by Fionna Farrell
art by Sam Merrick
[originally published October 2021]
Whether you’re one of the first-years who now make up a third of this campus (welcome, all ye born after 2003) or are a bitter old third/fourth/fifth/ year like me, you’ve probably noticed that Oberlin is a bit...crowded this semester. If you are one of the aforementioned first-years and this is your first semester here — trust me, it wasn’t always like this. There was a sublime period of history, c. August 2021, where one could walk the idyllic streets of our little town without ever seeing a single friend. There you go. Something to dream about.
But now, it seems we have swung back into full action — in fact, fuller than full. And it was quite an aggressive swing (insert baseball analogy here). For the first time since March 2019, our campus is a-buzz. Not only have we reached our pre-pandemic numbers, but we have far surpassed them. In years past, Oberlin’s total undergraduate enrollment has averaged at around 2,700 students, relatively evenly distributed between the classes (not counting fifth-years). That totals at around 600-650 students per class (again, not counting fifth years). The incoming class of 2025 is just short of 900 students. For these near-300 extra freshies, we have somehow found the room. But that’s not to say that headquarters haven’t been tight. Or that it’s been entirely smooth sailing along the way.
First and foremost, there are the glaring issues —the ones that impact our day-to-day experiences in this institutional orbit. Say housing for example. From an outsider’s perspective, it appears that more housing requests were unmet than met this semester. I say this as no jab at ResEd, who worked hard to accommodate as many as they could. But still, housing “decisions” were given to students at an egregiously late time, leaving many with only a couple of weeks to scramble to have their accommodations met. I cannot recall the number of Facebook posts I saw — on, for example, the Oberlin Barter and Trade page, where people typically search for kettles and ironing boards — of people begging to trade rooms, usually with a caption along the lines of “ResEd is not accommodating.” And while some can live with their unfortunate housing decisions, others cannot. Among those who got “screwed” include many with disabilities or other special needs, whose many appeals (and emails) were left unresponded to.
Furthermore, despite all of our strenuous efforts, it seems that not quite everyone could, well...fit. Our hearts go out to all of the students currently living at the Hotel. What happens if you accidentally leave a thumb tack on the wall? Can you charge things to the room — or, er, ...your dorm?
Oberlin’s shortage just does not just pertain to space. While that is a critical aspect of it, there are other more important cultural aspects of overcrowding that it is imperative we not overlook. Recently, a petition started circulating on social media that listed several complaints about AVI Foodsystems and the Oberlin administration; namely that students are being forced to wait on ridiculously long lines to acquire meals, that there is a general food shortage, and that there is a disproportionality between meal swipes and serving sizes. The first two complaints are certainly another example of how the overcrowding situation has impacted students’ daily lives. We now have to devote sizable chunks of our day to idling on lines. We are not sure if “dropping by” DeCafe will meet us with adequate results for our lunchtime needs. These issues are tedious, and, in the long run, no less than troubling.
But another far more pressing issue that the petition mentions relates to workers. AVI employs the same number of workers as it did during the summer (when there were, like 2 of us). Even a return to a “normal” campus population would place an immense burden on these workers. With the inflated number of students, so too does the burden become inflated. We are overcrowded and understaffed, and this creates nothing but a culture of exploitativeness and toxicity. It is not fair that the employees of the college should have to suffer at its whims. If this is where we are now, unless something is changed, what could it mean for the future?
At the end of the day, it really is all about the money. Even before the pandemic, Oberlin was pretty deep in the hole. There was a massive structural budget deficit leaving the College to sweep more off the top of the endowment than they’d care to admit. The pandemic did nothing but exacerbate these pre-existing financial issues, leading the College to draw 8% from the endowment in 2020 (in a normal year it’s no more than 4.5%).
Colleges are collapsing everywhere. It’s our duty to understand and sympathize with that. However, if anything, Oberlin owes us a certain level of transparency about the inconveniences we suddenly find ourselves facing. Let’s not assume that the overhaul is simply a part of “returning back to normal” — it’s not. Things weren’t like this before. The College shouldn’t act like they were. Instead, it should accept and be ready to tackle head-on the array of issues it has now created. They might be a bit less dire than the financial ones. But, for the large majority of us — students, workers, and the community alike — that makes them that much harder to ignore.