“I was apprehensive when I stepped out of my parents’ car on that warm summer day in August of 1999. It would be the first time that I would be living away from home for months on end and the prospect intimidated me…”
I wrote those words towards the end of my senior year, as I looked back on my soon-to-be-completed college experience. As graduation day loomed ahead, I found myself to be quite nostalgic. I absolutely loved Vanderbilt and all that I had experienced there and had grown tremendously, both as an intellectual and a person, during my four years. I could not imagine that the world outside of that campus between West End and 21st Avenues could ever live up to that.
Now, as the ten-year anniversary of my graduation grows near, I find myself once again looking back. Admittedly, I have not stayed as connected to Vanderbilt as I would like to. Yes, I stay in touch with a good number of friends, who are all dispersed across the country, but a tangible feeling about my experience at Vanderbilt seems quite remote. It probably is also diluted by the fact that I have been a part of four other college communities since Vanderbilt, as both a student and an administrator. I have taken on the persona of those schools: I have gone to their football and basketball games, worn sweatshirts with their logos and come to consider some of their alumni my closest friends.
I recently attended an alumni event in New York City. During this gathering, I met some very intriguing people. They all had different jobs and came from a variety of places, but what united them was a passion for Vanderbilt. I was touched to listen to one alumnus in particular talk about how dearly he values his Vanderbilt education and how he feels an obligation to help the institution. I also was glad to meet a fellow member of the Class of 2003, who to the best of my knowledge I had never come across before. These experiences all made me think a bit about my own time at Vanderbilt and how it colors my life today. If these people felt they were still deeply affected by their college experience, shouldn’t I?
I came to Vanderbilt from a very homogeneous community just south of Nashville. I had gone to private school since first grade and since that age or even earlier, I had always assumed I would go to Vanderbilt. This was not because I was part of a Vanderbilt family. (Actually, my parents had actually grown up in Long Island and knew little of the place.) It just instead was something I felt I would do. When it came time to explore colleges, I did the typical family summer trip of visiting schools. None of them impressed me, though, like Vanderbilt and I decided to apply Early Decision. I can still remember taking the thick envelope out of my family’s mailbox when it arrived in December and seeing the letter from then Dean of Admissions Bill Shain saying I had been admitted. (I still have that letter.)
When I entered Vanderbilt in the fall of 1999, I was a fairly boring person. I say boring because I was pretty close-minded in regards to my beliefs, including politics, professional aspirations and philosophy of life. And I felt that Vanderbilt would merely reinforce those beliefs. I could not have been more wrong! Within my first year, I had changed my political philosophy, gone from believing I would become a lawyer to desperately wanting to become a history professor and had met people who were more different than me in ways I could not have previously fathomed. I was also overwhelmed by all the opportunities Vanderbilt offered, especially those on the intellectual front. I devoured classes in everything from history to sociology to Spanish. I also decided at the end of my freshman year to do something I never would have imagined previously which was decide to live in a special interest house, McGill Hall. Through McGill I met deep thinking peers, and made friends that were closer than I ever imagined could be possible.
Ultimately, what did Vanderbilt do for me? It taught me to be a thoughtful person who was excited about the exercise of learning and believed in the importance of the liberal arts. I was able to experience incredible scholars and teachers who made me see the world in new ways at Vanderbilt. People like John Lachs, Marshall Eakin (my advisor), Frank Wcislo and Stan Link. Vanderbilt also made me into a student for life. I clearly remember going to lunch with one of my favorite professors during my senior year and bemoaning the fact that there were so many classes I would never be able to take. He said to me, “The greatest gift of a liberal arts education is that it gives you the tools to be a lifelong learner. You can pursue the topics that intrigue you for the rest of your life.”
Vanderbilt also made me a better human being. I experienced some of the most difficult personal situations of my life as a college student. I had some incredibly intense friendships at Vanderbilt and with them came the normal post-adolescent issues. My sense of what it is to be a good person and friend were not challenged at Vanderbilt as much as they were created there. It was there that I learned what it means to be a loyal friend and what it is like to have people, apart from family members, who love you unconditionally. I pride myself on being someone who cares deeply about his friends and that would never have happened without my experience at Vanderbilt.
Of course, Vanderbilt also left me with a lot of memories. Hearing President Wyatt speak during orientation and feeling like I was the only person in that tent who could possibly be nervous. Experiencing September 11th along with my peers. Not really ever having to “go” to Rites of Spring since I lived on Alumni Lawn freshman through junior year. Indulging in late night conversations with my friends about both very deep and silly topics. Staying up until sunrise the morning after graduation, my last sunrise on campus.
As I write this, I realize that I know the answer to my question of how Vanderbilt impacted me. It did not necessarily make me into the person I am today but it did put me on a path in life that I otherwise would not have followed. My professional trajectory and the people I know can all, in a sense, be attributed to Vanderbilt. It was, for example, a conversation in the spring of my junior year with an administrator that made me want to go into higher education as a career. And that led me to a series of experiences and relationships that I never would have had otherwise. So, I suppose I pretty much owe all that I am to Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt is indeed a special place, and I am glad to still be part of it. I also am proud that The University has not been stagnant and has made amazing strides in recent years. Perhaps Chancellor Kirkland said it best when he once noted, “In the life of an institution, youth is eternal.” But despite all the changes at Vanderbilt, the ethos of the place remains the same as when I was there: a community of scholars who are there to learn and grow. And whenever I am on campus, which is sadly not that often, I can walk around and relive the experiences I had in that community myself that helped me grow into the adult I am today.
Justin Holmes A&S, 2003