Susie Brubaker-Cole reflects on challenges faced by Stanford students

Seven months into her new job as vice provost for student affairs, Susie Brubaker-Cole talks about the mental health and well-being challenges facing students and the initiatives her division is pursuing to support a welcoming and inclusive campus culture.

Seven months ago, Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole left Oregon State University to return to Stanford, where she served as associate vice provost for undergraduate education from 1999 to 2008 and as a resident fellow. Today, she oversees more than 25 offices and centers that offer resources, advising and support to 16,000 Stanford undergraduate and graduate students.

Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs

Susie Brubaker-Cole is vice provost for student affairs. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

In the following conversation with Stanford Report, Brubaker-Cole reflects on the challenges confronting undergraduate and graduate students – particularly those related to mental health and well-being – and, by extension, those facing the university’s student affairs professionals. She also discusses initiatives her division pursued this past year and those it plans to undertake in the coming academic year.


Has Stanford changed in the 10 years you were at Oregon State?

Yes. The first thing I noticed was the prominence of the arts on campus, including the new Bing Concert Hall and Roble Gym with rehearsal spaces. I hear many more students talking about the arts and participating in the arts. Another thing I have observed is the way more students talk about being a first-generation college student or being low-income. I have frequently heard students identify as a FLI [first-generation and low-income] student, asserting that they see their identity as a strength, not a deficit, for their own success, as well as for the university’s diversity. It is a huge cultural change for the better.


What are the challenges facing Stanford undergraduate and graduate students?

There are three major ones. First, both undergraduate and graduate students struggle with mental health and well-being. That’s because of the pressures of excelling as a student, but also because of the volatile, unstable and changing world we live in. Many also do not feel integrated in our community. Graduate students say they walk a well-worn path from the lab to their studio apartment and back again and are missing a broader sense of belonging. Students of color, first-generation students and low-income students share that they experience the dominant Stanford culture as one that is not about their communities or identities.

Affordability is also a major source of stress. Graduate students struggle with the cost of housing and other expenses in the Bay Area. Those with families struggle with health care and child care, in addition to housing. For undergraduates, those with low-income backgrounds struggle to access opportunities that cost more, or they find they need to work one or two jobs to meet expenses. We have a responsibility to make sure all opportunities are accessible, regardless of a student’s financial resources. Currently we do that through the Opportunity Fund, which is managed by the Diversity and First-Gen Office, but we can do more.

The third issue is that many students feel the university is not yet truly welcoming and inclusive. There are certainly many spaces of true inclusion, especially through the community centers, which create a sense of belonging for students from historically marginalized communities. But we need to do more, particularly in classroom and residential settings.


What do those challenges mean for student affairs professionals?

As with students, many student affairs professionals question whether this is truly an inclusive community for staff with diverse backgrounds. In addition, the widespread and acute mental health needs of our students create more demands on them than in the past. They are seeing more difficult cases, and more cases of a higher acuity. For instance, the caseload for undergraduate residence deans is up 57 percent compared to five years ago, and many of these cases are urgent in nature. It’s hard for those staff to remain resilient and retain a sense of well-being. That’s true, too, of staff in the community centers, who often assist people who feel excluded, for instance, by the national climate around immigration.


You prioritized communicating with students during the past year. Why, and what have you done?

Students shared with me immediately upon my arrival that they weren’t sure that they trusted the university. They felt there had not been enough bilateral flow of information. We increased opportunities for communication, knowing that if we don’t listen to students, we risk designing the wrong educational and living experience. One of the contributions I hope to make is as a translator for student experiences to senior administrators across campus. In my short seven months, I have heard a commitment to transparency from all levels of the university. The president and provost’s blog, Notes from the Quad, is evidence, as are, for instance, the office hours held by the president and provost and the presence of students on university committees. I also host regular office hours in Student Affairs.


What are other initiatives your staff has undertaken?

One initiative that doesn’t sound interesting at first blush, but is crucial, is “House in Order.” It recognizes that many things in Student Affairs happen behind the scenes, but are essential to the smooth running of the university and excellent student experiences. They range from work at front desks to IT systems to registration to the way we manage our resources. Through this initiative, we seek excellence in everything we do.

Another initiative is a collaboration with the 2017-18 ASSU leadership to address the harmful consequences of alcohol abuse. The goal is to ensure the safety of students and to reduce harmful behavior. The success of that initiative depends on the involvement of students. If we want to shift the drinking culture on campus, we have to do that hand-in-glove with students.


What are your priorities for the 2018-19 academic year?

We are launching four task forces that seek to create positive change in areas we have defined as important over the next five to seven years: Equity and Inclusion, Belonging and Community, Mental Health and Well-being, and Integrated Learning. We’ve given the initiative the official title of “Our Most Important Work.” Each task force will define approaches and practices that we can put into play across the division, making the whole greater than the sum of its parts. Each is expected to report back in December.