Offline Reginald Hudlin

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« on: November 03, 2013, 10:50:34 am »

When Alice Randall and David Ewing want their apartment to be overrun by college students, they just prop open the front door.

The Nashville couple — she’s an author, songwriter and professor, he’s an attorney and history buff — moved this summer into an apartment inside one of Vanderbilt University’s freshmen dorms.

By choice.

They left behind a historic home to become live-in “heads of house” on campus, helping to manage the first-time-away-from-home needs of 170 first-year students at Stambaugh House. But their passions were not to be abandoned.

The couple have embraced their roles as cultural ambassadors between the campus and the city, introducing their students to the people, places and history that make Nashville what it is. To pop the so-called “Vandy bubble” that often cloisters students from the surrounding city, Ewing and Randall moved inside it.

“Nashville is on everyone’s list right now, and we’re exposing why Nashville is so great, whether it be the food, the art, the music or the history,” Ewing said.

The door to their apartment, standard-issue in light-brown wood and unadorned except for the room number — 113 — looks like any other in the green-walled hallway.

Step inside and it’s another story.

“You come in and it’s this incredible, gorgeous apartment,” said freshman Brendan Freeman of Dallas. “ ‘The Gallery’ is what we call it.”

And for good reason. The walls, which the couple painted black, feature paintings by two local artists: Michael McBride, who composes scenes with colorful shapes, and Joseph Love, whose black-and-white portraits capture early 20th-century African-American race car drivers.

Black-and-white chairs and maroon sofas pulled from university storage provide abundant seating. A repurposed black dining table, painted by McBride, carries on the motif. An open kitchen with a stovetop island allows Randall — an expert chef — to banter with students and cook at the same time.

The first impression freezes guests in place as they take it in.

Networking mecca
Ewing and Randall open the apartment to students at 10 p.m every Wednesday night for an hourlong “Stambaugh Soiree,” which allows students to meet prominent locals, including authors, academics, musicians, nightclub owners and politicians. They recently hosted U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Nashville.

Many of the special guests haven’t frequented the campus, so the couple welcomes the challenge of making a good impression.

“When I heard you were living in a dorm, I didn’t know what to expect, but this is nicer than where I live,” local attorney and former federal prosecutor Jerry Martin said to Ewing as he arrived last week.

Padding around in a green fleece pullover alongside a publicist and a charter school founder, Martin mingled casually with students.

Other than brief introductions by Randall — and the warm conversation she weaves into the room — the guests were on their own and accessible to more than 50 students who came by.

Some students, perhaps oblivious to the networking possibilities before them, chose instead to go straight to the dining table.

Each Wednesday, the couple features gourmet snacks prepared by organic chef Laura Lea Bryant. Last week, it was banana slices garnished with lemon juice and cranberries. She also made trail mix unlike any the students had seen before: puffed kamut greens, unsweetened coconut flakes, carob chips (an alternative to chocolate), oat bran sticks, sliced almonds and sunflower seeds — all designed to be energizing in a way typical dorm food, such as chips and cookies, cannot match.

At a gathering the week before, Randall attracted students with this pairing: locally made chocolates and songwriter Steve Earle.

Greeting the students by name, Randall told them to throw their coats in the back bedroom, taste the treats and listen to the “greatest living songwriter.”

In her home, calling the shots, Randall insisted that Earle try the Mexican chocolate and the duck-fat toffee. So he did.

The Nashville focus
While all the freshmen dorms feature guests, events and service projects, students said Ewing and Randall have created an especially cozy and worldly community.

“If you want to mingle with those folks, you can. If you just want to get a snack and talk with some of the other folks in the building, you can,” said senior Lisa Koenig, the student head of house.

Running beneath the surface of the socializing is the educational mission that drove Vanderbilt to create The Ingram Commons six years ago. Frank Wcislo, dean of the Commons, said the university wants to break down the barrier between academic and social life.

“Anybody knows that the education that takes place in college takes place on Friday and Saturday as much as it takes place in the classroom during the week,” he said.

Through the Commons, the university can also ensure that students hear about services, such as career development or counseling, and encourage them to take full advantage of their time on campus.

All kinds of “nontraditional” lessons follow.

At Hank Ingram House, headed by a surgeon and her husband — they have three young children — the 300 student residents learnlessons in civility.

“This is a house where young children live, so you have to be civil and watch what you say and how you behave,” Wcislo said.

Nontraditional is a specialty at Stambaugh House.

Regular visitors to the apartment, like Koenig, can pick up on the example set by the Ewing and Randall, whether it’s seeing them crossing the Commons holding hands, or feeling how a home can become a place to study.

“Alice is a connector,” Koenig said. “She is sensational about meeting someone and very quickly finding out what they’re interested in, where their passion lies, and then just reviewing her contact list at warp speed in her mind and locating the five people that would be most important for this new person to connect with.”

Vanderbilt administrators like the idea of the Commons so much that they’re moving forward with two similar dorms for upperclassmen.

'Master of a house'
As their friends learn about their latest adventure, Ewing and Randall look at the move as a sort of calling.

“Some people want to be president, some people want to be a cosmonaut. I wanted to be a master of a house,” said Randall, who lived in a similar arrangement as a Harvard University student.

But the Vanderbilt positions, which provide free housing, a salary supplement and a reduced teaching course-load requirement, aren’t easy to come by.

When the Commons first opened, administrators, faculty and students interviewed about 30 applicants for 10 positions. In Randall and Ewing, who were chosen in a later wave of applicants, they also found a couple that treasure what they get in return.

Randall likens it to having relatives from every continent.

“I feel that I will be relevant when I am 70,” she said. “We keep ourselves extremely up to date with the growing edge of America.”