Virtual walking with Riva offers a way to help Stanford students reconnect with campus

Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole has invited Stanford undergraduates to take a virtual walk with her and her dog, Riva, as a way of creating a connection with a widely dispersed campus community.

Before COVID-19, Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs, and her staff had a pretty good idea of how to build community among Stanford students and support their well-being through their years of study.

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Student Affairs

Informational video featuring Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole speaking to students during week two of Spring Quarter 2019-2020.

Buoyed by tried and true models of student engagement and years of experience across the board, student affairs professionals were focused on ambitious plans to enhance student life on campus.

But then COVID-19 hit, sending the vast majority of the university’s undergraduate students home to finish the year online and alone without the frequent student and faculty interaction so important to a Stanford education. There is no model – no precedent – for how to support the emotional and academic needs of college students during this type of pandemic. And there is no model for how to cultivate community among the small number of undergraduates remaining on campus under social-distancing orders.

That’s why Brubaker-Cole came up with a novel idea for engaging Stanford students and allowing them to experience the physical campus that they can no longer walk, bike, skateboard or wheelchair. She has invited all 7,000 undergraduates to join her virtually as she walks her rambunctious, 4-year-old yellow Labrador, Riva, on campus.

The resulting video clip of their campus jaunt is then shared with students as part of Brubaker-Coles’ ongoing communications.

On her most recent walk, which was chronicled by her daughter Eleanor – Gunn High School student turned videographer – Brubaker-Cole and the entertaining Riva circled Lake Lagunita, stopping at areas students have asked her to record. In between, she paused to offer insights and anecdotes to help viewers virtually experience the sites.

A physical experience

The idea to record her walks was born from Brubaker-Cole’s understanding of how important the physical campus is to the student experience. Pets, she reasoned, are soothing companions who can help people temporarily leave behind worries, even the considerable ones created by a worldwide pandemic. Combine the two and you have a method of communication far more intimate than any memo could aspire to be.

Susie Brubaker-Cole and her dog Riva visit requested spots on campus by Stanford students. (Image credit: Kate Chesley)

“I wanted to break out of the administrative mode we’ve been in that’s all about communication intended to convey information,” said Brubaker-Cole. “I wanted to do something that was more about eliciting feelings and sharing a connection to campus places.”

So far, the walks have drawn positive responses from students, who have forwarded requests for stops at specific campus sites – a bench where they sat to relax, a residence hall they miss, a path that friends used to pitch hammocks.

Brubaker-Cole hopes she gets many more such requests.

The walks have been helpful to Brubaker-Cole, as well. She and her family live on campus and experience it as “still, empty, yet beautiful.” The chance to talk to students gives meaning to her daily walks with Riva. The walks are far quieter than those before COVID-19, with less vehicular traffic and fewer aircraft overhead resulting in more time to enjoy, for instance, the chirping birds.

Challenging times

The past weeks, she acknowledges, have been challenging for both her and her staff as they have had to make decisions based on incomplete information about an unpredictable virus with still-unknown consequences.

“Sometimes when we make decisions, we wonder if we have gone too far,” she said. “But then in five hours, everything evolves so fast that we wonder if we went far enough.” Underlying all decisions, she said, is the safety and health of the Stanford community.

Brubaker-Cole has high praise for the student affairs professionals who have adapted quickly to the ever-changing situation, organizing themselves to answer questions from students and parents as quickly and personally as possible.

“It’s been incredibly gratifying the way everyone across campus has pitched in to do whatever was needed and to find ways to help students create virtual connections,” she said. Presumably, those kudos extend to a friendly yellow Labrador named Riva.