Students bring university history to life

Since 2012, archival fellowships have been uncovering Vanderbilt’s special collections and bringing them to life. These archival expeditions put rare and unique materials in the hands of students to read, watch, and in some cases, listen. In the Building a University fellowship series, students complete close readings of historically significant university documents and place them in context within American history and the university’s legacy. This is the third installment of this fellowship, a multi-year effort to purposefully center student perspectives of university history and connect pivotal moments to contemporary issues.   

In summer 2020, University Archivist Kathy Smith and Curator of Special Collections Teresa Gray began to discuss projects to support the upcoming sesquicentennial anniversary of the founding of the institution. Fellowship students would learn how to do primary source research using the University Archives, manuscript collections, and university publications to create an exhibit while also doing secondary research to provide historical context to their findings. By taking the approach of examining one decade at a time, fellows are able to pull out patterns in culture and history, beginning with the first semester of classes in 1875. 

In November 2022, Special Collections library staff offered the third version of this fellowship, Building a University: Vanderbilt’s Third Decade, 1895-1905. Students built a physical exhibit in Central Library and a virtual exhibit hosted on the libraries’ website. Students located historical objects which best illustrated the story they wanted to tell. Working with library mentors, they wrote object descriptions and case summaries. Chosen topics included the beginnings of student financial aid, the growing role of female students on campus, and the importance of early staff members to student life. Finally, students filmed short videos about their cases and their experience as fellows. Virtual exhibits will remain online after the physical exhibit closes, providing an ongoing resource for students and faculty curious about the university’s history. 

View the current exhibit