The night (or early morning) that I sat in one of our dining halls and wrote this, in April 2016, a student at Vanderbilt died by suicide. I learned of her death the next day, April 22nd, and in its wake, struggled to accept that I had written so specifically about the heartbeat of a university. I felt callous for romanticizing a place that houses people in pain.
Over four years at Vanderbilt, on Brillo pad dorm-room carpet and in dark passenger seats, I had countless conversations where either party offered up one variation of the following: “I’ve thought about transferring.” “I need to leave.” “I can’t do this—suicide seems like the best option.” From those conversations, I’m convinced that feeling like an imposter in your own community, at your own school, in your own body or mind, can become the ruling narrative of anyone’s life. It’s easiest for our minds to understand when someone who didn’t have a visible community dies by suicide, but the same exact experience can take hold of someone who seems like she “has it all.”
In those four years at school, from August 2013 to May 2017—I just checked my student email—I received eight emails with the subject line “Death of a Student,” both undergraduate and professional students, suicide and other causes. Since I graduated in May, one undergraduate student has died by suicide.
Madison Holleran was a freshman in college the same year as I was, moving in during the fall of 2013. She went to Penn, in Philadelphia, and ran for the track team. I let a book about her life, What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan, sit on my shelf for two months before reading it.
I saw a lot of myself and those I know in Fagan’s account of Madison’s story, but the following is the most painful for me:
In that moment, the word “Vanderbilt” no longer represented a group of distinguished buildings in Nashville, boys in penny loafers and sorority girls drifting from class to class. The school represented something much more elusive: hope.