Do We Encourage Only One Kind of Student to Excel at Vanderbilt?

Are Introverts Welcome on Our Campus?

To me, it’s patently obvious. Vanderbilt demands its students to be skilled at socializing in order to achieve the special kind of “success” that is so celebrated on our campus. And such may make sense at first glance. After all, humans are social animals; our culture is premised upon interpersonal interactions, transactional or otherwise. But where, then, do we leave room on our campus for those of us who are perhaps not such “social animals,” or even for those of us who may not feel like socializing every…waking…moment of our lives?

From the minute we step foot onto our campus, we plunge into the world of the Commons, a living-learning community that emphasizes community, service, civic engagement and a myriad of other values. The point being is that the pressure to socialize is magnified on the Commons, and all of that is intentional– it works within the model that Vanderbilt has adopted for its residential colleges. Whether it’s the physical proximity of all the first-year houses or the fact that all twenty-one meals a week are intended to be eaten on campus (particularly in the Commons dining hall), the constant compulsion to be social can be overwhelming and at times imprisoning.

When we establish this benchmark of hypercommunication early in students’ undergraduate careers, we alter the culture of our campus. The new normal is that you are expected to catch up with Becky when she invites you out to Sunday brunch or to join that study group with all those people who won’t even so much as greet you next semester. I feel compelled, sometimes, to say “yes” to an invitation even when everything in me is telling me to decline. We have undeniably forged a strong extrovert culture on campus, so much so that a cohort of students formed a campus organization known as the Vanderbilt Association of Introverts. As someone who exists somewhere along the fringe of introversion and extroversion (some call it “ambiversion”), I can say that Vanderbilt does not cater very well to introverts; it’s almost as if we expect all of our students to just rewire their cerebral infrastructure and– tah dah– become extroverts before graduation.

And sure, the disproportionately high number of extroverted students may not be coincidental at all. It could be that during the admissions process, the Vanderbilt admissions office is instructed to choose more of the “well-rounded” students than the “finely-pointed” ones, who generally are also those accustomed to maintaining numerous different relationships because of their high level of involvement. It could even be that these extroverted students are just more prevalent in Vanderbilt’s applicant pool. Whatever the case may be, it’s apparent that there are a lot of them on our campus… and all this is fine! What’s troublesome is Vanderbilt’s seemingly endless adulation given to students who adhere to this archetype.

This model largely ignores the major advantages of being an introvert. An article in Business Insider, for example, says that introverts are better listeners, more thoughtful and self-reflective, and more inclined to notice and correct their own errors. Additionally, a UCLA study suggests that introverts may be more valuable as team players in the workplace.

The notion of a “universal diplomat” is something that our school grossly idolizes. Consequently, so many students strive toward this “Vanderbilt standard” of perfection that it often forces everyone else on campus to follow suit.

And yet, one of the core visions of this university is to instill “creative experimentation” in its students. With this, I must be circumspect, because to me, it seems like Vanderbilt operates more so as a normalizing machine than a hotbed for creativity. We persistently offer congratulations to these highly social, extroverted students and leave very little recognition remaining for those on our campus who do not match this image.

We can begin to counter this culture of “popular or bust” by resisting the temptation to reward these über gregarious students with praise that is not commensurate with that which we offer our more silent achievers. It is the responsibility of introverts to speak out when they feel they aren’t being given the time and space to think things through and the responsibility of extroverts to make sure that they are not overwhelming those who aren’t reciprocating their excitement and social nature. The frequent discussion of diversity and inclusion on campus often fails to include the importance of diversity of learning style and personality which is so essential to forming well-rounded teams and learning environments. In an installment of her USA Today column “On the Job,” Anita Bruzzese argues that managers should help introverts find their voice and help extroverts understand how their style affects others. Until we all learn to respect and encourage each other’s learning and communication styles, we are missing the opportunity to maximize our potential to collaborate as a student body.