That’s the ambitious goal of Opportunity Vanderbilt, the university’s commitment to replace need-based undergraduate student loans with grants and scholarships.
The good news: To date, Vanderbilt has raised $81 million in gifts for scholarship endowment. The not-so-good news: Vanderbilt’s scholarship endowment remains below the level of many of its peer institutions.
When a copy of a heartfelt letter of thanks sent to a university administrator by student Arian Danian reached the Vanderbilt Magazine office recently, it inspired us to turn the spotlight on Opportunity Vanderbilt by asking other scholarship recipients to share their stories, too. (For more about Opportunity Vanderbilt, click here.)
It wasn’t until my senior year of high school that I finally realized how important education is to me. During my high school years, I had a lot of problems at home and I was very lost. My parents, both Iranian immigrants, had divorced, and after a family bankruptcy I was living with my mother in a cramped apartment and sleeping on the couch.
School was always my outlet. When I was overwhelmed or didn’t feel like going home, I got involved with programs at school or spent more time studying, and it was very rewarding. My teachers were always mentors for me, and I appreciated their role in helping me reach higher levels of academic success and personal fulfillment.
I saw a lot of kids in my neighborhood with similar problems at home, and it really hurt me to see many of them get involved with drugs or crime as their outlet. I like to think that if they’d had good teachers and mentors that they would have been more likely to immerse themselves in learning and other good habits. These experiences became the foundation of my desire to pursue a career in education. However, there were a lot of times when I felt there was a ceiling on what I could accomplish because of my family’s financial circumstances.
I remember spending a lot of time during my senior year researching universities I would like to attend and feeling I would never have the opportunity to do so. When I came across Vanderbilt, I felt it was the best fit for me, and when I found out about the expanded aid program, I knew this could work.
Initially, what attracted me to Vanderbilt were the sterling reputation of Peabody College as one of the premier schools of education in the country, the small class sizes, and the opportunities that come with such a prestigious institution. When I finally got to Vanderbilt, it had everything I expected, but it had so much more. The informational brochures and pamphlets promoting the university just couldn’t quantify the kindness, care and genuine concern of the administration and faculty or the atmosphere of scholarship and learning that permeated every room on campus.
Every day as I walk across the Peabody campus to get to my classes, I am overwhelmed with gratitude by the opportunity that has been afforded me. Living and learning on the same campus that has educated so many of the world’s greatest thinkers and innovators inspires me to do my best each day, in hopes that I can one day give somebody the same opportunity this institution has given me. Whether it’s forming personal relationships with my professors, participating in the Speakers’ Committee, tutoring young Nashvillians, or spending time with friends, I’ve already learned so much about myself during just one year at Vanderbilt.
Right now I’m double majoring in human and organizational development and history. I’m hoping to get teacher certification through Vanderbilt after I graduate in order to teach for a couple of years, and then to pursue a career in educational administration. I know my experiences at Vanderbilt will be a valuable asset in pursuing my dreams, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the care and generosity of this prestigious institution.
As an African American woman, I have an abiding interest in diversity. I enjoy learning about other ethnic groups, religions and ideas. During high school in Memphis, in order to diversify my cultural awareness and build on my understanding of diversity, I immersed myself in many extracurricular activities, including the Memphis Youth Symphony, Medical Explorers, and the Technology Student Association. However, I wanted more.
Being from a predominately African American high school, I wanted to enroll at a more diverse university. Even before applying to Vanderbilt, I knew this university was for me. When I toured the campus in the fall before graduating from high school, the welcoming environment of the students and staff made an indelible impression. With its mix of students and its state-of-the-art laboratories and research facilities, Vanderbilt became my dream school. The College of Arts and Science, I felt, would offer the foundation I needed to prepare for medical school.
Freshman year, my transition to Vanderbilt was challenging to say the least. I was overly ambitious and loaded myself with 18 hours’ worth of demanding courses. Trying to balance school work, social life and leisure time was problematic. All-nighters seemed to be my best friend. Although the transition from high school to college was a formidable one, it rewarded me with valuable knowledge that developed my critical-thinking and studying skills while highlighting the importance of time management. I was able to interact with different people within the Vanderbilt community and excel in accomplishing my goals—developing academically, intellectually and socially.
The main thing that draws me to Vanderbilt is still its diversity. Freshman year I lived in Kissam Hall, where the housing demographic was mainly African American. As a result, I tended to socialize only within my race, which inhibited my knowledge of all the other races and cultures at Vanderbilt. It wasn’t until the beginning of sophomore year that I made the choice to throw myself into the enriching cultures this school offers.
I moved to McTyeire Hall, an international dorm on campus. There I learned about various cultures and traditions of people from the U.S. and students from other countries such as Germany and Korea. In McTyeire, I gained appreciation for people of all shapes, colors, sizes and ethnicities while discovering how to step outside my comfort zone.
I joined a Latina-based multicultural sorority, Sigma Lambda Gamma, which embraces women of all races. Within this sorority I’ve been able to promote the beautiful concept of diversity and the empowerment of cultural awareness in the Vanderbilt community. The chapter is represented by various ethnicities from African and Indian to Latina and Caucasian. As a member of the Multicultural Leadership Council, this sorority actively participates in events such as Diwali and Café con Leche [an annual celebration of Hispanic dance and culture produced by the Vanderbilt Association of Hispanic Students]. With every event I’ve had the opportunity to embrace different cultures.
Vanderbilt offers many extracurricular opportunities, and I’ve taken part in many of them, including Alternative Spring Break in the Everglades and Alternative Winter Break in New Orleans.
Within my sorority I’ve implemented “Education Matters,” which is a program at the Tennessee Prison for Women. There a group of volunteers and I tutor incarcerated women for their GED examination. With every experience Vanderbilt has enhanced my leadership skills and enabled me to participate in enriching activities and organizations.
I’m majoring in medicine, health and society and doing a triple minor in biology, sociology and Spanish. My desire is to become a pediatric cardiologist. Upon completion of medical school, I will blend my career and community service by working with youth who aspire to achieve. I hope to nurture their full potential in the medical field.
Vanderbilt has proven to be my extended family and a caring community. I thank the Vanderbilt family for ensuring that college so far has been the best three years of my life. At this university I have developed a compassion for others and an understanding of different cultures that I never knew was possible.
My whole life I have been blessed with amazing opportunities. The first came in the form of a scholarship at Showcase Studios, the Far Hills, N.J., school at which I took dance classes. The owner, Miss Eileen, saw my potential and took a liking to me. She offered me a chance to take a few extra classes. In return, I only had to help clean the studio or assist teachers with classes of younger students. When Miss Eileen saw my eagerness and initiative to help around the studio, she rewarded me with more classes and even a chance to go to dance conventions in New York City.
Miss Eileen did not realize it, but her generosity was a building block to the work ethic I now have. She taught me that one could create her own opportunities through hard work. I did not always like it, but I applied this work ethic to my schoolwork. Although in middle school I did not completely understand why good grades were important, I knew they could only help me in the future. Sure enough, they did.
This good work ethic proved to be my springboard to the Pingry School, a private high school in my area. Despite financial hardship—my mom is a single parent with three kids—I was able to attend this great school because I had been committed to always doing my best. The next four years were full of new friendships, new experiences and new opportunities. Everyone I met at Pingry helped me to become the person I am today. Teachers taught me to challenge myself, and friends helped me to appreciate the fun memories we were creating together. While my four years at Pingry were some of the most enjoyable of my life, they gave me hope for a future even better and more exciting.
At the beginning of my senior year in high school, I was searching to find the college that would be my perfect match. Sifting through the numerous pamphlets that had been mailed to me, I was thoroughly confused. However, after much research, Vanderbilt University rose to the top of my college list. The diverse and competitive academic programs offered, the beautiful campus, and its location in Nashville won me over. In fact, I became so sure that Vanderbilt was the place for me, I took a leap of faith and applied Early Decision without ever having visited the campus. I will never forget the day I received my acceptance letter. I tore open the manila envelope and jumped with excitement when I read, “Congratulations.”
As my senior year continued, I was relieved I did not have to go through the same uncertainty most of my classmates were experiencing. However, after the school year ended and the days before moving into the Vanderbilt Commons became fewer and fewer, I began to feel anxious. I had never even been to a sleep-away camp. What if I had made the wrong decision? What if Vanderbilt University was not the place for me?
Thankfully, all my fears dissipated as soon as I set foot on campus. To my surprise the transition to living in Tennessee, 15 hours away from my family, was not a difficult one. Although slightly intimidating at first, meeting new people was one of the most exciting aspects of being a newcomer on campus. Through orientation groups, classes and Greek life, I already feel as though I have made what will become lifelong friendships. Some of my closest friends are now from Georgia, Texas, California and New York.
Taking college-level courses has been an intimidating yet exciting experience. In some of my classes, I’ve been more engaged and more challenged than ever before. Balancing my social life, academic obligations, intramural soccer, volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity, and work at the Television News Archive during my first year was a true growing experience. From my first day to my last day of freshman year, I never stopped thinking about how lucky I am to be able to call Vanderbilt my home.
I am confident the next three years I spend at Vanderbilt will be better than the first. I plan to continue making new friendships, excel in my academics, and become much more involved in campus life. I have grown to love Vanderbilt during this past year and want to make as many precious memories as possible. Being a part of this school has confirmed my belief that a good work ethic is the key to a successful future and has inspired me to work harder than ever before.
Long before coming to Vanderbilt, I started first grade at St. Edward School in South Nashville. Afternoons were spent in piano lessons and soccer practices. Dinners were homemade and eaten at a busy but full table. Summer and winter vacations were spent with extended family in Pennsylvania and Vermont. Life was like a storybook.
Gradually, things got a little more complicated. I developed a strong interest in music after learning to play the trombone in the fourth grade. I was involved in the school’s band program and began taking private lessons in the sixth grade. Soccer practice was always part of my after-school schedule. I transferred to St. Bernard School for the seventh and eighth grades and soon had to think about high school.
My parents insisted that I stay at a private school because they deemed it the best learning and maturing environment possible. I took tours of area private high schools and, after completing a sort of standardized test and an interview, I was accepted to Montgomery Bell Academy (MBA). I eagerly decided to attend MBA in hopes of somehow being transformed into one of the giant seniors we met at the open house.
Before the first day of school at MBA, I was asked to attend a rehearsal for the small pep band that plays at home football games. Having enjoyed success in junior high playing trombone at several regional band festivals, I was relieved to find a way to get musically involved in high school so early. I soon made good friends in the band program, participating in the school’s jazz band from my first day there until my last. As a freshman during the fall semester, however, I had to choose a sport to play in either fall or winter, as all MBA students are required to participate in an athletics program for two of the three seasons. Not able to simply wait for soccer tryouts in the spring, I went out on a limb and attended a training session for the school’s rifle shooting program. As it turned out, I never played soccer again and went on to be a member of the varsity rifle team for two years, culminating in a second-place finish at the National Junior Olympic Air Rifle Championships during the summer after my sophomore year. I then decided to leave the rifle team to focus more on my trombone studies, which gave me time to participate in the Tennessee Governor’s School for the Arts and numerous All-State Music Festivals.
I decided to come to Vanderbilt University mainly because it offered an active on-campus student life, a strong engineering program, and an excellent professor of trombone at the Blair School of Music. I have enjoyed being a member of the Phi Mu Alpha Sinfonia music fraternity in addition to performing with the Spirit of Gold and the Blair Big Band, Orchestra and Wind Ensemble. I also have thoroughly enjoyed being a member of Vanderbilt’s chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers and participating in the Concrete Canoe and other fun competitions. Having completed several summer internships with civil engineering firms around Nashville, I look forward to pursuing a career in the field after graduation in the spring of 2011. I plan to remain an active trombone player and hope someday to have a family.
Looking back, the financial sacrifice of my parents to make possible the educations of their four children is deeply humbling. Without generous financial aid from the fine institutions I attended for both high school and college, I never could have had such wonderful memories or aspirations. I have learned well that sacrifice, although not always enjoyable, is imperative.
From squeezing into the middle of the front seat on road trips to watching romantic comedy movies with unfortunate frequency, I sacrificed early and often thanks to my older siblings. But my parents taught me the more important lesson of sacrificing in order to maintain priorities. Although my sisters and I always begged without end (I still do!) for a certain gadget or sugary candy from the checkout aisle of the grocery store, both my mother and father displayed monk-like patience.
We still have a TV from the 1980s, but we all attended private, academically well-known institutions from first grade onward. I can only hope to pass along this value of sacrifice and a good education to my children.
© 2014 Vanderbilt University | Photography: Arian Danian by Kim Ritzenthaler; Kembral Nelson by Lindsey Lissau; Alison Randel by Elena Olivo; and John Fontaine by John Russell
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