women in 1841.
In 2005, Princeton Review hailed the institution one of the "colleges with a conscience" for its culture of activism and liberalism. Its students promoted and espoused the rights of workers, blacks and the LGBT community, as well as equality and civil rights. A case in point was the industrial action taken in 2002 by students and faculty members after the college laid off workers without prior negotiations with the college unions.
The liberal atmosphere at Oberlin College stems from its guiding principle: "We believe that one person can change the world, don't you?"
Says Oberlin College president Carmen Twillie Ambar: "We encourage students to go out and change the world for good. We believe in social justice."
The liberal arts college believes that broad education is important for the acquisition of skills for use in resolving complex problems. "It helps to resolve problems when one thinks critically and looks at problems from different perspectives. No matter if it is qualitative, political or sociological analysis, it is important to have different perspectives to try to resolve a problem in multiple ways," Ambar said.
A typical four-year course at Oberlin College is comprised of an initial two years dedicated to the study of a broad set of subjects without a specific major.
"Students can choose subjects in sciences, humanities and arts so they can learn from sociological, anthropological, anthropological and biological perspectives," said Ambar. At the end of the second year, students get to select their choice from over 50 majors.
Their academic experience is further enriched by internships and programs abroad.
"We have a large percentage of students who go abroad, even if this is not a requirement." Ambar said Oberlin College is actively seeking partners overseas for joint programs. For instance, the college partnered with Lingnan University to provide students with opportunities to work on research projects in Hong Kong. "There is a five-week winter term break which students often avail of for such opportunities."
The college also steer their students towards internships. "I got to know a parent who worked at the music production company of Beastie Boys, and I connected to him a student interested in music production," Ambar said. In the course of the student's internship with that company in California, he got to meet renowned musicians, including John Legend and Dave Grohl.
"We have numerous connections across countries and the world which help our students get prepared before pursuing careers after graduation."
Apart from lectures, internships and exchange programs overseas, Oberlin College also offers a unique way of learning in which students get to teach fellow students. "Students can teach any subjects which they wish, like yoga and tackling complex maths problems."
Ambar recalled an instance when students opted to scrutinize the philosophy behind The Lord of the Rings. "Students gathered to watch the movie and later discussed the philosophy behind the movie." She described the exercise an alternative way of learning. "The best way to learn is to teach," she said.
Students who teach in those classes and students who attend the lessons both receive academic credits.
Oberlin College also has a conservatory of music which offers a wide array of musical instruments that students can choose from.
The conservatory is not just about learning music. "Students form teams with other students who play the same genre and they learn how to work in teams. They have to listen and respond to each other," Ambar said, adding that music today is different from before so students need to develop an entrepreneurship sense as well. "It is important for students to build their own audience. They have to learn how to use social media and commit to the perspective of their audience."
Conservatory students acquire theoretical knowledge as well as opportunities to perform in concerts. Excellence is achieved by those who spend extra time perfecting their craft.
"They practice for four to five hours a day. There are even jokes that if we don't lock up the building where practice rooms are located, students will stay all night to practice," said Ambar.