President Oden Pens College Application Essay for Wall Street Journal

6 May 2009

In spring 2009, right around the time high school seniors are hearing from colleges on admissions decisions, the Wall Street Journal asked a number of college presidents to answer on of the essay questions on their school’s application. The responses appeared on the Wall Street Journal’s website on May 6, 2009. The following is Carleton President Robert A. Oden Jr.’s response.

Question: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

It was not, I know, the first time I’d been lost, really lost. It was not, I also know, the first time I’d been in Cairo, but the City Invincible I did not know as well as I would come to in later years.

I awoke one morning, staying in the center of Cairo, not far from the quite enchanting downtown campus of the American University in Cairo, and hence near the Egyptian Museum and the Nile. A day largely free I had from working to learn Arabic and other tasks. “Aha,” thought I, “I’ll visit the pyramids.” Sure, I’d been there before, but always in a group and I wanted to walk around and around the Great Pyramid and those of Khafre and Menkaure alone, alone and silently, as the pyramids were meant to be experienced. But how to get there, to Giza on the western edge of Cairo where habitations ceased and the desert, stretching across all of Africa, began? Not, I knew, via bus or taxi, because though there is much to love in Cairo, traffic is not among the city’s lovable traits. So, I decided, I’ll walk.

Walking through Cairo is not without hazards; the sidewalks often give way to deep potholes and one has inevitably to cross streets – that unlovable traffic again. But Cairo is among the world’s safest cities, perhaps the single safest city anywhere, and one learns, I knew even then, a lot more by walking. Indeed, later in life, much my favored way to come to know any city new to me was to run through the city, initially wearing sneakers (Converse basketball shoes, I recall), then the spiffy new running shoes made by so many companies when running became fashionable.

And the getting to the pyramids, I knew, would be easy: every few blocks, sufficient horizon would appear between buildings to display the pyramids, beacons towering above, there in the west, unmistakable, navigation landmarks par excellence.

Getting to the pyramids happily followed my confident prediction. It was easy. It was the getting home that was not. No pyramids towered above central Cairo and my room. No landmarks this time. Within short minutes, I was lost. Utterly, hopelessly, lost and confused. We are taught not to panic, never to run, when lost, but the experience itself is so shattering, so robbing of rationality and all teaching, that every time before I’d been lost, panic and running ensued. I did just this in Giza, en route somewhere, but en route nowhere familiar. Rationality and instruction gave way to panic and running. But only briefly. Much sooner than when I’d been lost before, most often in the far northern woods of the U.S., I ceased to run and to panic.

I realized, and this came as a revelation, that I was safe. Here, in Cairo, I was safe. Slight half-sentences of Arabic I could utter, sufficient to gain, with hand signals and more, some sense of where I was, some sense of where I needed to go. The trip home required hours more than the trip out, but far more did I learn en route home.

Here’s what I learned. That people are people, that the world around most people are friendly and helpful and come swiftly to the aid of those lost. Something more, something equally important, something which with me has stuck, I learned. I learned that life is an adventure and that that best course through life is to approach all of life as an adventure. Thus placed into context, getting lost is an adventure from which we can learn uncommon and uncommonly important life lessons. In college, in college courses, far from home and family and familiar, comforting faces, I’m sure to get lost again. But if I see college as an adventure and if I see getting lost as part of the adventure, then the learning which I long for college to be will come the more swiftly, the more certainly.


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