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I'm Different, Yeah, I'm Different

Commons Celebration

Everyone is valuable for their unique perspectives.

FINDING COMFORT IN IDENTITY | MAKING IT WORK | P.S.: STRUGGLING WITH COMING OUT | STEPPING OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE | ACCESSIBILITY: PHYSICAL AND OTHERWISE | WHAT'S IN A NAME? 

FINDING COMFORT IN IDENTITY: LIVING WITH AUTISM

Emelyne Bingham, Senior Lecturer in the Teaching of Music, Blair School of Music, Faculty VUceptor
Kyle Schwartz, '19, College of Arts and Science

Thanks to Vanderbilt Visions, we were fortunate to have formed a friendship through the common experience of living with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). While we received our diagnoses at different ages (Kyle at three and Emelyne as an adult), we both feel fortunate to have received the support necessary to manage the significant challenges we, and others on the spectrum, face daily. Of course we’ve encountered our share of stereotypes along the way, including assumptions about our cognitive abilities, our capacity for empathy, and our social needs. In reality, though, we have different combinations of strengths and weakness just like neurotypical people do.

For many people on the autism spectrum, social skills don’t come naturally; they are learned cognitively, which involves a great deal of trial and error. Often these errors cause misunderstandings with people who don’t understand autism and therefore write us off as awkward, arrogant, or even rude. This can increase an ASD person’s isolation, which in turn inhibits social learning, thus perpetuating the cycle.

The transition to college life can be especially difficult for a person with autism. Socially, it’s challenging for most everyone—but for someone with a social disability it can be overwhelming. Cognitive processing differences in ASD students sometimes require additional time and energy to manage everyday tasks. Additionally, adjusting to new sensory stimuli such as ambient noise in large lecture and residence halls can seem unmanageable. ASD students may find difficulty in advocating for themselves in these situations, as doing so requires reaching far beyond their social comfort zones.

We know we are among the lucky ones, as sadly, not enough people with ASD and other cognitive or developmental disabilities make it to college. We hope that increased awareness and understanding of ASD may bring much needed support, which may someday facilitate that change. Because of programs like Vanderbilt Visions, we envision change happening one conversation at a time. So if you see us out having coffee somewhere on campus, we hope you’ll stop by and say “hello.” We’d really like to get to know you, and also…well, we could use the practice.

Bingham & Schwartz

MAKING IT WORK

Georgia Murray, '19, College of Arts and Science
Jordan Barone, '16,
College of Arts and Science

Georgia Murray, Jordan Barone

“Oh, you work at the Pub, right?” Second only to “Aren’t you the British one?” this is the greeting I’m most used to when I meet new people on campus. Honestly, I hadn’t expected these two little facts to become such fundamental pillars of my identity at college, but there you go.  

I don’t notice a huge difference between campus dining workers and other students day to day, but I do think my experience has been a little different in a few ways - there probably aren’t many other people on campus who can tell you someone’s Monday night dinner order and not their name.  Sometimes it can be a little hectic; one week I realized I’d scheduled my shift the same night that I had a performance with my a cappella group. I don’t think the experience of trying to fit in work with everything else that’s going on can be summarized better than it was then: running to Sarratt Cinema to sing and making it back just in time for the end of my break.

While time management is one challenge I’ve had to learn to tackle in my work at the Pub, the true challenge comes from the fact that student workers are a minority at Vanderbilt. It didn’t bother me that my friends didn’t have jobs of their own but spending twelve hours a week behind a bar can make it seem like everyone who isn’t an employee has a lot more time on their hands. The realization that I would feel left out every time they went to dinner or hung out while I was on the clock definitely got to me.

Despite the chaos, I’m so glad that campus dining is such a big part of my Vanderbilt experience.  I’ve become more confident in my abilities to adapt and learn in new environments. I’ve even made some of my best friends through work who understand the importance of having a job and I’ve gained an appreciation for the staff members who work to make Vanderbilt the community it is. 

I have so much respect for students who work on this campus, and I urge you to think deeper before dismissing student workers and their campus jobs. (Look us in the eye. Say please, and thank you and remember - the Pub is not actually a real restaurant!) Whether the students serving your Commodore Tso’s chicken or your pub fries are working to pay their own tuition or just trying to make some extra pocket cash for all the concerts they want to attend in Music City, they are learning life lessons that can’t be taught inside a classroom.


 

P.S.: STRUGGLING WITH COMING OUT

Tom Agger, '17, School of Engineering

When I finally came out to my parents, I was relieved. “Finally, I’m done with this” I thought to myself. I had started writing them a very generic camp letter. I don’t know who came up with the idea that kids and parents would both rejoice at the exchange of meaningless letters, and looking back, I’m pretty mad the whole shebang exists.

There’s often nothing good to say. “Hey mom! Today we had a dairy meal, instead of a meat meal!” (par for the course at a Jewish summer camp). Or “The six year olds that I’m a counselor-in-training for are jerks! Who would have thought?!”

Tom AggerThis letter was more of the same. Its one distinguishing feature was a slightly abnormal flamboyancy. Flamboyant because I had borrowed someone’s glitter pens to scrawl each line of the letter in a different color.

I had been stressing about coming out that whole year. The year had progressed slowly, with all my friends finding out through a grab bag of different media (gchat, in-person confessions, more gchat). At this moment in the summer, however, the only thing troubling me was the uncomfortably small bed I had to sleep in. Until Deborah Secular entered the scene.

Deborah was my first fling. Two years prior, her contagious laugh and tendency to blurt out nonsensical phrases in inappropriate situations caught my eyes, ears and heart. We swiftly began a “camp relationship”, which ended on relatively good terms with the end of our summer camp. Deborah was the only thing that reminded me of my newfound sexuality.

Seeing her face again at camp led me to spontaneously write what I thought was a seemingly innocent phrase at the bottom of my letter: “P.S. I’m gay.”

I thought this plan was fool-proof. I had eliminated the stress and awkwardness of an in-person sit down with my family. I had run the hypothetical situation through my mind hundreds of times, and this seemed the easiest way. No one would be upset, right?

Wrong. So wrong. I came home two weeks later to my mom crying hysterically. Her face was puffy like a tomato, letting me know that the crying had been long-term.

This isn’t a sad story, though. My family is all the good stuff: accepting, short, loud. After two awkward weeks of explaining my situation, and explaining it again, everything slowly began to morph back into a sort of normalcy. My mom started smiling again, but she still seemed a little uneasy whenever I would talk about my guy friends. We have continued to work towards complete normalcy (aka, me complaining to my mom about dates gone wrong), but we still haven’t quite reached that point.

The sad part was, I thought my “coming out” was over.

What I’ve learned since is that, even in these years of inspiring gay rights victories, I still feel I have to “come out” to everyone new I meet, especially on campus. Even as I keep ignorantly thinking ‘this time will be the last.’

I’ve tried all the different approaches ranging from subtle and deliberate, to overt and dramatic.

Recently, while on study abroad, many of my classmates and I flooded the same restaurant and were received warmly with handshakes and greetings from Frenchman. I proposed we play two truths and a lie to get to know each other. The other students asked me to go first, and I had it all planned out: “I’ve hooked up with a monk. I’ve never ridden a roller coaster. I once sold avocados to Julia Stiles.” A couple of poorly phrased questions later and everyone had deduced that female monks don’t exist.

This influx of new people in my life, namely more than 150 Georgia Tech students in France, forced me to revisit the discomfort of coming out. The two truths and a lie method worked, but it definitely didn’t eliminate the probing questions (“How long have you been gay for? So do girls, like, gross you out?”) I so desperately try to avoid.

Of all the environments in which I have come out, Vanderbilt was one of the more comfortable. In a place where differences are celebrated and quirks are cause for curiosity instead of rejection, I felt almost welcomed to come out. Even within Vanderbilt, however, new situations are cause for new awkwardness. Coming out to my first year floor wasn’t the end of it. Afterwards, there was coming out to my Visions group, then to the Visions group that I led, to the radio show I host, and so on.

In short, I’m still looking for the right way to tell people how gay I am. It sucks that I still feel the need to make these grand announcements, but I do. But maybe next time I can just let them read this updated version of my terribly blunt camp letter.

STEPPING OUTSIDE MY COMFORT ZONE

Ben Taylor, '15, School of Engineering

Looking at my journey through four years at Vanderbilt, the graduating senior who I am now would barely recognize the homeschooled high school senior who came here in fall 2011. While it may seem as though I now have it “all figured out,” I was quite the opposite when I came to Vandy as a first-year student. I had been homeschooled for twelve years in my small town of Fairview, Tennessee, and needless to say, I had quite an adjustment from high school to college. I wasn’t used to having classes with other people or living in a community with thousands of students my age.

In spite of these potential disadvantages, I had an incredible first semester, because I was surrounded by a bunch of amazing individuals: my Student and Faculty VUceptors and my RA. Through their advice and support, I navigated the typical trials of freshman year. I became involved with student organizations, I learned how to balance work with play (to an extent), and I even survived Calculus I. Vanderbilt repeatedly pushed me outside of my comfort zone, and thanks to the community that I found on campus, I grew through every experience.

Every semester Vanderbilt has challenged me to try new things and to get involved in new organizations, and I’ve been grateful for every moment of it. The story of my Vanderbilt experience is simply one of many stories that prove that any student can succeed here and find their own community. Embrace the challenges of your first semester and first year, because through each challenge you will grow in ways that you never imagined you would. Who knows, you might not even recognize your first-year self by the time you’re a senior! 

Ben Taylor

Second image

 

ACCESSIBILITY: PHYSICAL AND OTHERWISE

Jesse Bennett, '19, College of Arts and Science

I thought I would have an easier time adjusting to Vanderbilt than most students. I grew up in Green Hills, after all, and attended USN, minutes away from The Commons. Still, I found a campus that was more challenging, exciting, and rewarding than anything I could have imagined. I have cerebral palsy, which makes it difficult for me to walk, so I use an electric wheelchair to get around campus.

It's hard to describe what I can and can't do and what accommodations I need. It’s complicated and messy. Because of my wheelchair, many people, including my hallmates, first assume I cannot walk at all. One night, when I was hanging out in a friend's room and I decided to stand up it caused a lot of amazement and concern. Other social scenarios can also be difficult. I'm technically able to get into most of the fraternity houses on campus, but most of the areas where social events are held, are off-limits because of my physical abilities. I can also, in theory, travel from The Commons to Highland when it's dark outside. That said, I prefer not to because some areas of campus are not well lit, making it harder to follow accessible routes. These challenges made me feel somewhat isolated in my first semester. 

Jesse Bennett

Luckily, by the middle of second semester, I had a better idea of how to get around campus and the type of people I wanted to hang out with. I became involved with Vanderbilt Quiz Bowl as well as Disabilities Awareness Partnership (DAP), a student organization working to make campus more accessible. When it came time to choose housing for sophomore year, I applied to live in McGill Hall, a Living-Learning Community that promotes free thinking and creativity. I also continue to look for people who are open-minded, laid-back, and willing to accommodate my needs when planning social events.

My cerebral palsy is not like anyone else's cerebral palsy, just like one person’s blindness is not like another person's blindness. Disability is a spectrum, which makes it difficult to bring up in the conversation of diversity. I think this is why it took me a bit longer to find my place at Vanderbilt: I'm one of relatively few students with a physical disability on this campus. It takes people time to recognize the unique social challenges that students with disabilities face.  Ability is different from race and gender - it is something the majority of people, even those with other types of disabilities, take for granted. Through my work with DAP I hope to make the campus more accessible, physically or otherwise, to all students. To all the first-year students reading this, know that while your first year might be tough and challenging, there is a place for you at Vanderbilt. You'll find it soon enough, just as I found mine.


WHAT'S IN A NAME?

Julian Sun, '17, College of Arts and Science

Julian SunOne night last semester, I went to Kissam’s Munchie Mart to get my routine midnight swipe: blue Powerade, a bag of chips (barbeque flavor), and the best red apple I could dig out of the remaining bruised ones. This was so automatic for me that I didn’t notice there was a new employee behind the cash register. I absent-mindedly gave her my ID, already holding up the Powerade at the right angle to be scanned.

“You can’t use this card,” she said. I snapped to attention. Oh no. Did I run out of meals? “Why?” I asked in a panic. I can’t function without my usual midnight snack. “This isn’t you,” she said. “You aren’t Julie.” I relaxed. “Oh…yeah, no, that’s me.” I took the card, held it next to my face, and matched the smile in the picture. “I just got a haircut.” The worker next to her, who has rung me up many a time, reassured her that yes, it was me.

After resolving the misunderstanding, I walked happily back up to my room munching on my unhealthily timed snack. I love it when my appearance confuses people. I do it a lot, because even though I present really masculinely, I have a feminine body and voice so sometimes people can’t decipher my gender as quickly as they are used to. 

I think about my ID again and chuckle. Julie in the picture was from about a year ago, when I still identified as female. She had long wavy hair (which she hated to take care of), tight-fitting clothes (which she liked looking at but didn’t particularly enjoy wearing), and a huge collection of heels that she never wore (which probably accumulated from trying really hard to overcompensate for a lack of femininity).

Julie was always just an idea—a façade designed to convince myself and everyone else that I was a girl, destined to do girl things. I’m proud to say that I don’t need Julie anymore. In her place is a stronger, truer me, who is more a boy than a girl, who actually likes my clothes, who is more confident, and who doesn’t feel so out of place anymore.

The cashier at Munchie was right. I’m not Julie. I am Julian, looking forward to becoming the best me that I can be.