10 Questions with Lee Schmidt

Lee Schmidt is a marathon-running, rat-dissecting, a cappella leader that can be seen giving tours, doing slam poetry, and chatting her way through campus. The Hustler sat down with the junior to hear more about the importance of vulnerability, h
er Facebook-famous water bottle, and why she goes to so many concerts by herself.

1. You have run two marathons since you’ve been at Vanderbilt. Some people say that that’s crazy. What have you gained from running so much around this city?

I think a big part of a reason is why I feel like a Native Nashvillian is because I do as much running in the city as I do. And because I’ve made a very concerted effort to get off campus in my runs and explore different neighborhoods and try different routes, mostly because I have a short attention span and will get bored. But the fact that we go to school in a city where I can go on my 22-mile route and never double-back on myself or go in an area where I feel unsafe or uncomfortable says a lot about Nashville.

But more than that, it gives me a chance to feel a part of the city. I love running downtown early in the morning when everyone is kind of waking up and starting to get to work, but it’s quiet. And Broadway is shockingly quiet and the streets are clean, which, as you know, isn’t the normal experience. And I also think in terms of the campus community, I never thought I would meet as many crazy people as I have who also love the experience of running, because I never was a team runner in high school. I just did it, and it became my stress relief and it became a very important part of me being able to back into my own head and process and be unplugged for an hour or so every day.

2. You are a tour guide and part of Vanderbilt Tour Guide’s Training and Development Team. How have your tours changed throughout the course of your time at Vanderbilt?

I think I’ve become vulnerable with prospective students as I’ve become more comfortable with my identity as a Vanderbilt student. When I first started giving tours, if someone had asked me about the freshman 15, I would have laughed it off and said, “No, that doesn’t really happen, but the food is really good.” But now, thinking back on my own first-year and second-year experience, I have the ability to look that parent and student in the eye and say, “Look, you don’t need to be worrying about that. It’s a waste of your time and a waste of your energy. And trust me, you’ll be much happier if you don’t spend your freshman year obsessed with what you weigh.” Just lessons like that, where I’m distanced enough from them to carry them in who I am, in terms of actually learning from them and not being affected by them so much, has helped.

3. You are also one of the few Mississippians on campus. How has your background shaped your Vanderbilt experience?

You know, it’s interesting, because I never identified myself as a Mississippian before I got here. I never really strongly correlated the fact that I was southern, that I was born and raised in the south, except for four weird years in Indiana. But people have such surprising conceptions of my own state and my home region, and there’s such an over-classification of the south as an entire homogenous region. Which is always kinda funny to me since, because like, ‘Do you guys know where you are right now? You’re in Tennessee. Welcome to the south.’ And of course, Nashville is kind of its own entity. There’s a lot of quiet pain that I think people in Mississippi are living out, that they haven’t had the ability and the opportunity to articulate. And you almost find yourself serving as an ambassador for your home region, which is something I hadn’t ever experienced before. I like how being to explain a little bit of where I’m from can explain what it means to be where I’m from. How much we’ve brought in terms of art, culture and history.

4. If you could change one thing about Vanderbilt, what would it be?

Everybody says parking, but I think that’s a cop-out. I don’t think it’s anything that the university does, especially since the administration is so incredibly receptive to student needs and desires. I think it’s more of a cultural shift and I think it’s starting to happen. Just being able to have it not take two years to be vulnerable after getting on campus. Freshmen year, you put up walls. You know, “You got into Vanderbilt, you’re going to kill it your freshman year, you’re going to make a 4.0, and you’re going to do incredible things on your student boards, you’re going to be on an exec board your second semester of your first year.” And you’re not struggling with anxiety, you’re not struggling with depression or disordered eating. You’re fine, you’re not tired.

I think we can create a situation where it is truly collaborative, not just in terms of the fact that we help each other in academics and we’re always there for our friends when they need help with studying or classes, but also that we have that same openness in talking about the tough questions, like mental health, your experience on campus within a minority group, or your experience coming from a lower socioeconomic class. Because we all need those conversations, and we all need them especially when we first get here.

5. You are a vegetarian but also engage in rat research in the Neuroscience Center for Drug Discovery that studies drug treatments for maladies like schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, etc. How do you reconcile being a vegetarian while also cutting up rats for scientific research?

Everyone who goes vegetarian and vegan kind of does it for different reasons. I always joke that it was because I had to strike a middle ground between my vegan mom and my meat-eating dad. I would be at my mom’s for three weeks, and then my dad would come back into the country and I would go eat a pork chop and be violently ill. So that was kind of where it came from in high school. In college, I have the tendency to get very involved in my work or in my classes, and I treat my body as a fast-moving trashcan and eat protein bars and chips and I’m eating Nutella and apples at 2 a.m. and it’s not a balanced diet. And so having something to hold myself accountable, asking myself if I’ve gotten enough protein and iron, because I have to go a little out of my way to do that, is nice.

The rats and mice that we work with, I get very attached to them, because they’re super cute. I’m definitely an animal lover, all for animal rights, I’m not a fan of the idea of PTA busting into our labs and setting all of our rats out into Nashville, because they would all die. But I think there’s a big difference between animals for makeup testing, and animals for nervous-system drug testing. Having worked at a special needs camp, which I’ve worked at for five years, and seeing the reality of some of these conditions of people struggling with bi-polar or schizophrenia, or disassociation in general, it doesn’t feel like an unreasonable sacrifice.

6. Why do you go to so many concerts alone? What do you benefit from it?

That started because when I got to Nashville, I was so overwhelmed by the amount of music that was surrounding me, and I was a huge music junkie. I’m always surrounded by music. Music is very important to me as a performer, and I always listen to music when I run, and pretty much when I do anything. So coming from Jackson, Mississippi, where not many people come to perform –– it’s better now than when I left –– to then come to Nashville, Music City, USA, I immediately got tickets for like five different shows within the first semester. It didn’t even cross my mind to go if I couldn’t find somebody to go with me, especially my first year when I didn’t know many other concert-goers.

I think it’s almost fun because as much as I love hanging with my friends, I’m a super extroverted person, it almost allows me to be more extroverted to go to concerts alone because I have 250, 300 people all around me and make friends with. I’ve met so many really cool people in concert crowds. A few of them have asked for my number which was a really surreal experience. I forgot that was a thing you could do in adulthood if you know somebody. Really weird. But all that aside, Nashville concert-goers are very respectful, they know what they’re doing. They keep the cell phone usage to a minimum. They don’t push and shove their way to the front. Overall, they’re people that I would want to get to know anyways. So it’s fun to disappear in the crowd for a night and be someone separate from everything else that I’m involved in and just listen to music with a bunch of Nashville people.

7. You are the president of Swingin’ Dores, an all-female a cappella group. How has that shaped your time here?

I think every single performing arts group adds a lot to campus. I don’t think we can have too many a cappella groups or too many dance groups or too many theatre groups. Because if there’s enough people that want to get involved, and if there’s a need and a drive for it, then every single person will get something crucial. You know, performing around campus is great, advocating for different groups, and we had the opportunities to sing with other members of a cappella groups to a girl who was visiting campus through Love your Melon. She is now a cancer survivor. She has been declared a cancer survivor and has finished chemo, but she was going through treatment and all she wanted for the day was to be a Vanderbilt student.

So getting to come out and do a little performing for her, even if it was something we threw together with a bunch of different groups. You know, that’s the kind of thing arts bring to the campus. If we can make one person’s day by serenading them in Rand, if we can make one group’s day better by adding a performance to their event, and even if we don’t do any of that, even if we just meet together and rehearse, I have this network of people to fall back on. Every college woman is like, “They’re going to be my bridesmaids, they’re going to be in my wedding, oh my God I love them so much.” But I really do. And that’s been really cool to immediately find that group as soon as I got to campus.

8. You are a pre-med student. Where do you see yourself in ten years?

In 10 years, I will be thirty. So, minimally broke, as not broke as is possible, which is probably still semi-broke. So hopefully in ten years I will be four years out of medical school, which means I’ll be somewhere along the residency/fellowship track. With an MD, for sure. I would love to say in Nashville. I would kind of like to not leave this city, ever. Even if I don’t end up here in the next stage of my education, I wouldn’t mind coming back at some point. In a city where I can leave my shift at whatever hospital I am an intern or a resident or a fellow at and be in a place where it’s vibrant, there’s life, and it’s exciting and there’s things happening, food trucks to go to and concerts to see. I guess we’re in the stage of our lives where technically in 10 years some people’s answers might be, “married.” Or “with a kid.” I will be thirty, so that’s not at all unreasonable, but I never worry about that like I do about my career.

I always feel like in 10 years, I’m going to have friends and some sort of family, whether it’s a friend family, or a married “holy shit” family. I don’t know, it’s not that I don’t want to have a family and to “settle down” it’s just that I have a lot of faith that that’s going to happen, not necessarily with me working for it in any way, it’s just going to happen because it’s something that’s important to me and the priorities will fall into place. So when you ask where I see myself in ten years, I don’t see a house, I see an operating room. You know, I see somebody’s brain open on the table. That’s an interesting question. They ask you that in high school and you’re like, “I don’t know, college.” But now you’re like, “Uh, a mortgage? Taxes?”

9. One of the biggest focuses on your tours is that Vanderbilt is the happiest school in the nation. As recently announced, we are now in the number two spot. How do you react to that?

Definitely ironically enough, sad. I mean I think to a certain extent, all the rankings are pretty arbitrary at the end of the day. But we’re number two in the rankings, number one in my heart. And I just know what my personal experience has been: I can’t imagine being at any other school than Vanderbilt. So as subjective as all of those are, and wherever they put us in the rankings, I think all that matters is the true student experience, and as long as students continue to be really passionate about the Vanderbilt community, it’s going to keep being a really awesome place to be.

10. You lost your water bottle and frantically posted over social media platforms to find it. It became quickly Facebook famous. Why are you so attached to it?

I am a constantly dehydrated and sweaty person so this thing is very important to me with as much running as I do. Also, it’s covered in these stickers of things that I’m involved in and are important to me. It started collecting stickers pretty early last year. Some of them are sad and worn. There used to be a “Swinging Dores Love our Dores” sticker, there’s Tour Guide sticker – it’s the third or fourth layer of it because it always wears off, luckily the KD sticker and the 26.2 are both real laptop stickers, so that’s nice. A few of these things I don’t belong in. I am not in Spoon VU, not in VOB, I’m not in Dodecs, but the Dodecs think I’m hot according to this sticker. Three Brothers, my favorite coffee shop, that’s on there. There’s a Bernie Heart’s Our Dores sticker that my friend wordlessly handed me after one of my acapella concerts and I wordlessly stuck it on there. And a Gillette sticker and a Highland Quad sticker, where I was and where I now am.

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