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Introduction: Sunday, Oct. 18

Most good ideas start as a joke.

I wanted to do a piece on the culture of free giveaways at Vanderbilt. I have always wondered if people on campus go to events solely to claim their free Chick-Fil-A or free t-shirt, or because they had an active interest in the programming. Then Allie Gross, the Hustler’s inimitable Editor-in-Chief, chimed in with an idea.

“You should live off of free food for a week.”

I laughed at her request, but then I saw in her face that she was serious. The Hustler loves locking me in a box and watching me maneuver my way out of it. I once ate hot chicken for three days straight for an article. My fine friends on staff have entered me as our representative in Dancing with the Dores, a Latin dance competition.

Eating free food for a week made a twisted sort of sense as my senior year magnum opus. So I agreed to do it.

The rules are as follows:

  1. I must live off of free food from Monday through Friday.
  2. I cannot use my dining plan (meal swipes or Meal Money) for food, and nobody can use their dining plan for me.
  3. I cannot steal food from dining halls.
  4. I must eat food from Vanderbilt or a Vanderbilt organization.
  5. I have to actively participate in the event at which I’m eating.

These requirements seemed daunting until I set up a calendar. We chose Homecoming Week because we thought it would have the most events with available food, but when scheduling my week of free meals, we found events that will take me all across campus to a variety of organizations.

Through a collaborative effort from some Hustler staffers, I have lunches and dinners lined up until Friday, as well as various other snack time events. I always knew I was lucky that I have a free lunchtime schedule, but I didn’t think this would be why.

Maybe I’ll learn what my body hair says about me from the Women’s Center, or pick up some Deutsch with the German Grad Student Association. Maybe I’ll encounter people and organizations I wouldn’t have otherwise. Maybe all I’ll get is lunch.

Maybe I’ll starve; maybe I’ll put on five pounds from all of the pizza and McDougal’s chicken fingers.

But this isn’t a joke anymore. I’ve been locked in the box. Let’s see what’s in it.

You can follow my journey on Twitter at @m_lieberson and @vandyhustler, or with the hashtag #FreeVU. And if there’s an event you know of that I’m missing, please let me know. Especially if it has vegetables.FreeVUButton

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Day 1: Monday, Oct. 19

Photo by Alisha Newton

Today, my quest for a week of free food became real. Today is when I got branded “The Free Food Guy.”

Since I usually eat lunch at 11 a.m., I hopped over to the Wall for a snack before my 12 p.m. lunch in the Law School. The Black Student Association was nice enough to give me Fritos when I signed up for their mailing list.

I went to the Law School for lunch, which hosted Social Justice Fellow Derwyn Bunton. I was most likely the only undergraduate student there. Law students were laughing at Bunton’s jokes, listening intently to what he had to say. Overall, people loved Bunton, while I was lost as he dove into the specifics of his days as a public defender. I was simply happy for a healthy sandwich.

My dinner was a discussion called “Invisible Identities” in Faculty Head of House Doug Fisher’s apartment in Kissam, centered on multicultural students who have lost part of their culture and identity since coming to a college campus. Kissam — or Warren and Moore, in preferred university nomenclature — has a reputation for being a bit more high-society than other dorms on campus. The food this evening supported that reputation.

The spread, to be honest, made me angry. Mole chicken and rice, gnocchi in squash sauce, beet salad. Why was the best food on campus being hidden in the penthouse of the most exclusive dorm on campus? It was as if Warren and Moore wanted to rub their superiority, culinary and otherwise, in my face. Then I started eating, and stopped caring for the night.

Photo by Alisha Newton

The Warren and Moore residents were accepting of my second-class status as a Towers resident. Besides the one girl who laughed when I mentioned that I lived in Towers, everybody was cordial and happy to have me. While I was an outsider, the girl who recognized me broke the ice when she shouted, “You’re the free food guy!”

Once the discussion began, my status as “free food guy” wore off. I had never even thought about this issue, so the discussion was captivating. I met a first-year, Alvar Huhtanen, who had a perspective I had never heard before.

“I don’t like to be defined by what I wear,” Alvar said. “Dressing different doesn’t define who I am. I don’t represent all of Finland.” Alvar went on to discuss how Vanderbilt students often project their beliefs of certain cultures onto international students. This wasn’t anything I had ever considered. I had to rethink my interactions with international students, and review what beliefs I was projecting onto others.

While I knew that this would be a serious discussion, I wasn’t prepared for such a profound insight. I was, as someone told me, just the “free food guy.”

Follow along on Twitter @m_lieberson and @vandyhustler, or use the hashtag #FreeVU on Twitter. Tomorrow my journey continues with Tea Time, a screening of SEX(Ed) and more.FreeVUButton

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Day 2: Tuesday, Oct. 20

Photo by Kathy Yuan

I knew that my free food journey would result in at least one awkward moment. Today, somewhat predictably, that moment came.

The event was a strange one. “Publishing Scholarly Books for a General Audience,” in Kissam Center 210. The event page claimed that it was open to “faculty, staff, and students.” Things started inauspiciously enough, with a spread featuring some sandwiches, Sun Chips and fruit. The fruit, which I hadn’t had since Monday, was the most exciting foodstuff I had seen so far. I took two sandwiches and two apples, and innocently entered the room.

If an event is open to the entire campus community, I am allowed to be there. However, a classroom full of 40 professors prepared to get advice on how to publish a scholarly book is among the the least welcoming environments for a hungry twenty-something who just wants to eat his turkey flatbread. I saw a few professors that I knew, but mostly, the room was full of people I had never encountered before. As I began to adjust to the foreign environment, I saw a woman staring at me.

“You’re the free food guy,” she says with an accusing tone in her voice. “Busted!”

My head sank into my hands, as I thought she would repossess my lunch. Luckily, the woman knew I was allowed to be there, and also disclosed she had been discussing my quest with colleagues in the Robert Penn Warren Center that day. Apparently, news of my adventures has reached all corners of campus.

The talk itself was 100 percent not for me. I received great insight on how to go about finding an agent, how to pick a publisher, and other nuances of the process of publishing a scholarly book. Unfortunately, my scholarly book isn’t coming out very soon. At the first natural break, and after sufficiently engaging with the event, I slipped out of the back of the room to stock some fruit for later.

Photo by Kathy Yuan

I encountered my first completely unhealthy meal tonight at a screening of SEX(Ed), co-sponsored by Vanderbilt SEED, Lambda, Alpha Chi Omega and other organizations that didn’t appear to be present. The meal was pizza from Pizza Perfect, which is at least better than Papa Johns. I figured that I’d been lucky to make it this far without junk food.

The movie, in my mind, was an odd one to have food with. It talked about the history of sexual education in America, and included many awkward scenes about how poorly the American educational system handled sex-ed in the past. It included clips from such titles as “Masturbatory Story,” which was enough to make my pizza a little less appetizing.

The more successful part of the event was the panel discussion about today’s sex ed. My favorite perspective came from Musbah Shaheen, a Syrian international student who is a peer educator for Vandy Sex Ed. As a Syrian, Musbah never understood what sex ed was, and now he is a leader of sexual education on campus. I would have never met someone like Musbah, who has such passion for this issue of sexual education, if I hadn’t gone to this event.

I closed the day with Tea Time in Morgan. The Hustler has covered Tea Time in the past, so I was excited to see what the hoopla was all about. Host Kristin Davis’s tea selection and cookies didn’t disappoint, and neither did the camaraderie. I was able to meet new people, as well as recognize my newfound fans.

Follow along on Twitter @m_lieberson and @vandyhustler, or use the hashtag #FreeVU on Twitter. Tomorrow my journey continues with finding out what my body hair says about me, learning about Latin dance and culture, and more.


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Day 3, Part 1: October 21, 2015

FreeVU Hair

My day started where I did not think it would this week- breakfast! The Senior Class Fund Committee hosted a senior breakfast to encourage seniors to donate to the school. They were actually successful, as I gave my class gift this morning. Since giving was not mandatory I did not, in fact, pay for my meal, so my week remains clear. They had me hooked with their bagels and fruit. Friends at the event were less than surprised to see me there, and mostly checked in on my wellbeing.

Lunch was a “World on Wednesdays” event, in the bowels of the SLC in a conference room I did not know existed. I was pretty pleased with the BBQ spread, but I avoided the pork and went for chicken in anticipation of junk food further in the week.

The event was a talk about street harassment in both America and abroad. The leader of the discussion, Sirajah Raheem from Project SAFE, did her best to keep the discourse light, but the topic often strayed into very serious territory about sexual assault and power-based violence. While I had been exposed to various points of view on sexual assault since getting to Vanderbilt,I had never thought of it either in an international context or in the context of cat-calling.

While I thought lunch would be enough exposure for one day to new topics, dinner blew it out of the water. I went to a dinner in the Women’s Center’s Kitchen Table Series, titled, “What Does Your Body Hair Say About You?” Hustler staffers expressed serious excitement for my participation in this event, hoping that I would be able to report back on the meanings of everybody’s body hair. Before the event began, I was simply grateful that there was Tazikis, and more specifically, lettuce.

The hour of discussion caught me utterly by surprise. The discussion focused on problems for women and transgender women in the societal expectation that they are supposed to shave their body hair. I just always took at face value that women shaved their legs and armpits, and men did not.

The answer I received to the event’s titular question was that body hair, essentially, says nothing about a person, specifically a woman. Society has simply decided to impose meaning on the choices that women make. As I listened to the other participants in the room, I realized that women are expected to conform to a certain “eurocentric point of view,” as one woman pointed out. I was thrown into a new language that I had never encountered. Concepts like microaggressions and stating my pronouns were completely new to me, as was the idea that society puts certain standards on women that men don’t have. But I sat, and I listened, and I began to empathize. I never had to deal with any of this before.

I spent the hour feeling slightly uncomfortable, as none of this was part of my usual day-to-day conversations. In a female-dominated crowd, I felt like a fish out of water. But I was glad to be learning about a set of problems that many of my peers deal with on a daily basis.

College is supposed to be uncomfortable. Learning about new ideas and perspectives is part of the process, even if they come from a foreign way of thinking. If we’re never uncomfortable in college, then we would never learn anything. I’m starting to realize how important engagement on a college campus can really be. It may have taken the promise of a meal to get me to these events, but I’ve expanded my horizons nonetheless.

I also went to Sabor Latino tonight, with a video recap coming soon.


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Day 3, Part 2: October 21, 2015

Sabor Latino was probably the most fun I’ve had so far during my #FreeVU week. The food was fantastic, people were excited to be there (for the food and otherwise), and the lovely Melissa de la Torre taught me some killer salsa moves. Those moves are featured above, as is my Guy Fieri impression and more.

Special thanks to Long Adams and VTV for that video. Follow along on Twitter @m_lieberson and @vandyhustler, or use the hashtag #FreeVU on Twitter. Tomorrow my journey continues with the Block Party, and potential special guest Aaron Carter???


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Day 4: October 21, 2015

Homecoming RetroSno

I was sure to get to the Block Party early enough to get a Homecoming t-shirt. The Homecoming Committee finds new ways to distribute shirts every year, but usually they give some away to the earliest Block Party entrants.

The mood in the line was a strange one. It was a combination of disinterest and greed, with people waiting for someone to hand them a shirt and usher them into the closed-off Kensington Avenue.

Aaron Carter, the night’s entertainment, was apparently running late, as he was “stuck in traffic” on his way to Vanderbilt. That made the following tweet seem prescient:

This makes no sense, because his Instagram account showed him at the Vanderbilt bookstore a mere two hours earlier. Regardless, he was excited to be performing at Vanderbilt for what was sure to be a raucous crowd of Aaron Carter fans.


Since he was set to perform at 9 p.m., I don’t know why this delayed the beginning of the Block Party, but we weren’t let into Kensington until 7:25. Once I entered, I found only more lines. A line for chicken, a line for Maggie Moo’s, lines for shirts. The Homecoming Committee announced that the prized shirts, the object of everyone’s affection, wouldn’t be distributed until after Aaron Carter’s performance, so these lines for shirts were lines to nowhere.

After I got some chicken, I picked up a snow cone, played a carnival game (which I think was rigged), and left. I was not in any mood to deal with more lines. I had completed my mandated event engagement, so I left as soon as I could. I didn’t even win the carnival game.

I left before the t-shirt giveaway, because I had no energy to deal with the inevitable mobs. Nonetheless, a reporter on the ground (my roommate Declan) who acquired a t-shirt told me that the giveaway table was literally knocked over in a frenzy.

Photo from Declan Grabb

Photo from Declan Grabb

“It’s like Black Friday,” said senior Shawn Albert, who was also able to receive one of the coveted shirts. “I don’t know what about it incites this carnal need in students.” Personally, after I got my dinner, I realized I’ll be fine without one.

I expected that throughout the week I would experience events similar to this people doing nothing but waiting in lines for food and t-shirts to lord over others as tokens of involvement. However, tonight was the first time I witnessed this. The ploys to make people stay, like withholding t-shirts until the end of the night, make everyone’s presence seem contrived.

The other events I went to, though, have proven what active engagement really is. My lunch today at Hillel, which was a discussion of this week’s Torah portion, was the polar opposite of the Block Party. It was only four of us, discussing the Torah because there was a passion for the topic, not because there was food or shirts. I sensed a similar passion at Sabor Latino, the Women’s Center’s Kitchen Table Series, and most of the other events I’ve eaten at and participated in. These events had a purpose beyond a t-shirt — which is to say they had any purpose at all.

Tomorrow is the final day of my #FreeVU challenge. Follow along at @m_lieberson and @VandyHustler as I head to the Rec for a (hopefully)  balanced lunch, and learn German with some graduate students.

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Day 5: October 21, 2015

I made it! A sincere thanks to everybody who followed along. I’ll have some recap content on the way, but here’s the video from my final dinner, a Stammtisch with the German Graduate Student Association. Thanks to Carter Adkins and VTV for the video.


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Adapted from the 10/28 print edition of the Vanderbilt Hustler, below are 5 things I learned during my week as “the free food guy.”


To answer the most common question I’ve gotten: I survived. Through scouring AnchorLink and bulletin boards, an open lunch schedule, and sheer force of will, I was able to live off of free food for a week. This is most definitely a doable exercise. You’ll have to make some dietary sacrifices, and I’m sure some weeks are easier than others, but living off of free food on campus can be done.

2. …but I wouldn’t recommend it.

While the most obvious drawback was sacrificing breakfast some mornings, nobody told me how exhausting this week would be. Actively participating in each event made the week more of a burden than I anticipated. Coupled with doing actual schoolwork and living a balanced college life, being involved in so many events every day is difficult. The biggest issue was trying to stay focused and engaged everywhere I went. As the week went by, this became more difficult.  So while it is definitely an option for a meal or two if you want some rollover meal money for Chili’s margaritas, I wouldn’t advise anyone else take up my challenge.

3. People want you at their events, almost regardless of why.

I expected as the week went on that people would recognize me as “free food guy” and frown on my presence. The opposite was the case. People were excited to have me at their events, even though I was there explicitly for free food. This surprised me, but I realized as the week went on that the free food was just a hook for people to begin engaging with the event. Once I was in with a plate of food, they had me.

4. A successful event has a purpose beyond free giveaways.

My most meaningful engagement came when I was engrossed in a discussion or event. The events where I learned about a different culture or a new viewpoint were the ones that I found most valuable. My least meaningful engagement, on the other hand, came when I was only waiting in line for a meal or a shirt. If an event wants to be successful, it should have some sort of overarching goal. The Block Party, for example, was 95 percent lines. While I understand that some events are simply meant to be fun, there has to be a better way to engage students with each other at an event like the Block Party. When the only interaction people have with an event is waiting in a line, then there is a problem.

5. Everybody should go to at least one event a semester that makes them uncomfortable.

A lot of the events I went to involved hard, uncomfortable conversations, and I got the most out of these events. College is about being challenged, and many of the discussions I had challenged me in ways a classroom setting can’t. My dinner discussion about body hair with the Women’s Center made me consider implicit societal expectations of women, something I had never thought about before. My Invisible Identities dinner in Kissam put the issues of minorities at Vanderbilt in a new light.


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