Interview by: Rebecca Wood
September 29, 2017
Aliya Ultan is Junior studying Cello and Composition at the Oberlin Conservatory. She has spent lots of time in Oberlin during the school year, but also over summer, fall, and winter breaks where she was able to experience firsthand what Oberlin is like without its student population. She was Program Director for Make Music Oberlin/Cleveland, a grassroots music festival that takes place every June in Oberlin, Lorain, and Cleveland communities.
Q: Has your action in the community changed your role in Oberlin? Or maybe the way you see yourself within the community? And if it did, in what ways?
A: Organizing Make Music [Oberlin] was really interesting because it made me come to terms with some of the major differences between the Oberlin community, Lorain, and Oberlin College and Conservatory. First of all I’d like to say that all of these communities can learn a lot from each other. However, most of the projects created to bring these communities together have been in their beginning stages for a while simply because Oberlin is such a transient community.
Q: What do you mean “Oberlin is a transient community”?
A: As in, you’re here for four or five years and then you leave. You could start to become a really important part of some kind of event, workshop, or teaching position, but then after you graduate not many people stay to continue that work. So it gets passed on, passed on, passed on, but progress becomes an issue because there’s always a new person picking up the pieces, and maybe trying a totally different approach each time. That was something that I had to come to terms with right away: what are the things I can realistically make happen as a brand new person to this community, first of all, but also [as] someone that can do and make something lasting.
Something I kept finding out from locals is that they really do appreciate College kids when we’re being respectful and doing our work, because it’s a great influence on the surrounding area that suffers, I think the same way students suffer, from isolation. And there’s so much of a community here, especially over [breaks]. So a lot changed with how I saw myself, and there was a lot of things that I wasn’t expecting at all that came up that I had to navigate.
Q: Do you have any examples of that unexpectedness? Maybe unexpected outcomes?
A: Yes, so one of the things [I found] is that there’s this line, like Main St., there’s a kind of line [there]. And the people on one side of the street don’t cross to the other side. Tappan Square and the shops on Main St. are a kind of intersection between two worlds, but I am still amazed at how separate the two communities are. And it’s such a small place!
I think something that I realized with Make Music [Oberlin], but also with the work I’m doing now as a music teacher, is that people are totally one hundred percent excited about cross-contamination [between the Town and the College], it’s just they need someone to initiate that. So that’s what I started to do, and am doing now. It’s really fun because there are so many people on the other side of the street that are just as creative and interesting [as students are], and I actually think that students could learn a lot from those people, and these people already know that they’re learning from students. The issue of the divide is complex and yet some of the solutions can actually be pretty straightforward. I think there are a lot of ways to work around [the divide], to work for it, work with it, and create something different.
Q: So you mentioned something about the transience of the college community. What would you suggest to combat that feeling?
A: I think that every person who comes to this school should live here at some point. Stay here for a break, fall break, or stay here over the summer. Try to live off campus, if that’s possible, just because that cross-contamination [between the Town and the College] is where it’s at. That’s where you start to meet people and create a community for yourself that isn’t so exclusive.
The other [thing I’d suggest] is I think leadership roles need to be passed on better. It’s one thing to be a good leader, [but] it’s quite another to train-in another person to be a good leader after you. You can be a leader for four years, but if the next person comes in and you don’t tell them a single thing about what you found out, then they’re just starting over. And even if they do good work, there are certain things that just keep falling behind. That’s something that I’m trying to navigate now, as I’m coming into my senior year. How could I potentially find an underclassman that shows signs of being a good leader, [who’s] also someone that I know I could train into being that cello teacher, or that composition teacher, for the community, and not necessarily just for Oberlin College and Conservatory.
Q: So what do you think you would say to someone who’s interested in going into the community and volunteering?
A: Well number one, I think this idea of “outreach” is really repulsive. I hate the word, I think it’s demeaning. I’d like to call it community engagement. I think engaging in other communities is really important, but I don’t think a lot of people know how to do that. It’s important to enter with respect and to be humble, but don’t tiptoe around. It’s really a matter of entering in a socially respectful way in general, because no one wants/needs you to help them, necessarily. They don’t need help. When you participate in the community, what you’re doing is sharing with new people, and potentially making new friends. I really believe in the respect/humility type thing.
Growing up in Brooklyn as a poor city kid, I know the benefits of programs like Make Music Oberlin. I think students could do a better job of raising money for these projects. And making more events that are free, and actually valuable to those who maybe don’t get to eat every meal each day.
I’m interested in seeing some of the students I know that grow some of their own food give the veggies they don’t consume away, or opening it up their green spaces to other people. I just think there could be a lot more of that kind of thinking going on. On [Make Music Day] I gave away a lot of free T-shirts, toy instruments, and food, and I had to raise that money. It is a lot of work, but I think it’s really important. And I think there a lot of kids here would be good at it, it’s just a matter of doing it. I don’t think [students] here meet enough people outside of campus to have a reason to do that. So that’s the initial setback. But yeah, not outreach, engagement.
"If there’s an opportunity for me to play my music in a venue in the community, that’s number one on my list."
Q: So, as a Conservatory student, how do you feel the community has maybe benefited your music, or just the work you do within the Conservatory? How has that changed your relationship with the Conservatory and the Town together as a single entity?
A: I love the Conservatory building, I think it’s really beautiful. But no one ever leaves this building. We lock up our instruments in lockers in the building, so it turns into a separation of life and work. And that’s beautiful, that’s healthy, but there are so many people who are eager to hear what’s happening in the Conservatory, but they don’t feel welcome inside. It is intimidating when you walk in, and everyone’s walking around super fast to class with their instrument, and you don’t necessarily know where to go to hear something.
I think the Conservatory could be opened up more to the public. I think we should have outdoor chamber music concerts, we should be playing at Kendal more. There's so many businesses in town that have been trying to have music for a long time, and there's so many things that are ready to be happening! But they’re not, because students are locking their instruments up in the Conservatory.
So my attitude has changed in the sense where, if there’s an opportunity for me to play my music in a venue in the community, that’s number one on my list. That’s what I commit to, [because] the first thing I want to see happen is live music on the streets!
All the work I’ve done in the community has not only changed how I feel about Oberlin as a community, but it’s also made me realize that everything is possible, yet because of that it’s even harder to start something new But I think you can actually be a better student when you try to think in this way, because on other campuses it’s more like that because the school is in a city or something. So Oberlin’s kind of unique in that way, just geographically speaking.
Q: How does your involvement help you in your education?
A: I think it keeps school in check. I think sometimes we start to let school take us over emotionally, to the point where a homework assignment is a life assignment. But life goes on, and school is just a matter of getting better and making progress. So I think when you’re talking to people different from you, it can really help you to gain perspective. So great to be friends with someone who’s in a different age group from you, just to keep time in perspective. Teaching kids and talking to seniors, there’s so much you can learn from thinking in that way.