College Cousins: Northwestern and Vanderbilt

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In 1851, a new university was founded to provide an educational opportunity for the growing population in the region we now call the upper Midwest. At the time, however, it was known as the Northwest Territory, and that’s where Northwestern University got its name. A site was chosen in Evanston, Illinois, a community named in honor of John Evans, who was also one of the university’s founders. The university’s early years were marked by uncertainty due to uncertain finances and fundraising was a major responsibility of early leaders.

Such was not the case for Vanderbilt University, named for its Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt, who provided the original endowment of $1 million (about $20 million in today’s money) in 1873. The Commodore was intrigued by the idea of creating a university in the south that would help strengthen ties between the different sections of our country, reeling as they were then from the aftermath of the Civil War.

Despite their very different beginnings, both of these 19th-century startups have turned into internationally known and respected institutions. Today, Northwestern has three campuses: Evanston, Chicago, and Doha, Qatar. Its home campus in Evanston has 8,200 undergrads and an even larger number of graduate students (over 13,000). Its highly regarded programs earn high rankings across the board, and the U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of national universities shows it tied for 10th place overall.

Given this prestigious position, you can be certain that all of Northwestern’s nearly 100 fields of study are excellent, but of all its 12 colleges and schools, perhaps none has a finer reputation than its Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing and Communications. Long a standout, Medill has successfully broadened its scope over the years to keep pace with the rapidly changing industry for which it prepares its students. Classroom instruction is augmented with opportunities for research. Northwestern’s Office of Undergraduate Research coordinates that activity and ensures that all undergrads have opportunities for developing research projects in their chosen disciplines.

Vanderbilt students can select from among 68 undergraduate degree programs through the four of its schools and colleges that offer undergraduate degrees. Among these, one of the most celebrated is the Peabody College of Education and Human Development. As its name indicates, Peabody’s programs now encompass human development, but it has long been known for training outstanding teachers through its teacher education program. All students, however, can take advantage of the university’s opportunities for research through its summer research program and opportunities associated with many majors. 

As is true at any university, the social and extracurricular scene is worthy of note. Vanderbilt’s Division I sports (Southeastern Conference) feature six men’s programs and nine for the women. The current standout program belongs to the women in golf, which is ranked #1 nationally by Golfweek. Northwestern is a founding member of the NCAA’s Big Ten Conference.

Adding to the appeal of the universities themselves are their locations. Northwestern’s main campus in Evanston is but 12 miles from the City of Chicago, home of professional sports teams and an increasingly celebrated food scene. Vanderbilt is located in an increasingly trendy city, one that also “sports” two professional teams, and one noted for its music and culinary scene. Despite being located within the boundaries of the City of Nashville, the Vanderbilt campus also qualifies as an arboretum, featuring over 300 species of trees and shrubs.

These two private research universities have similar vibes in a number of respects. More importantly, however, each offers excellent academics, abundant opportunities and a rich experience to the students who, for four years, make these schools their home.