Building Bridges: Senior Isaac Wills Speaks About USN Experience

On Monday, November 13, I had the unique opportunity to go to the University School of Nashville as a guest speaker and a student shadow. This “exchange” was the fruition of what had been nearly six months of planning and discussion between USN senior Talia Barton and myself. My visit as reporter for The Bell Ringer marked the first of its kind in terms of MBA-USN interactions.

I was officially hosted by USN’s Feminism Club, a relatively new group to USN’s organizational landscape. “Feminism Club started a year or two before I was a freshman,” Talia noted. “The club usually had around five members at each meeting. As the current leaders and I took over the club our sophomore year, we tried to include a wider range of topics that people were interested in discussing. Now our meetings have anywhere from ten to thirty people.”

Under the purview of the Feminism Club, Talia and I hoped that my talking in a Q&A format would provide participating USN students with a fresh perspective to their regular topics. An ulterior motive was to foster improved inter-school relations.

Talia leads alongside fellow seniors Evelyn TeSelle, Ella Varney, and Abby Varney, and I would be remiss to disregard their hospitality and curiosity throughout the endeavor.

When I asked Talia about the Feminism Club’s mission statement, she shared, “[We aim] to create an environment that allows people to discuss topics not usually discussed in a classroom setting and to foster open discussion around issues in our community and around the world.”

TRADING IDEAS: Senior Isaac Wills answers a question from USN senior Evelyn Teselle. The question and answer segment of his visit was just one of the ways that Wills was able to share perspectives on both USN and MBA. PHOTO: Talia Barton

TRADING IDEAS: Senior Isaac Wills answers a question from USN senior Evelyn Teselle. The question and answer segment of his visit was just one of the ways that Wills was able to share perspectives on both USN and MBA. PHOTO: Talia Barton

She would later add, “We hosted relevant speakers who discussed topics such as reproductive health, women in STEM, Title IX, and women in literature.” Needless to say, I was not sure where I fit into that line-up.

My visit incorporated three primary components: a campus tour, a shadow of a class, and the discussion with the Feminism Club.

The campus tour shed some light on the physical and cultural differences between the two schools. Certain contrasts were evident immediately upon my arrival to campus—the girls, the relaxed dress code, the self-contained layout of the campus itself. Other distinctions, however, were more nuanced. For example, USN has unisex bathrooms, a sign of their institutional sensitivity toward gender-related issues.

As part of the tour, I attended Dr. Wheeler’s AP English Literature class. While Dr. Wheeler’s class most certainly does not represent USN classroom dynamics as a whole, I was struck by some of subtle differences between how her class ran and how my AP English class is operated. For example, I found there to be more student participation as well as distracted side-conversation in Dr. Wheeler’s class—perhaps two sides of the same coin. 

The Feminism Club meeting transpired during the students’ lunch block, with about forty students present. We met in Dr. Wheeler’s classroom, a well-lighted, open space with a glass back wall opening to USN’s main parking lot. The students sat around in a circle, and we promptly began the discussion.

I opened, introducing myself and stating, “I hope you dare to get to know who I am beyond a mere stereotype.” I emphasized how I was there to learn from them just as much as they were there to learn from me. It was to be a reciprocal exchange.

The leaders had asked me some preliminary questions, so I addressed those first. Initial inquiries such as, “What are topics in mainstream feminism that you relate or do not relate to?” or “What is your personal definition of feminism?” served as icebreakers by which I could convey myself to the group.

“Dynamism,” I said. “It’s a movement concerned with adaptability in light of the changing face of society. It’s about taking affirmative action against social injustices.” 

Furthermore, I likened the many variants of feminism to the many denominations of Protestantism. I cited how one of Protestantism’s strengths lies in its ability to adapt to the challenges of modern situations. Yet, Protestantism’s multifaceted nature can distract from what is at the core of Christianity. Likewise, feminism is a diverse umbrella with many subsidiary “pocket movements,” which, in my opinion, can sometimes distract from the movement’s aims.

The questions then became more MBA-specific. One of the leaders asked, “What was the general attitude towards Hillary Clinton at MBA?” Another questioned, “What ways, if any, could MBA improve education about equal rights and feminism?”

To the former, I specifically mentioned my grade’s mock-election, a poll which yielded a result of 40% Republican, 30% Democrat, 30% Third Party/Undecided. As for the second question, I noted that while MBA does not have a feminism club, the school actively partakes in joint-discussions with Harpeth Hall on a variety topics that have dealt with contemporary feminism and social injustice.

A DIVERSE AUDIENCE: Isaac Wills’ visit to the University School was highly anticipated. His presence in the Fenemism Club drew a large audience of Tigers, ready to pounce on his every word. PHOTO: Talia Barton

A DIVERSE AUDIENCE: Isaac Wills’ visit to the University School was highly anticipated. His presence in the Fenemism Club drew a large audience of Tigers, ready to pounce on his every word. PHOTO: Talia Barton

There was also a slew of questions asked on the spur-of-the-moment, and admittedly, I did not have answers to all of them. One girl asked me about “slut-shaming” with regards to clothing. I balked, mentioning that it was not a prevalent issue in light of the absence of girls at MBA.

One person asked a question that stood out to me in particular: how are MBA students able to explore feminism and support the movement given the obvious lack of girls on campus? I concurred that perspectives on feminism are naturally harder to find, so MBA students must take a certain level of intentionality in seeking out individuals outside of campus and develop empathy for women’s issues.

That being said, I resisted the notion that MBA cultivates insensitive students. I emphasized the remarkable bond that MBA students have with one another. Although MBA perhaps does not celebrate individual differences in the same way that USN does, there is a strong culture of acceptance, a quality of the school which I find underrated. Afterwards, I was privileged to hear some of the feedback from the club’s leaders. One shared, “[Isaac] seemed genuinely interested in learning about experiences that are different than his, and I thought people took advantage of the opportunity to ask him questions and learn about how social issues are dealt with at a school that isn’t as focused on social activism as USN is.”Regarding this final assumption, I would offer a qualification. I recognize the tremendous job that USN students do in upholding a high commitment to speak against injustice, but I believe MBA is as focused on social activism, albeit through a different medium. 

MBA upholds a tradition of practical social activism through community service. The Service Club is a significant part of the culture at MBA, and it has served as a platform for students to explore their calling in the community vis-à-vis dozens of projects. Students are also encouraged and supported in their efforts to found new projects.

But, my modest disagreement in this instance is emblematic of why I went to USN in the first place: to build bridges, to learn of the school’s strengths and weaknesses, to share those of MBA, and to open a conversation about how students at the two schools can learn from each other and work together. In this day, it’s an all too vanishing skill.