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.
Madison was apparently exploring transferring to Vanderbilt after her first semester at Penn—also considering UNC, Wake Forest, and the like. She died by suicide in January 2014 after returning to school for the start of her second semester. What scares me the most about how my school is described above is that I created the same experience of Vanderbilt in my mind before moving to Nashville for school.
Vanderbilt was to be my new world of an eternal high—perfect friends and relationships, getting the grades I wanted with the same effort exerted in high school, figuring out my adult existence and never being sad again. My expectations of Vanderbilt and of my performance in all parameters—personal, social, academic—were irrevocably high and I couldn’t imagine getting to my dream school and being upset.
At two different times, the spring of my freshman and sophomore years, I contemplated suicide, but never planned. I scheduled one appointment at our Psychological & Counseling Center in April of my freshman year and cancelled it a week later. I remember calling my dad before making that appointment and hearing him say, “Okay but if you feel this way again, you need to tell someone, okay?”
A little further in Maddy’s story, I read this:
Escaping it—escaping herself—was impossible; everywhere she went, the unhappiness came too. What if she did trick herself into believing a different set of buildings and a new logo would fix what was happening?
A couple of months ago at counseling, I remember telling Sarah, my therapist (if you are in Nashville—I go to Sage Hill) that more often than is probably reasonable, I romanticize the idea of moving to somewhere in Europe and leaving everything in America behind.
She said: “If you go there, there you will be.” And then continued on, generally saying: the beauty and history of a place you believe will distract you from the hurt and humanity you experience every day will not do so.
I thought about transferring from Vanderbilt during my first year too, believing the problem was my environment: if I just made better friends, or liked the city more, or went to a new place, I wouldn’t be unhappy. I then thought about taking a leave of absence during my second year. One of my friends did take a leave of absence and came back to school after a semester, and from what I know it was the right decision. But I’m not sure I can think of one person I know from college who either didn’t think about transferring or felt a sense of deep isolation while at school.
I’m glad I didn’t leave Vanderbilt and I’m glad I didn’t choose death over life, but I can only say those things because hindsight is 20-20. I had no idea anything would get better and was depressed for the better part of my sophomore year. I don’t know Madison, and I want her to be alive still, a graduate of any school in all of the country. But it’s not fair of me to “want” anything from her.
Schools that attract tens of thousands of applicants because everything is “supposed” to be a certain way seem to me the most tragic—because I went to Vanderbilt, where everyone is happy, I was supposed to look this way and go out this amount and keep everything cute and airbrushed on Instagram and say “Great, how are you?” when asked.
I wrote in college to process my world and make sense of who I was, and I’m glad that my school is making attempts to prioritize mental health, but I still believe that individuals sharing their raw stories will always be more effective change-agents than another club or administrative initiative.
The Vanderbilt student I mentioned earlier died by suicide at the start of finals week in our spring semester of 2016, my junior year. A few days after, my favorite professor (who I had a literature class with that semester) sent our class the following email. I’m keeping it in full because it’s something I’ve passed on to other friends and referred back to many times during that season.
My Dearest Scholars,
Here’s a fact: it’s been an absolute pleasure to work with you this semester.
Here’s another fact: I want to make sure to check in with y’all. The Vanderbilt community has suffered sad and profound losses this week. I know that many of you are affected. This has reminded me to make it clear, in case I haven’t before now, that I recognize all the time and effort you’ve put in this semester. I’m still completely tickled that I get to work with brilliant young folks like y’all for a living.
I also want to encourage you to take time to check in with yourself. This time of year is stressful on so many levels. And yet it’s important that you make sure to take breaks, get sleep, eat, and reach out to friends and family, as well as to mentors and advisors. I’m here, now and in the future. Please feel free to add me as a resource to the list of resources here on campus that was included in recent emails from administration.
And a reminder: I value your whole selves and all the fluctuations that come with it—the typos, the failed reading quizzes, and the “put your phone away” talks as much as the A-papers and strong in-class comments and participation; and all the stuff I get to know about you through your writing and comments in class and conversations in office hours. All of it. The messy is my favorite part, but I value all the parts. And sometimes I, too, have to remember that there is no one model or standard of success that works for all of us—there are oh so many. Someone else’s best isn’t your best or even your model. Our class, in part, revolved around the idea that our lived experiences are affected by the many, knotty, complex intersections between our identities and our environments. Each one of us has a story written in a slightly different tone and inflection than anyone else. Relish those differences; I do—they’re what make my job so lovely. If you forget to relish them, I’ll be here to remind you.
I’m sending you good luck as you work on papers, projects, and exams, and everything else. Please don’t hesitate to reach out, ok?
Thank you so much for a wonderful semester,
In all honesty I’m not sure how to end this—I like writing and bristle at the idea of mine coming across as corny or wrapped up in a bow.
Reading about Madison’s life sent a series of little tugs to my mind and my heart: check in with this person, with that person, and equally as important, check in with yourself. For now all I really know is that I’m hurt by who my generation is taught that we have to be. I find hope in the idea that we can continue to be vulnerable with who we are in an attempt to connect with each other.
If you’d like to read more about Madison’s life, Kate Fagan’s original piece for ESPN called Split Image covers some of what the book does. If you do, this article about suicide reporting is also important.