East Head of House Dr. Elizabeth Meadows poses for a photo, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/George Albu)
East Head of House Dr. Elizabeth Meadows poses for a photo, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/George Albu)
George Albu

A spotlight on the Commons Faculty Heads of House

Dean Gresalfi and two Faculty Heads of House share what makes the Commons experience so special to them and their families.

As a current sophomore living in Branscomb Quadrangle, one of the things I miss most about living on the Ingram Commons is the inherent sense of community within each of the Commons houses. Branscomb occasionally holds activities for its residents in the lobby or in the quad, but nothing compares to the welcoming microcosm each of us had in our first-year houses, especially since Branscomb isn’t a residential college like Zeppos or Rothschild. I still greet some of the people who lived on my floor last year out of habit, even if we were never individually very close.

A large part of what makes the Commons community so special is the Faculty Heads of House. They are likely the first faculty members that each of us interacted with upon arriving on campus for the first time, and they continue to make themselves present around Commons for the entirety of our first year. They decorate the lobbies for the seasons and holidays and greet us at the weekly evening study breaks hosted by each house. Faculty Head of East House Dr. Elizabeth Meadows has even been known to host the East study breaks in her apartment and serve homemade treats. I spoke to some of the Commons Faculty Heads of House to hear what it’s like to be on their side of things.

The East HPAC poses for a group photo, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/George Albu) (George Albu)

The Faculty Heads of House I spoke to agreed that living in-house makes Commons life vastly different from the living situations of other college professors. Many of the Heads of House have spouses, children and even pets living on campus with them, all of whom share in the Heads’ experiences of college life.

“Living on the Commons has provided my family and me with a vibrant community and many neighbors,” Murray Head of House Dr. Rena Robinson said. “Having other faculty with children has enabled us to easily integrate as residents on the Commons and to have a shared sense of belonging living on Vanderbilt’s campus. The students have also been very welcoming of my family, and my children appreciate the conversation and support they receive from Murray residents.”

West Faculty Head of House Dr. Emily Pendergrass shared a similar sentiment. Pendergrass discussed how living on campus gave her daughter an early taste of college life.

“The Commons provided incredible access for my daughter,” Pendergrass said. “She studied in the library, ate in the dining hall and went to concerts and lectures. She basically had a first-year student experience before she ever went to college.”

When Pendergrass’ dogs were living on campus with her, they also frequented the West study breaks. I lived in West House last year, and I was always pleasantly surprised to see them, since we often don’t get the chance to interact with pets at college the way we do at home.

“The dogs were popular with students,” Pendergrass said. “They provided comfort and a link to students’ personal pets. They seemed to bring joy to the house.”

Dr. Elizabeth Meadows’ dog Luna sits as East residents chat in the background, as photographed on Feb. 5, 2024. (Hustler Multimedia/George Albu)
(George Albu)

Another person who has worked to provide comfort to the students is Melissa Gresalfi, who has recently been reappointed as the Dean of Residential Colleges and Residential Education and served as Dean of the Ingram Commons for the last five years. With a typical first-year class of about 1,600 students, it’s impossible for Gresalfi to meet every single student. However, she certainly does her best, hosting 20-person dinners at her house nearly every week and office hours for those who have specific questions or simply just want to make a faculty connection. Her office hours sign-up page reads, “There is no agenda for these meetings — we can talk about whatever is on your mind.” She even occasionally participates in Vanderbilt Visions.

“The way I get to know students better is through smaller events,” Gresalfi said. “Some years I have a Visions group of my own, and I get to know that small group of students really well. This year, I didn’t have a Visions group, which I really missed.”

Gresalfi’s family has also embraced the Commons life. For five years, the house has been home to her whole family: her husband, their two children and their two dogs. Gresalfi acknowledges that her children’s lives are certainly different from those of typical middle-school students, but they’ve found so much to love about Commons.

“My kids’ friends like to go with them to the dining hall, which is definitely not something that most 10 and 13-year-olds get to do,” Gresalfi said. “The fact that so many kids live on the Commons is a huge benefit and was a big change from where we used to live. My kids love pick-up soccer games on the lawn.”

Most of all, Gresalfi and the Faculty Heads of House have embraced the connection that Commons brings. The structure of the Commons facilitates collaboration and interaction between faculty members and students. 

“Universities are known for being siloed, and living on campus breaks some of those silos down,” Pendergrass said. “I love connecting with first-year students from day one on campus. We use the first weekend to spend a lot of time together and learn what it means to be a West resident. We welcome the students with swag, a personal connection with other students and a place to call home.”

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About the Contributors
Isabella Bautista
Isabella Bautista, Life Copy Editor
Isabella Bautista (‘26) is double majoring in mathematics and psychology and minoring in biological sciences on the pre-medical track in the College of Arts and Science. She is from Easton, Pa. When not writing for The Hustler, she can be found spending hours alone in a piano practice room, photographing Vanderbilt squirrels with her Canon camera or poring over research papers in the lab she works in. She can be reached at [email protected]  
George Albu
George Albu, Staff Writer and Photographer
George Albu (‘27) is majoring in medicine, health and society in the College of Arts and Science. When not working for The Hustler, he enjoys taking long walks around campus, reading or watching video essays about anything and everything online. He can be reached at [email protected].
Abby Hoelscher
Abby Hoelscher, Photography Editor
Abby Hoelscher (‘27) is from St. Louis and is an aspiring elementary teacher currently studying in Peabody College. She previously served as Deputy Photography Director. Outside of writing, she enjoys performing, learning Taylor Swift songs in American Sign Language and trying the seasonal lattes from the campus coffee shops. She can be reached at [email protected].
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