College Connections: Sahanya Bhaktaram at Vanderbilt University

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What do former Vice President Al Gore and Casady Upper Division English teacher Mr. Banecker have in common? They both attended Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Vanderbilt University’s 2019 freshmen class is comprised of 1,604 students, including Casady alumna Sahanya Bhaktaram.

According to U.S. News & World Report, Vanderbilt consistently ranks as one of the nation’s top 15 universities. The Princeton Review ranked it #1 in the country for best quality of life and #2 for happiest students. Clearly, there is a lot to like about this university. Sahanya shares what freshmen life is like and gives some helpful tips in making the transition from high school to college easier.

How did you know that Vanderbilt was where you wanted to attend college? 

Sahanya: There are so many reasons why I chose Vanderbilt as my dream school. I knew first of all that I wanted to do something in the humanities. I wasn’t STEM inclined and a lot of schools lately have been allocating a lot of their funds to research programs for STEM fields, so I was trying to look for a school that I knew had good humanities. I also knew people from Casady who had gone [to Vanderbilt] and really liked it. I was also really particular with the region. I knew I wanted to be in Nashville or the Mid-Atlantic area, so I went on a college visit to Nashville and North Carolina over the fall break of my junior year. I thought I would like Vanderbilt a lot, but when I visited, that completely sealed the deal for me. I really like Nashville because it’s a big city but has a small town feel, and I thought it would be a good transition from Oklahoma City. It was important to me to be in a city because I’m a communications major, and being in a city would be important for internship opportunities and job opportunities down the line. At the same time, I wanted a traditional campus, which is hard to find in the city. When you visit the campus, one side is downtown Nashville, and the other side of the campus is Hillsboro Village which has a college town feel with tiny restaurants, cafes, and boutiques. When I visited Vanderbilt, one of the guides told me the hardest part about going here is getting accepted, but once you do, it is a community where everyone around you wants you to succeed. It is a very collaborative student body. With the small class sizes, I felt it was possible to make relationships with the teachers, similar to how I did in high school.

What advice do you have for Upper Division students trying to find colleges that are a good fit?

Sahanya:  If you can, visit because a visit can really make the difference about how you feel about a school. One of the schools on my list I thought would be my absolute favorite, but when I visited, I realized it wasn’t for me. Also, talk to students who go to those schools. If you’re similar to those students then odds are you’ll probably like it. Reach out to people. Know what you want in a school and then try to find schools that match that criteria, rather than just grasping at random schools from lists.

What advice do you have for students preparing for SAT/ACT’s and beginning to write college essays?

Sahanya: For the test, I would take both to see which one works best for you because there really is a difference. The SAT has harder questions, but you’re given more time. The ACT is very straightforward, but is a serious time crunch, so know how you work on those. The practice tests online or the Princeton Review book are a great way to test and time yourself because the questions on the practice tests will be on the main test, but with different words and numbers. For college essays, you can look online for [examples of] successful college essays and see what other students have written. Obviously not to copy their ideas, but just knowing that a wide variety of responses will work. You want to avoid sounding like an academic essay. You really want to write a personal essay. 

What is life like as a freshman at Vanderbilt?

Sahanya: It’s good! All the freshman live together in an area called the Commons, so it’s unifying, and makes the first year less stressful because you’re going through it with all your neighbors. You take classes on the main campus with freshmen and upperclassmen. You have your own personal space. I think this is true wherever you go. It’s a really big learning curve, and you have to give yourself an adjustment period. You are far away from home and you miss your friends and family. It’s hard going from a senior in high school to a freshman in college because by senior year, you have a life at home figured out in the sense you have your core friends, you know how school works, you know the city and everything like that, and then you get displaced with college, and have to restart all of that. 

What tips do you have for freshman adjusting their life away from home and getting used to dorm life? 

Sahanya: My roommate and I worked hard to make our dorm room feel like a home to us. We put up personal decorations. I have a bunch of pictures of my friends from home. We put rugs on the floor, which is not necessary, but it helps to make our dorm feel like home. We spend so much time in our dorm room that we always say how glad we are that we did that. A tip to adjust is knowing that everyone’s experience in college is going to be different. My seven best friends all go to colleges in different states, and our colleges are very different. So some friends might go to college and on the first day be obsessed with it, have their new group of friends, and be totally settled. While some, like myself, might take more time to figure things out. Remember that everyone adjusts at a different pace and is at a different place. Be open with your friends and talk about what you’re going through. The most important thing is you cannot compare how you’re adjusting to how someone else is adjusting. If you’re open about it, more often than not, your friends will be going through similar emotions. Everyone gets homesick at some point. There’s a lot of pressure when you go to college to be thriving. Sometimes people put up false fronts and act like everything is perfect. There’s no need to do that. You’re allowed to take time to adjust.

What do you enjoy most about Vanderbilt?

Sahanya: I really love my classes. When you’re in high school, you take certain classes to get into college, and some might not be your strengths, but you still have to take them to make yourself competitive. I like how you get to specialize in college and take topics that you’re super passionate about. It’s changed the way learning has worked for me because I put less pressure on grades now and more about what I’m learning. I’m still trying my best, but it’s less about getting upset about a B on a paper and more about liking what I’m learning and applying constructive criticism. It’s less pressure. Also, what I like about Vanderbilt specifically is the size of the school. I think It’s perfect for me. I like how I see familiar faces every single day. It’s big enough that you don’t feel isolated, but small enough [that] you feel a sense of community. I like how the school has a well established sense of balance between work hard, play hard. Even though it’s an academically rigorous school, it doesn’t feel like the only thing you can do here is school. There’s a lot of importance on other things, like having fun and enjoying your time here, which was really important to me when looking for schools.

Describe a typical week for you.

Sahanya: This semester I’m taking five classes.I have the same three classes on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and two different classes on Tuesday and Thursday. Throughout the week, you’re on your own, which is very different from high school. You’re not with your friends in each class. You stick to yourself in your classes and going to classes. I have huge gaps in between my classes, like a 2 hour break, so I’ll go to a library or a cafe to get started on my work or get breakfast after my first class. You just have a lot of freedom. Sometimes, my friends and I will text each other to go get lunch in between classes and we can go off campus if we have a big break. In the evening, we get dinner together and then we have clubs at night, since we live on campus. My club meetings are from 7:00-8:00pm. Then I’ll come back to the dorm, and my friends and I will work on our homework together in the dorm, or we’ll meet up in the library and work until midnight. 

What has been the greatest challenge for you while at Vanderbilt? 

Sahanya: The greatest challenge for me has been socially. Everyone is super nice here, but I’m very close to my friends and family at home, and I’m a super big homebody. As I said earlier, it’s hard going from friends you already know everything about, you know you can trust them, you know how things work, you know where you stand. It takes time to get to that place where you were with your friends from high school. You have to be patient knowing that your friendship will get there one day and it will just take time. You can’t just jump into a friendship and be as close as you were to your other friends. Being patient and making those relationships has been hard. 

What extracurricular clubs, activities, and/or sports are you involved in? Which one of these has had the biggest impact on you?

Sahanya: I am in a club called Project Sunshine, where we make activity kits for children in a hospital nearby our campus, and we visit those children throughout the week. This last semester I was in a club called Relay for Life which is a fundraising organization for the American Cancer Society, and every week we met to work on a big fundraiser we had in November. My main time commitment is The Hustler, which is our student newspaper. I’m on our student alumni board that plans events for our alumni when they come to town to connect students and previous alumni. I’m also in a club called Generation Action which stands with Planned Parenthood. The clubs that have had the most impact on my experience so far is The Hustler because I’m a deputy this semester, which works under the editor. I like how The Hustler has forced me to get to know more upperclassmen through interviewing students, and by going to events I know what’s going on around campus and around Nashville. I also loved Relay for Life and Project Sunshine because that’s where I made a lot of friends who aren’t freshmen.

Have you seen any famous musicians while in Nashville?

Sahanya: I saw Elle King at the airport coming back from Thanksgiving Break. I’m so jealous my friends ran into Miley Cyrus in an ice cream shop. I’ve seen Keith Urban and Nicole Kidman’s house [and] Lily Aldridge was at our mall in Nashville. 

Is there anything else you would like to share with the Casady community?

Sahanya: I am really grateful that our Casady relationships do not end when we graduate. Something that has helped me adjust this last semester was Gracie Pittman (’17), who graduated from Casady, was really there for me when I got to campus. She would have weekly lunches with me and helped me through a lot. Our network from Casady is widespread and everybody is always willing to help each other. My friendships from Casady are life-long friendships.

© Photo by Kate Williams, https://www.katelanephotography.com

Sahanya is a very sincere and compassionate person who remains active in community service. With over 500 clubs and student organizations, Vanderbilt makes it easy to get involved on campus. Sahanya’s thoughtful reminder that we will all adjust to college at our own pace is great advice, and knowing that we can still rely on our Casady community is reassuring.  

Vanderbilt University is a private research university with 13,131 undergraduate and graduate students. The campus consists of ten distinct schools on one central campus, which has been classified as an arboretum with 340 acres filled with over 300 types of plants and trees. It has been rumored there are three squirrels for every student. We don’t know the exact count, but there are many! Vanderbilt is located just a mile and a half from downtown Nashville, home of the famous Music Row for country musicians.

Vanderbilt’s mascot is the Commodore, named after “Commodore” Cornelius Vanderbilt, the shipping and railroad tycoon, who donated $1 million in 1873 to found the university. Some fun Vandy football game traditions include dropping the anchor to begin their games, where a group of people put an anchor at midfield to represent strength and unity. When they score a touchdown, they honk a loud horn called the Admiral Blares, sounding like a large ship. Following every game, regardless of win or loss, the players join the student section to sing their alma mater. ANCHOR DOWN!