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In every issue of Vanderbilt Magazine, we include an essay written by a student. The most frequent challenge I face as editor of these essays is convincing young writers to share their stories, blemishes and all. One of the first rules of writing is that without conflict, there is no story. Yet I find among high-achieving Vanderbilt students a tendency to want to put their best foot forward and present life as near-perfect. Perfection, I tell them, is greatly overrated. It bores the reader and lacks credibility.
That’s why I found Katherine Miller’s essay about her generation’s fears so compelling.
At some point in their lives, Vanderbilt alumni grow more willing to present their college years as less than perfect. In 20 years of interviewing Vanderbilt alumni, I have been struck by the number of times seemingly well-adjusted, gregarious, successful people have told me, “You know, I never really felt I fit in when I was at Vanderbilt.” I suspect that’s a common sentiment at campuses nationwide, especially for first-year students. It’s one of the reasons I find Vanderbilt’s attempt to rethink campus life by investing in The Commons such an intriguing story.
Imagine the audacity it took, in this day and age, to envision a residential model of collegiate life closer to the Aristotelian ideal than to Animal House.
I was thinking about it a few days ago as I rode an elevator full of students absorbed in their cell phones and BlackBerries, wrapped up in their individual lives. What will it be like for 18-year-olds who’ve had their own rooms, their own cars, their own music, their own way for their whole lives, to suddenly dive into a life focused on community? Will they climb out of their comfort zones and embrace friendship with students who think, look and act differently? Can professors truly play a larger role in student lives and fulfill the ideal of mentor? Can the focus turn to the joy of learning for learning’s sake, even with 21st-century distractions assaulting today’s students at every turn?
It will be fascinating to see how nerds and jocks and grade-grubbers and Goths all find their place at The Commons and benefit from this cross-pollenization of ideals and ideas.
Speaking of the student experience: In a future issue of Vanderbilt Magazine, we plan to include a story about Vanderbilt roommates. If you have an interesting story to share, we want to hear it. Did you and your roommate keep a ferret in your room and dress it in black and gold? Go an entire semester without speaking? Become improbable lifelong friends? Drop me an e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Remember—perfection is boring.