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Inside Vanderbilt University College of Arts & Science

Nick Mecikalski

Vanderbilt is renowned for many things – its Medical Center, the Peabody College of Education and Human Development, the Blair School of Music – but it’s not known as a theatre school. And yet, I studied Theatre there. Why? 

I didn’t know when I got accepted to Vanderbilt that I would necessarily become a Theatre major. I didn’t know what exactly I wanted to study at all, to be honest, and part of what made Vanderbilt so attractive to me in the first place was that the liberal arts curriculum of their College of Arts & Science is designed specifically to help students like me explore various fields of study before having to declare a major. 

Rather than mandating that all students take specific “general education” courses (or comp out of them with AP credit), the Vanderbilt College of Arts & Science has a unique and flexible core curriculum, which they call Achieving Excellence in Liberal Education (AXLE). As part of the AXLE requirements, students must take a certain number of courses in each of six categories, including Humanities and the Creative Arts (3 courses), International Cultures (3 courses), Social and Behavioral Sciences (2 courses), and so on. The good news is that every course offered in the College of Arts & Science – including all the classes in each degree program – fall into one of these categories. So, if you start your first year at Vanderbilt thinking of becoming an Anthropology major, for example, you could take Anthropology 1101, which counts as a Social and Behavioral Sciences course for AXLE as well as one of the classes needed to complete the major. Then, even if you decide against an Anthropology major after taking the class, you’ve still completed one of your AXLE requirements, so you haven’t “lost” any time. In this way, Vanderbilt requires and rewards educational exploration, both for students like me who need to try things out before deciding on their majors, and for students who know from the start what they want to study. (A note that AXLE only exists in the College of Arts & Science at Vanderbilt, not in the other undergraduate schools – Blair, Peabody, and the School of Engineering – which have their own general education requirements.)

So, back to the first question – why Theatre? Vanderbilt’s Theatre Department is small but robust. The department mounts four mainstage productions a year in conjunction with the Vanderbilt University Theatre student organization, in addition to offering classes in performing, playwriting, design, theatre history, theatre tech, and more. It’s a tight-knit community with a lot of opportunities for its students, which means that my peers and I were able to be about as involved in theatre as humanly possible while at Vanderbilt, and we got to know our professors very well. In my Senior year, I directed a play, starred in another one, and, as my Senior Thesis, wrote and acted in my own solo show. I got the absolute most out of my four years in the Vanderbilt Theatre Department.

Life at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt is located in the heart of Nashville, though when you’re on campus, it barely feels like you’re in a city. The campus itself is, frankly, idyllic – it’s officially been designated an arboretum. So, being on campus is the best of both worlds: on weekdays, you get to sink into an academic paradise, and in the evenings and on weekends, you can step off campus right into the middle of one of the most exciting cities in the country.

There is no end to the number of student organizations that Vanderbilt hosts, which means that every student can find their “people” and their niche. It also means that it’s easy to get over-involved. If there’s a Vanderbilt “stereotype” that I became during my four years there, it was the exceptionally busy student jumping from class to meeting to rehearsal to meeting without a moment to breathe in between. By my Junior and Senior years, I had found a balance, and I had come to learn that doing 2 or 3 things fully is better than doing 5 or 6 things halfway – a piece of advice I would pass along to all incoming first-year students.

There is so much more I could say about the infinitude of things there are to do and enjoy at the school – the athletics, the Greek life, the annual spring music festival, Blair concerts, the Great Performances series – but I’ll leave you with a rousing tribute to the campus food. There are over 20 dining locations on campus, and importantly, several of them are open 24/7. There’s something particularly magical about being able to get a milkshake at 3 in the morning.

To learn more about my experience at Vanderbilt, check out my video on our YouTube channel here.


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