First-year Peabody College students Aaron and Nicholas Ainsworth have stayed connected to their hometown of San Bernardino, California, in part by mentoring a class of sixth-grade students there, both in person and by video chat.
“In San Bernardino, not that many people go away to school, and we want to let them know the opportunity is out there,” Nicholas says.
As a result of the Ainsworth brothers’ involvement with the school, the sixth graders from Cypress Elementary School made Vanderbilt its spotlight university and learned more about it during the course of the year. “We want to reassure them that someone like me, from my community, did this and maybe they can, too,” Aaron says.
This spring the Ainsworth brothers emailed Chancellor Nichols S. Zeppos about the work they’d been doing with the San Bernardino class, and he was eager to pitch in and help. Within a few weeks they’d set up a Skype chat between Zeppos and the sixth graders.
“What better use of my time than to team up with Vanderbilt students to connect to young people who want to know more about Vanderbilt,” Zeppos said just before hopping on to the chat session. “We’re thrilled to be their spotlight school, and I want to inspire these youngsters to come to Vanderbilt someday.”
With a video connection from California to Nashville, the elementary students were ready with questions on everything from majors to food to why Chancellor Zeppos loves his job.
“In some ways the students are like my children,” Zeppos told the class. “So every day I think, ‘Are they happy? Are they successful? Are they included? Are they not stressed out?’ Supporting the students is the most important thing I do. And of course making sure the food is great!”
But many of the San Bernardino students believe college is out of reach for them. The chancellor and the Ainsworth brothers passionately reassured them that’s not the case.
“I want to see every hand up saying you want to go to college because you can all go to college,” Zeppos said. “Don’t ever listen to anyone who says you’re not good enough to go to college because we believe in you.”
Zeppos shared personal stories about his family in hopes of connecting with those young people who may be reluctant to ever consider higher education. “My father didn’t go to college, and my grandparents couldn’t speak English when they came to the U.S. and weren’t able to attend college,” Zeppos said. “But they encouraged my dreams.”
The biggest hurdle in the students’ minds: price.
That’s when the chancellor talked about Opportunity Vanderbilt and explained that Vanderbilt does not look at a family’s ability to pay when making admissions decisions. The university provides 100 percent of a student’s demonstrated financial need without loans.
Aaron and Nicholas shared their financial aid journeys as well. “Opportunity Vanderbilt is the reason we’re here,” Aaron told the class. Both brothers are receiving scholarships established through bequest gifts. Nicholas is recipient of the J. Howard and Sara Fay Schwam Scholarship, and Aaron is recipient of the Flowers and Stanton Scholarship.
Zeppos said the Ainsworth brothers’ outreach typifies many compassionate, hardworking Vanderbilt students. “I’m just inspired and in awe and very proud,” Zeppos said. “It’s a privilege to be part of the project and a part of these students’ lives as they continue to do great things on and off campus.”
— AMY WOLF
Watch Chancellor Zeppos and the Ainsworth brothers video chat with sixth graders at Cypress Elementary: