Being a Woman of Color at Vanderbilt


Daniel Dubois

Aerial images of Vanderbilt Campus and Kirkland Hall (Daniel Dubois / Vanderbilt University)

Mary Elaine Hanna

Entering a space that was not built to include you can be a jarring experience for any marginalized group, and minority experiences at Vanderbilt are no exception to this. A survey sent to undergraduates who identify as women of color asked students to reflect on their experiences at Vanderbilt in the areas of Greek Life, academics, and campus life. Responses came from a range of students including international students, LGBTQ+ individuals, first generation college students, transfer students, and first generation Americans.

On the survey, women indicated their involvement in Greek Life and their general sentiments toward joining Greek organizations. Of the respondents who indicated they were in a Greek organization, most were part of the National Pan-Hellenic Council (NPHC), that is, the umbrella council that houses historically African American fraternities and sororities, including Vanderbilt’s three sorority chapters. Reasons cited for choosing to join an NPHC sorority over a Panhellenic sorority included not wanting to be the token of a predominantly white group and desiring “real sisterhood.” Respondents who do not participate in Greek Life, in addition to the financial cost of joining a sorority, cited their discomfort with entering a space among people who they perceive “don’t understand or care to understand” their experiences.

The women also reflected on class dynamics and relationships with professors. Some respondents wrote about times when they felt their identity made it difficult to contribute in class. Several women cited feeling “hyper-conscious” in class, namely in economics classes which are dominated by white men. In navigating student-professor relationships, some students recounted instances where they felt disempowered by while male professors. One student cited anxiety in asking for help from a professor, while another felt unable to confront her professor after a class discussion that felt disparaging towards her identity for fear of how she would be responded to or perceived. Strikingly, 40% of the respondents reported never having had a woman of color as a professor at Vanderbilt.

When asked to think about the resources available on campus, women gave responses explaining what has been helpful for them and what needs to be improved. Students wrote that available campus resources such as the UCC, Project Safe, and the Women’s Center do not have representative staffs, making some students feel uncomfortable about opening up about experiences directly tied to their identity as women of color. In contrast, one student noted that the care providers that are women of color, though few and far between, have been helpful during her time at Vanderbilt. Several students also noted their appreciation for the Black Cultural Center.

Ashton Toone, Graduate Assistant and the only woman of color on staff at the Margaret Cuninggim Women’s Center, says she understands why women of color are not utilizing the Center’s resources. Toone feels that the Center is not taking advantage of its potential to reach more students, as they “see the same types of students all the time.” Acknowledging that programming mainly reaches white women, Toone states that the Women’s Center, “genuinely wants to serve all students and all women,” but “doesn’t do our students of color enough justice. Because [the Women’s Center] is an all-white space, it can be really intimidating.” Toone believes that cross-collaboration with other campus resources like the BCC is an essential step in making programming more inclusive and helpful to women of color.

JaNiene Peoples, Student Wellbeing Coordinator for the Center for Student Wellbeing, says, “It’s no surprise that women of color attending PWIs face a unique set of challenges. Women students of color may not feel comfortable expressing ways in which the cumulative effects of dealing with racial and gender issues directly impact their overall wellbeing. They may also be reluctant to self-advocate in regards to supporting various dimensions of their personal health and wellness.” Also emphasizing the importance of collaboration between the CSW and other campus resources like the BCC, Peoples states, “I encourage all students who are women of color to find communities on campus that promote a sense of belonging and continue sharing your unique needs with us.”

Special thanks to all the women who contributed their voices and experiences to this article.