As a freshman, I don’t have many advantages over upperclassmen, but I do have the distinct privilege/trauma of proximity to the college application process. Having endured this process just half a year ago, I still remember a world outside the Vanderbubble—visiting other fantastic campuses, scrolling through CollegeConfidential posts about any permutation of universities, and wondering “Why ‘GenericSafety’?”
Having been here for a physical month (emotional decade), I can now answer the question, “Why Vanderbilt?”.
First of all, we have a three-to-one, squirrel-to-student, ratio. That was a joke. And yet, the thing I most remember seeing about Vanderbilt wasn’t a ranking, but a video on Facebook- a tour from a squirrel’s perspective. This spirit of liveliness and humor, of Vanderbilt recognizing itself as not only a prestigious academic institution but also as a living community- that’s something that reverberates throughout our school.
Something else that may seem normal, but is definitively abnormal, is the lack of materialism. Vanderbilt is a school full of overachieving students, and yet we have somehow avoided extreme self-centeredness and materialism. What this means is that people do things for reasons that aren’t self-beneficiary. There are the service trips and opportunities for volunteerism. But there are things that won’t be mentioned on a resume: we spend time away from studying to comfort strangers. We wake up at the crack of dawn to move in freshmen. We skip gooey cookies to help hurricane victims. And while these things definitely occur at other campuses (although from a scan of Youtube, our move-in day is exponentially better than that of any other school), at Vanderbilt, it has become a culture.
Our culture is extraordinarily rare because it isn’t only created by Vanderbilt students- it creates Vanderbilt students. We don’t have inherently happier and friendlier students, but our culture creates it, so that in four years, who we send out into the world are people that gained these values at Vanderbilt. Imperfect as the #1 ranking for happiness is, it is true to an extent; the Vanderbilt culture prioritizes happiness. We aren’t a collegiate simulation of Darwinian savagery, nor are we a frigid tower of academia and scholarship. We strive for balance, and I think we’ve mostly achieved that.
So here’s the dilemma: if we have this great culture of supporting students and each other, why are we so obsessed with our status as a university?
We are obviously preoccupied with rankings, which shows up in our discourse. The university website is teeming with numbers and qualifiers; we measure ourselves based not on our intrinsic value, but on our value compared to those around us. This isn’t abnormal in top schools, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But we can do better.
First, the University administration should work on changing our discourse so we are looking more inwards than out. It’s nice that we have the happiest students, or that we ascended to rank 14, but the role of a university isn’t just to attract new students, but mainly to care for the ones already attending. Instead of gloating about having the happiest students, we should focus on making our students happier; instead of finding our value in the rankings on US News, we should be involved in a continuous cycle of self-improvement, regardless of whether it registers on the rankings.
Also, as a student body, we should take this idea and apply it to ourselves. We’re already great in that our campus stands for collaboration and not competition; how do we preserve that while constantly improving ourselves? We must start by realizing that Vanderbilt is made of people, no, made by us– if we want our university to flourish, we must first work on changing how we interact with ourselves, our peers, and the environment around us.
In conclusion, we need to engage in an almost paradoxical mindset- we have to be assured in our own competence as a university, while constantly striving to be better. This can take the form of various initiatives being passed through student government. However, it can be as simple as taking the time to smile more to each other. What this can’t look like, though, is a narcissistic gaze inwards; it cannot be trying to become something we’re not.
We’re better than that.
Yuhang Zhang is a first-year in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at yuhang.zhang