I grew up in the Harry Potter generation.
I dreamt of careening through forbidden forests on a bewitched broomstick and leading my house in a friendly game of Quidditch—probably akin to how previous generations imagined fighting droids (Star Wars), boldly going where no one has gone before (Star Trek), or saving Middle Earth (The Lord of the Rings). I always envisioned myself fitting in among the preppy tie-and-skirt set who attended the fictitious Hogwarts.
Growing up in Racine, Wis., I was so sold on the concept that I tried (unsuccessfully) to have my parents send me to boarding school. I requested brochures monthly during my final year of middle school, as if one more positive picture would sway my parents to give the thumbs up. But the closest I ever came to boarding school was sleep-away camp in upper Michigan—decidedly less cool than the rolling English countryside.
Imagine my unadulterated delight, then, when I discovered that Vanderbilt, the object of my postsecondary education aspirations, was erecting The Commons: 10 houses, 10 professors who lived among the students, and a dining hall with heavy, wooden tables just begging students to congregate around them with their cider and cocoa on cold, winter days. These and more were to make up the physical space of The Commons—impressive buildings with impressive rooms. I was sure I would nurse impressive thoughts there to match.
Now is as good a time as any to alert the reader to my unapologetic dorkiness. I squeal like a schoolgirl when BIC comes out with a new collection of pens. New class schedules elicit as much excitement for me as Christmas Day does for 5-year-olds. A residential college, then, was representative of all my dorky imaginings taking physical form. I was in nerd heaven.
“Forget boarding school,” I thought excitedly. “I want a residential college.”
Upon my acceptance to Vanderbilt, the pamphlets that bombarded my house in Wisconsin only fueled my expectations for my coming Commons experience. As part of the Class of 2012, my peers and I would be the first students to experience The Commons. The first.
After an entire adolescence of researching (informally, to be sure) the residential college experience, I had a checklist of expectations that were certain to be met—the least of them meeting my own Ron and Hermione best friends within the first five minutes on campus.
That was my frame of mind until my family’s minivan, filled to capacity with all the trinkets I had deemed necessary, pulled up to Murray House, my new home for the foreseeable future. After carrying my third suitcase up to the room (luckily, on the third floor), my parents began to soak in the Move-In Day atmosphere.
“It’s like a hotel,” my parent’s cooed as they admired my room, assured that the glossy brochures and welcome letters had adequately captured the intellectual environment in which they were about to leave their youngest daughter.
“Mmm-hmm … ,” I trailed off, dumbfounded and utterly speechless by the foreign space I now found myself in.
That sense of bewilderment was to stick with me for the next couple of weeks. A gross overachiever in a sea of gross overachievers, I was amazed and appalled by how much my research had failed me.
The Commons—now known as The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons at Vanderbilt—was nothing like Hogwarts. Nor was I one of the ever-smiling students featured in the brochures through which I had sifted with a fine-toothed comb before arrival.
This cognitive dissonance—the result of my reality not meeting my fantastical expectations—pushed me to ask the question: If this is nothing like what I’d imagined, then what exactly is the residential college experience supposed to be?
I spent the next six months in a misguided attempt to find the “perfect” Commons experience, one worthy of all my imaginings of it. But no matter how many individuals I sat with at one of those grand wooden tables in the dining hall, how many Commons lectures I attended, how many floor-bonding events I signed up for, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was doing this—the undergraduate, residential college thing—wrong.
As the guinea pigs of The Commons, my class was charged with the impossible task of setting the precedent for what the Commons experience should be without having a single model to follow. And I felt pressure to get it right this first time around, if not for my sake, then for those who would be looking toward me and my classmates for guidance in navigating their own Commons experiences. (Perhaps narcissism is also a result of the overachiever disease. The jury’s still out on that one.)
Only after my first year, when I had left The Commons—or, to use a more appropriate term, graduated from it and its luxuriously manicured lodgings—did I realize my fatal flaw. I was searching for an ideal, using propagandized brochures and Hollywood fantasies as fodder. Instead of creating my Commons experience, I had sought, in vain, to recreate an experience that never really existed.
Luckily for me, the nice folks over on The Commons don’t put up steel blockades barring you from entrance once you’ve moved on. Ever since my introduction to Vanderbilt, I have been capitalizing on the bright spots of my time on The Commons, getting to know professors and students whom I otherwise may not have befriended.
I met some of them at a dinner at the Commons dean’s house, where Peabody professors discussed their academic and research interests. And, irony of all ironies, it was at this dinner that I—the person who was “never, ever, never going to teach”—decided the field of education was more my speed than marketing.
I met more of these individuals on my floor, after listening to them practice their various instruments in the basement of Murray House. As a quasi-musician myself, I gravitated toward those with sonorous pursuits.
I even forged friendships at The Commons Center gym, affectionately dubbed “the estrogym” by the women who patronized it most frequently. With my comrades of the cardio, I developed a workout routine as a direct result of the proximity of the facilities to my dorm room. (And the Ben & Jerry’s supply in the Munchie Mart directly below it. After all, 45 minutes on the elliptical deserves at least one scoop.)
I didn’t find Dumbledore, or Ron, or Hermione. Instead I got to know a grab bag of people who existed outside a fantasy world: Dana, with whom I’ve lived since that first year. Rebecca, a girl who watched TLC’s What Not to Wear with a fervor to match my own. Brenden, a proud Texan with the drawl to prove it. These individuals, and others, were the ones I turned to when I needed a companion for coffee or a study break. I turned to them when I needed to laugh, cry or, at times, do a bit of both. (The fluctuation of postadolescent hormones may be one thing the movies got right.)
These people, and the memories that started on The Ingram Commons, are what I’ll take with me come graduation this May. As I apply to graduate schools of education with aspirations of becoming a middle school social studies teacher, I must stop myself from making the same mistake I made with The Commons. A movie is entertaining, but real life is infinitely more fulfilling.
The Ingram Commons doesn’t belong in a storybook, nor can a year’s residence there be relegated to pithy statements or two-dimensional photographs. The only “common” thing about the Ingram Commons experience is that it’s a uniquely individual journey that doesn’t stop when you shake your “first-year student” status.
My research did fail me, but I never would have come to that realization had I held on to fairy tales instead of embracing reality. That was a pretty nice realization to come to. It’s the very reason I am entirely indebted to my Commons experience—even if it meant abandoning all hopes of wielding a wand on the Quad.
© 2013 Vanderbilt University | Photography: JOHN RUSSELL | Illustrations: NOMA
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