Vanderbilt and Nashville: Good Neighbors

Photography by Lauren Holland

“On the city’s western border, reared against the sky,” begins Vanderbilt’s alma mater, penned in 1908. In the century since, Nashville and the surrounding communities have grown like kudzu in all directions, placing the university at the very heart of a metropolitan area with a population that now exceeds 1.5 million.

Vanderbilt has grown up alongside its hometown to play a leading role in the life of the larger community—employing nearly 25,000 people; providing a Level 1 trauma center and top-ranked hospitals that admit around 65,000 patients a year; and generating millions of dollars for the local economy through athletics, cultural events, and a vast array of intellectual offerings. And that’s just for starters.

It’s a symbiotic relationship, of course: The community in turn provides fertile ground for research studies and partners with the university in making service learning and civic engagement integral components of the Vanderbilt experience.

“A lot of us are asking, ‘How can we get students to think of service as more than a one-time volunteer opportunity? How can we help them connect to the experience not only as volunteers, but as thinkers and scholars?’” says Whitney Weeks, executive director of the Vanderbilt Center for Nashville Studies. “How can working in the community affect how students think about public housing, urban development or a tax structure, and how might that affect whether they choose to live in Nashville beyond college, or be good citizens wherever they are?”

Here we highlight just six answers to those questions—evidence of a thriving 140-year town-and-gown love affair.


As part of his field education placement, Adebayo Anifowoshe, a second-year divinity master’s student from Nigeria, works with Nashville’s Nancy Webb Kelly United Methodist Church to provide food and clothing for homeless individuals.


Schoolchildren from Nashville’s Edgehill community are tutored at a local church by Vanderbilt students. The Vanderbilt After School Program partners with The Martha Rivers Ingram Commons and the Bishop Joseph Johnson Black Cultural Center to provide tutoring and mentoring services at no cost.


The Susan Gray School, a licensed Nashville child care center on Vanderbilt’s campus, opened in 1968 and was named for the longtime Peabody College special education professor who was a global authority on early education of children with developmental disabilities. The school was the first nationally recognized early intervention program to include typically developing children in educational settings with children with disabilities.


Two days per week, students of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing provide free or reduced-price health care to low-income Nashvillians at Mercury Courts. Formerly a 1940s-era motel, Mercury Courts now provides transitional housing for low-income people who are homeless, mentally ill, physically disabled, living with HIV/AIDS, in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction, or simply need an affordable place to live.


Under close supervision by faculty members, Vanderbilt Law School students in the Family Law and Domestic Violence Clinic provide gratis representation to victims of domestic violence in civil matters, focusing that representation on obtaining orders of protection and on divorce and custody matters.


Civil and environmental engineering professor Janey Smith Camp presents workshops for teachers in the Metro Nashville Public Schools to help them learn to use geospatial technologies in the teaching of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) courses. Here she leads Maleka Buonviri’s eighth-grade STEM class at Isaac Litton Middle School in an activity using GPS technology.

Learn about Vanderbilt’s efforts to empower its students to become involved in the community.