The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

Meet the Class of 2021’s Outstanding Seniors

The Hustler sat down with this year’s Outstanding Seniors to learn more about their four years at Vanderbilt.
Claire Barnett
Snowy weather visits Vanderbilt on Tuesday, January 16, 2018. (Hustler Multimedia/Claire Barnett)

The Vanderbilt Programming Board (VPB) sent out a newsletter congratulating this year’s Top 10 Outstanding Seniors on Dec. 1. The recipients were selected following an application, interview and peer-election process. 

The tradition of naming Outstanding Seniors dates back to 2005 and has a lengthy selection process. Students are first nominated by student organizations they belong to. From there, the VPB homecoming chairs and Outstanding Senior Subcommittee narrow the pool to 40 for the faculty judges to further narrow to 20. Finally, the entire student body votes to determine the top ten and ultimately the winner. 

The Hustler sat down with this year’s winner, Barton Christmas, along with the other nine award recipients to discuss their accomplishments, reflect on their time at Vanderbilt and allow them to offer advice to fellow Vanderbilt students.

Significance of the Award

Each recipient expressed gratitude for being selected as a nominee, but being an Outstanding Senior meant something different to each of them.

For computer science and applied mathematics major James Raubenheimer, the award showed him the importance of focusing on what you truly care about rather than half-heartedly committing to a lot at once. 

“It really shows the power of focusing on one thing and accepting an untraditional path at the university,” Raubenheimer said. “I think there’s a rulebook sometimes to get an Outstanding Senior—join these organizations, become a leader in these clubs, do this and that, but I think you can also become an Outstanding Senior on a lot more nontraditional paths. And it’s great to see that from Vanderbilt.”

For neuroscience major and saxophone performance minor Jason Scott, the award was reflective of his ability to apply what he’s learned at Vanderbilt to the larger community around him.

“I think being an Outstanding Senior, to me, means that you’re able to apply the resources that we’ve gathered throughout our time at Vanderbilt to communities outside of this VanderBubble,” Scott said. “We’re able to make our impact on the greater societies and communities that are around us.”

Destinee Johnson, a Commons RA and neuroscience major, also expressed gratitude for the recognition of her efforts. 

“I felt extremely grateful for the peers around me and it was such an honor to see everything that I had done to make Vanderbilt an amazing place, for the people around me and for myself, being acknowledged,” Johnson said. “Because you don’t do the hard work for this nomination, it’s just something that came about afterwards.”

Their Most Memorable Vanderbilt Experiences

When asked about one of their most memorable Vanderbilt experiences, several Outstanding Seniors spoke to the importance of on-campus communities.

Michael Gonçalves and Puja Jagasia both remembered the energy and excitement surrounding move-in day and its importance for first-year students. Gonçalves spoke from the perspective of a VUceptor preparing for the day. 

“We get hyped up. We do some chants, and then we run across the Commons bridge and start dancing and cheering on and welcoming the first-year students,” Gonçalves said. “It’s one of my favorite traditions at Vanderbilt because it shows the infectious and uncontainable energy that upper class students have to welcome the newest members to our community.”

Barton Christmas, a Curb Scholar for Creative Enterprises as well as a history and secondary education major, further elaborated on the importance of the first-year community and his experience living on Commons. 

“I think that the speakers and the events that I would go to as a freshman where I was seeing older students, and I was seeing guest speakers really inspired me and informed the way that I wanted to do the rest of college,” Christmas said. “Those nights spent talking until two or three in the morning about what we wanted out of Vanderbilt, when you’re a first-year, are really special nights.”

Molecular biology and human and organizational development major Elizabeth Dorans focused on the community she found within her sorority as one of her most significant campus experiences.

“The Vanderbilt memory I will cherish the most is being a part of my sorority, Alpha Delta Pi, and having the honor of serving my sisters as president,” Dorans said. “My sisters are like family to me, and I am so grateful to be a part of this supportive and inspiring community.”

Looking beyond their campus communities, Allison Booher and Destinee Johnson each recalled experiences abroad as their most memorable.

Booher conducted her own research project about international emergency medicine in Honduras and Chile after receiving a Simon Collier Travel Award grant from Vanderbilt. 

“I was comparing the systems of emergency medicine in a high-income country and a low-income country and kind of combining my interests for medicine and social justice, health equity,” Booher said. 

She was able to shadow physicians in two different hospitals, conduct interviews and even scrub in on different surgeries including a foot amputation. 

“It was one of the most formative experiences in my life to have Vanderbilt fund that trip and to see the grant that I wrote and believe in me, and believe in my passions and grant me the check and send me out there,” Booher said. 

Johnson also led a medical mission trip in Honduras. She had participated in other medical trips prior, but this was the first time she had the responsibility of being a leader.

“The trip ended up being a dream,” Johnson said. “I made so many great friends that week and many fun memories that will honestly never fade. We saw hundreds of patients, danced with all the kids, took a trip to a private beach and ate some really great food throughout the week.”

Graduating Amidst COVID-19

Each of this year’s Outstanding Seniors had their final year at Vanderbilt characterized by COVID-19. Many recipients spoke to how the pandemic has impacted their Vanderbilt experience. 

Raubenheimer said that the close-knit communities that characterize Vanderbilt’s campus were a reason he was initially drawn to the school. He expressed sadness from seeing much of that closeness lost this year because of COVID-19. 

“You’re forced to go very much inward to smaller communities and become a lot tighter in those smaller groups just because of the nature of everything,” Raubenheimer said. “I think that lack of community was tough, and it was just really sad to see.”

Christmas agreed that he struggled to grapple with the reality of his extremely different senior year. 

“It’s been really hard as of late to know that we may not get the closure that we were expecting out of our senior year,” Christmas said.

Dorans also spoke to the challenges COVID-19 has presented her and her graduating class, but also views it as an opportunity for resilience. 

“It’s been challenging for everybody to think of who they want to be in the world and how they want to engage with some of these challenges,” Dorans said. “But it’s been a good opportunity as well for us to prepare to make a positive impact on the world once we leave Vanderbilt.”

Not on Commons Anymore

Despite COVID-19 challenging their senior years, Scott recalled some of his most difficult times at Vanderbilt happening while being a first-year. 

As a first-generation college student, Scott said that he faced challenges during his college transition and admitted that he struggled to find his place on campus. He reflected on his experience taking general chemistry and realizing that many of his peers had come from backgrounds with more resources and tools than his hometown. 

However, he was determined to use the experience as an opportunity to grow.

“I felt like I had to make a decision during my first year—either I was going to allow this very difficult experience that I was having to allow me to shut down and hinder me from progressing further, or was I going to take control of it,” Scott said. “I decided to do the latter.”

This experience taught him valuable lessons about facing challenges.

“I think being able to take control of your own narrative when you’re going through these moments of adversity and struggle is so important because oftentimes a lot of external things such as a lack of resources or internal things such as impostor syndrome make us feel as if we aren’t enough or we aren’t meant to be here,” Scott said. “But if we’re able to take a step back, look deeper inside of ourselves and truly think about what it took for us to get here and the work that we do have, we’re able to truly start to write our own story.”

Anana Upton similarly reflected that her freshman year was her most difficult and presented her with novel challenges that she had to overcome. 

“I came into Vanderbilt a year younger—I skipped a grade of high school—so I was already younger than everyone and in addition to that, that year, my parents were going through divorce, a really close friend was struggling with mental health really badly and then also just the transition to college in general on top of all that, was very much a lot,” Upton said.

Upton says she sought out help at the University Counseling Center (UCC) and was able to work on her own mental health and grades. 

“I realized I’m not alone—there are people that are out there that will help me if I just ask,” Upton said. “I was able to really turn that around and make it into more of a learning experience than a detrimental experience, which brought me to where I am now.”

How to Make the Most of Four Years

This year’s recipients offered two overarching messages: meet as many people as you can and pursue what you love. 

“Work up that courage to say hello to that person sitting next to you and chances are they’ll be just as excited to say hello back and get to know you better,” Gonçalves said. “So never be afraid to take the first step in making a new friend.” 

Johnson similarly encouraged students to be bold and initiate conversation.

“Talk to new people,” Johnson said. “You never know who you’re sitting next to, who you’re standing next to, just strike up a conversation. You’ll always learn something; you always take away something from the conversation.”

Booher, Johnson and Dorans all talked about the importance of academic exploration in discovering interests and honing passions. 

“I would advise younger Vanderbilt students to pick something they’re truly passionate about, rather than something that they feel like they’re supposed to do, and I think that’ll take them  infinitely farther than expectations,” Booher said. 

Johnson similarly said one can maximize their experience by doing what they love rather than what you think people will praise them for doing.

“Just to remember that in every decision that you’re making, you’re making it for yourself and not trying to please those around you,” Johnson said. “I mean, be cautious of those around you, but make sure that you’re living your life as happy as you can—don’t try to fit into this mold or these little boxes that people try to put us in.”

Dorans benefited from exploring a broad range of interests and encouraged fellow students to do the same. She says she came into college not knowing what she wanted to do but said the two fields she didn’t want to pursue were biology and computer science. She noted the irony in the fact that she is going to grad school for computational biology. 

Through her journey at Vanderbilt, Dorans said she learned the importance of pursuing personal interests and advises other students to do the same. 

College is also possibly the last time we have to really devote a lot of time to things that we’re really passionate about, like maybe the figure skating team or something that you might not necessarily have the opportunity to do later,” Dorans said. “So I would say, take this time to pursue your passions, in addition to working and preparing yourself for future academic pursuits.”

Final Words of Advice 

This year’s Outstanding Seniors offered messages to their fellow students about taking care of themselves and making the most of their four years here. 

Upton stressed the importance of striking a balance between the rigorous academics and the social side of college. 

“My biggest thing would probably just be taking into account and remembering that you’re a person as well, not just an academic machine [and] taking time for yourself in order to do self care in a way that will serve you the best,” Upton said. 

Christmas and Scott both noted the importance of overcoming imposter syndrome and acknowledging that you are meant to be here. 

“I would say put imposter syndrome away as much as possible and recognize that Vanderbilt brought all of us to campus for whatever reason,” Christmas said. “And we may not be able to delve into the Registrar’s Office and figure out what that was, but I don’t believe that any of us are there by accident.”

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About the Contributors
Charlotte Mauger
Charlotte Mauger, Staff Writer
Charlotte Mauger ('24) is a student in the College of Arts and Science majoring in public policy with a minor in French. When not writing for The Hustler, you can find her on FaceTime with her cats, watching movies or exploring all Nashville has to offer. You can reach her at [email protected].
Claire Barnett, Former Multimedia Director
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