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Can One Person Actually Change the World?

by Fiona Farrell

[originally published 10/11/19]


I was never one of those people who took it upon themselves to apply to 27 different schools during the mind-numbing catastrophe of college application season. Being the shameless self-aggrandizing egotist that I am, I’ll say that this is because I was smart. Some of my prototypical-student friends over at Penn might say this was because I was “lazy,” or something like that. Right. I’m sure they’re having oodles of fun.

Anyway, since I could count the number of schools I applied to with less than two whole hands, the mailslot of my South Philadelphia abode never entered a state of perpetual bombardment by tackily-colored, mawkishly cheerful college brochures.

However, of the relatively few college brochures I did receive during that three-month frenzy, there is one in particular that stands out in my bewildered memory: not necessarily for its aesthetic appeal (it was definitely just as vapidly unsettling as all the others), but for the effect it produced upon me.

If you haven’t guessed it by now, this brochure was for Oberlin.

Self-important white block letters had encroached upon a pretty yet forgettable sky-blue background, reading “Think One Person Can Change The World? So Do We.” Wow. As previously noted, I am a shameless self-aggrandizing egotist; so, duh, I was naturally and instantaneously captivated by this flagrant flirtation with my ego.

This initial infatuation with Oberlin’s seductive brochure served as one of the first of many events that would eventually lead to my arrival on campus. However, I never quite stopped to consider what its origins were. What had been the source of my unabashed infatuation that would permanently alter the course of my college application process, and, consequently, my life?

I think the answer to this is a relatively simple one: Oberlin’s brochure was in direct communication with a preconceived fantasy of mine -- the fantasy that I, but one individual, could somehow control and direct the arbitrary and capricious whims of this spinning blue orb. Basically, that I could make the indifferent universe different.

While staring at the cover of Oberlin’s brochure, this notion did not seem like some wildly outlandish fantasy. Instead, it appeared to be an imminent and unchangeable reality: a lustrous promise in the works. This brochure was promising me that I was going to change the world.

Promises are always easier to make than to keep. When my mental faculties were in check, when my ego was no longer being tantalized by a hackneyed sky-blue pamphlet, I began to think a bit, and I began to laugh. Come on, one individual -- by what means, by what power, by what, like, motivation? Granted, perhaps certain individuals did “change the world” in the past, but they were all, like super smart! Or they had the help of big institutions! I didn’t have what they had, whether it came to brains, resources, simple and unadulterated luck, et cetera. This was no fact to lament, I thought; it was simply the plain truth of reality. And so, contrary to the implications of the brochure and my initial dalliance with its text, I decided that maybe I wasn’t really capable of changing the world.

But then I began to wonder. Did other people think the same way? Because, after all, Oberlin’s brochure did essentially “work” on me, even if its allure wasn’t permanent. Did other Oberlin students believe Oberlin’s slogan to speak the truth -- namely, that one individual really can change the world?

I asked some of my friends for their insights on the matter. As she sat impassively reclined on our tawdry treasure, the Fairkid couch, first-year Hannah Calhoun said “I think [change] starts with one person and gains momentum through other people.” A few minutes later, reclined on the very same couch, fellow first-year Sadie Pasco-Pranger noted “I don’t think one person on their own can change the world, but I think that if you take a group effort and you take one person out, just that one person’s input is gonna make the outcome different.” Fifth-year Tori Tedeschi-Adams (removed from the couch, in email form) stated “I don’t think one single person can change the world, because I think every action is a result of many actions prior to or in congruence with it.”

The consensus seemed to be that, no, perhaps one person by a solely individual means cannot change the world; however, change would not be possible without this individual’s, or a group of individuals’, prior or contingent efforts.

Both fantasy and reality permeate this curious new way of thinking; one is not necessarily diverted from the “fantasy” of hoping to brazenly establish change throughout the world. They merely are made aware that they cannot go about it entirely alone. We seem to have been presented with a new, healthy, and productive equilibrium of sorts.

It becomes compelling to consider, then: what is Oberlin’s motive in convincing us otherwise? Is Oberlin hoping to mirror the sentiment of its students via its slogan, or have we all been collectively duped, our egos flirted with and effectively courted?

There is no right answer: questions like this only exist to wedge us into dim and inescapable corners. It is undeniable, though, that in an age where hopelessly frenzied 17-year-olds would “kill” to get into their dream school, this dream school must offer something truly and unequivocally remarkable in return. Or else, all value applied to the labors of the tortuous application process completely vanishes. And that is when true catastrophe would ensue.

Oberlin’s slogan is but a cautionary force against the future unfurling of such catastrophe. If individuals are tantalized by the promise of “changing the world”, if only for a series of moments, then they will not bemoan their pre-enrollment Sisyphean labor or their decision to come here. Rather, they will embrace each prospect willingly, eagerly, and with ever-open arms.

This is not to say that disillusionment will not persist, and that Oberlin’s slogan is removed from the scaffold. The eyes of many are very much open. “When I was in my junior and senior years of high school, I really wanted to go to Oberlin. I was embarrassed by the poster [with the slogan] they stuck by the college counselling center. All of my friends thought it was cheesy, and I agree.” says Lily Madore, ’23. When I heard Lily say this, I laughed, because I immediately understood where she and her friends were coming from: Oberlin’s slogan can quite aptly be considered “cheesy” -- cheesy because it flirts with our egos so unscrupulously; cheesy because it knows what it wants, and it knows how to get it. And for the most part, it did.

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