The Hustler sits down with the 2020 Founder’s Medalists

Named after Cornelius Vanderbilt, the award is given to one student graduating from each of Vanderbilt’s ten schools and colleges.

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Claire Barnett

Saratt Student Center. (Hustler Multimedia/Claire Barnett)

Ryan Suddath, Staff Writer

Interim Chancellor Susan Wente announced this year’s ten Founder’s Medalists May 8. The Founder’s Medal is awarded to one honorable student graduating from each of Vanderbilt’s ten schools and colleges. The 2020 Founder’s Medalists include:

  • College of Arts and Science – Sumanth Chennareddy
  • Blair School of Music – Matthew J. Shorten
  • School of Engineering – Luke D. Neise
  • Peabody College Constance I. Du
  • Divinity School – Michael F. Johnston
  • Graduate School – Thea J. Autry
  • Law School – Micah N. Bradley
  • School of Medicine – Kianna R. Jackson
  • School of Nursing – Jane M. Mericle
  • Owen Graduate School of Management – Joshua A. Bruner

The Hustler interviewed the 2020 Founder’s Medalists to learn their stories, inspirations and ambitions for the future. 

The value of great mentors

Although the Founder’s Medal is an individual award, many of the 2020 Medalists attested that their success was a byproduct of both their individual efforts and the support that they received. Recipients recognized their families, fellow students and professors, among others, as being instrumental to their accomplishments. 

“I don’t think this award would have been possible without Vanderbilt faculty and peers,” College of Arts and Science Founder’s Medalist Sumanth Chennareddy said. 

Of particular importance to School of Medicine Founder’s Medalist Kianna Jackson and Owen Graduate School of Management Founder’s Medalist Joshua Bruner were mentorship programs at Vanderbilt.

Jackson recalls choosing Vanderbilt School of Medicine due to its promise of providing an uplifting community, and she attributes much of her success to the mentors she met during her Vanderbilt experience. 

“I chose Vanderbilt Medical School because of the people I met on interview day,” Jackson said. “They seemed really invested and down-to-earth, and I was 100 percent right. I wouldn’t be where I am today without a mentor.”

Bruner also cited his mentorship experience as one of the most significant aspects of his Vanderbilt career. In addition, Bruner emphasized the importance of providing mentorship as well as receiving mentorship. As someone who entered Owen’s MBA program with more work experience than most of his peers, Bruner capitalized on the opportunity to advise first-year MBA students and members of Owen’s one-year MBA program about financial interview skills and corporate workplace behavior. Bruner recognized his experience mentoring younger MBA students as the most meaningful part of his time as an Owen student. 

Non-linear paths to success

While they may exit Vanderbilt with a defined career path, many of the 2020 Founder’s Medalists contend that they deviated from their original career direction.

Bruner entered Vanderbilt with an acute interest in pharmaceutical research and development. After receiving his master’s in chemistry from Vanderbilt, Bruner discovered a passion for the financial dimension of pharmaceuticals. At that point, Bruner pivoted toward pursuing roles in the financial departments of pharmaceutical firms and eventually, in the healthcare segments of investment banks. 

As an incoming first-year student, Blair School of Music Founder’s Medalist Matthew Shorten planned to major in composition and neuroscience along with a minor in Japanese. However, Shorten’s involvement in voice lessons as a first-year prompted him to rediscover his love for performance. Shorten proceeded to lead the programming of the Blair Salon concert series, and would graduate with a major in composition and minors in both voice and violin. 

Chennareddy, who will attend Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in the fall, was originally unsure about pursuing medical school. However, his experience as a Spanish interpreter at Vanderbilt’s Shade Tree Clinic solidified his interest in medicine. 

Unique challenges in journeys to success

Each of the Founder’s Medalists said that they encountered several forms of adversity throughout their time at Vanderbilt.

Thea Autry, who graduated from Vanderbilt’s five-year Graduate School program with a doctorate of philosophy in English, said that she initially struggled with the difficulty of her program. 

“There was a time very early on where I thought, ‘This is too hard. I can’t do this,’” Autry said. “But I stuck it out.”

As she looked back on the events that led to her award, Autry cited her perseverance and ability to complete her studies as her proudest accomplishments.

Bruner also prided himself on his ability to overcome adversity, but he faced a different challenge than Autry—a child. After becoming a father in the September before his first round of exams as an MBA student, Bruner faced the challenge of balancing parenting responsibilities with the demands of his studies. Bruner says that his ability to harmonize these competing responsibilities was one of his proudest accolades as an Owen student. 

Forging new frontiers

From historic milestones to outer space discovery, the 2020 Founder’s Medalists explored and redefined new frontiers.

With her award, Kianna Jackson became the first African-American student in the history of the School of Medicine to receive the Founder’s Medal. Going forward, Jackson hopes to empower the LGBTQ community as a plastic surgeon for individuals undergoing gender transformation surgeries.

While Jackson made history with her award, School of Engineering Founder’s Medalist Luke Neise and his team at the Vanderbilt Aerospace Design Laboratory explored the limits of outer space as they engineered a drone for NASA’s 2020 National Student Launch Competition. Neise and his team designed the drone as an autonomous vehicle for exploring Mars, and the drone was supposed to be launched from the US Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, AL for the Student Launch Competition. Although the physical launch was canceled due to COVID-19, Neise and his teammates will have their design assessed and scored by judges remotely. 

Slow down and explore the world

The departing words of advice from many of the 2020 Founder’s Medalists converged as they encouraged current Vanderbilt students to stress less about their grades and to immerse themselves in their surroundings. 

Peabody College Founder’s Medalist Constance Du, a commit to the University of Michigan Law School, discovered her passion for the law as she spent a semester off-campus for her Human and Organizational Development internship at the Nashville District Attorney’s Office. Beyond leveraging off-campus experiences to explore one’s interests, Du advised students to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities offered by Vanderbilt’s campus. 

“I think we take for granted how beautiful the campus is and how lucky we are to be there when we are just trying to rush to our 10 a.m. class,” Du said.

Law School Founder’s Medalist Micah Bradley echoed Du’s sentiments about the importance of balancing exploration with academics, especially for law students facing an intense academic schedule. 

“I realized my second and third year that doing things with other people [was] just as important as academics,” Bradley said. “It’s really important to make those connections, both on-campus and off-campus.”

The Hustler contacted Michael Johnston and Jane Mericle of the Divinity School and the School of Nursing, respectively, but didn’t receive a response. 

Emma Mattson contributed reporting to this piece.