The Med School's Only Dorm: Animal House it Ain't
Silence smothers Vanderbilt Hall like a wet blanket. You can stand in the courtyard of the Medical School's only dormitory on a Saturday night, and the loudest sound you hear is your own breathing. Wait a minute! What's going on here? Isn't this a Saturday night? Isn't this a dormitory? And don't 250 students live here? So where is everybody? Where is the party, the beer, the music? At least there should be some music! Over in the common room some guy is playing the piano and upstairs some other guy is doing a Gregorian chant, but c'mon! Where are the tunes? Where is the Springsteen? Who are these people? But of course...they're first and second-year med students.
College has passed away for these people. There are no "Boats" and "Astro 8" and "gee, I'd better thing up a topic for that eight-page paper due tomorrow." Sleeping through classes no longer seems cool. These students are in class from 8:30 until 5:30, and if this isn't the Real World, it comes a hell of a lot closer than college.
Life for a med student is especially trying during the first two years. While much of the work amounts to reviewing the basic sciences, the pace is fast and relentless. And just about all the work is done in the classroom. Only in the third and fourth years are students permitted to test their stethescopes at the teaching hospitals and sample real medicine. Vanderbilt houses first- and second-year students--all of whom have had their fill of classrooms in high school and college, and all of whom are just itching to throw on Marcus Welby white jackets and start saving lives. Yet not only are these students back in the classroom, they're back in the classroom all day. And they're all taking the same courses and they're all working their tails off.
Things get a little tense down at Vanderbilt about this time--finals are coming up--and they are especially tense for first-year students. The second-year students have learned to relax a little, says Gary Montgomery, now in his second year. "Kids who are getting ready to take their first finals see their classmates getting really tense and ask students who have been around for a year, "Is this dorm always like this!' But usually the tension eases up after a while," Montgomery says.
Although the atmosphere at Vanderbilt eventually loosens up a bit, the med school dorm is a far cry from college, Montgomery, a Washington University graduate, says. "We used to do a lot more screwing around in college, we'd do things like bounce an empty key down the hallway--nothing like that goes on around here."
Doug Fraker, also a second year student, says, "In college you could go into just about any dorm on any night of the week and see kids smoking dope and partying, but at Vanderbilt that just doesn't happen." He adds, "Things are always pretty quiet--there are very few stereos and nobody plays them loud."
Only in its architecture does Vanderbilt resemble a dorm. It has a couple of suites, but most of the rooms are singles off long corridors. Not many third- or fourth-year students live here. They could, of course, if they wanted to, but it's just not in the game plan of most third- and fourth-year students, almost doctors, to stick around with a bunch of classroom jockeys. It would be like spending your senior year of college in Hurlbut. By their third year, most med students have moved into apartments in Boston or Cambridge.
So what you're left with is 250 students, all taking the same courses. This does not promote the world's liveliest social atmosphere. Imagine enrolling in Chem 20, notorious for its wonks, whizzes, grade-grubbers and applepolishers, and then discovering that not only must you spend all day in class with the other Chem 20 students, but you must also hang around with them every night.
Amy Ryan, a first-year student, says that Vanderbilt residents do their best to avoid competition but admits a certain amount is inevitable. "You're always around people who are studying the same exact things--sometimes it seems like you can't get away. At least in college when you get back from classes you can be around people who are doing a lot of different things. You can't do this a Vanderbilt," says Ryan, a Brown graduate.
Nancy Newman, also a first-year student, echoes Ryan's feelings. Although she says she has made some close friends in the dorm, Newman adds that on the whole "I think I would like the students a lot more if I didn't have to see them so much. It's a bit annoying when you walk down the halls and hear buzz words from all of your classes coming out of other people's rooms--I'd just as soon not know what everyone else is studying and not have them know what I'm studying."
So by the time the weekend rolls around, most of the students are ready for some new faces. The Chem 20 clones hole up in their rooms and the rest of the students scatter. "Sometimes residents get together in little groups to do things, but there is definitely not the desire for big parties here the way there was in college," first-year Princeton graduate Michele Hamilton says. Once in a while--a long while--Vanderbilt stages large parties and dances, but, according to Hamilton, they are usually pretty bad. First year student John Hammond, who heads back to Williams when he can afford the time off from studying, says, "On weekends this place is dead, I mean, you can just about see tumbleweeds blowing across the courtyard. The social life here is terrible compared to college, but mostly we're here to study, not party," Hammond says. Another first-year student, who graduated from Harvard and asked not to be identified, says, "North House, on its deepest, quietest weekday has more going on than Vanderbilt does on the average weekend. Most people who graduated from Harvard flock back to Cambridge on their time off," he says, adding that "others, who have girl friends or boy friends in New England, are willing to travel long distances to get away from Vanderbilt for a while."
Aside from the somewhat awkward social atmosphere, students say another problem with Vanderbilt is its cafeteria. Soupcon, its caterer, is not subsidized, so the food is usually expensive, Ryan says. The cafeteria is also closed on weekends. Since there are no cooking facilities in the rooms, students are forced to eat out in a city not known for its gastronomical bargains. Why do people choose Vanderbilt then? First-and second-year students are not required to room there, yet more than 250 each year do. Many students, particularly those who are unfamiliar with the area, have trouble finding housing. "I had no idea where to look for an apartment in Boston and I didn't want to face the hassle of trying to find one, especially once school started," Ryan says. And Vanderbilt's location--directly across from the main classroom buildings--is ideal for students spending nine hours a day in class and much of the rest of their time studying. It's nice to be able to roll out of bed at 8:29 for an 8:30 class. But after a while, most students find that the disadvantages of Vanderbilt begin to outweigh the advantages, and most eventually move out. As the students become more familiar with the Boston area, finding an apartment becomes easier. And when students move out of the centrally located classrooms and into the hospitals, which are spread across a much larger area, Vanderbilt's location is no longer a big attraction. And besides, how many doctors live in dorms?
'On weekends this place is dead, I mean, you can just about see tumbleweeds blowing across the courtyard. The social life here is terrible compared to college...' --John Hammond, a first-year medical student
'North House, on its deepest, quietest weekday has more going on than Vanderbilt does on the average weekend.' --A Harvard graduate and first year student