Vice Provost for Student Affairs Susie Brubaker-Cole shares what matters to her, and why

Susie Brubaker-Cole
Susie Brubaker-Cole, vice provost for student affairs

To address mental illness issues at Stanford, members of the university community need to learn to talk openly about such challenges as anxiety and depression, according to SUSIE BRUBAKER-COLE, vice provost for student affairs.

“If there is stigma, that undermines our efforts to create a system where people feel supported and cared for and seen,” said Brubaker-Cole, adding that emotional life is an important part of education. To foster a supportive campus culture, Brubaker-Cole said she is making it a priority to “walk the walk that I talk.”

In a discussion Wednesday called “What Matters to Me and Why,” she shared her own experiences during college and graduate school. As vice provost, Brubaker-Cole oversees more than 25 offices and centers that offer resources, advising and support to 16,000 Stanford undergraduate and graduate students.

What Matters to Me and Why,” sponsored by the Office for Religious Life, is a discussion series featuring campus faculty and administrators addressing issues of personal values and beliefs. Brubaker-Cole, who this month celebrates her one-year anniversary as Stanford vice provost, overcame what she acknowledged was nervous fear and vulnerability in sharing how her life has been affected by mental health challenges.

Brubaker-Cole told those attending the talk in Old Student Union’s CIRCLE Common Room that she essentially “lost” herself and her sense of identity as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon. To fit into what appeared to her to be the cultural norms on campus, Brubaker-Cole eschewed the intellectual excitement she felt in class to instead pursue a social life she said was not healthy.

“I caught myself in my junior year in depression, with no sense of who I was. I was going through the motions of everything in my life,” she said. “I was not well, but I wanted to be well. And that set me on a path that has persisted to today to have an authentic feeling of self.”

Brubaker-Cole said she dropped out of school and followed an artist boyfriend to San Francisco, where she lived and worked for nearly four years, until enrolling at the University of Washington to complete her undergraduate degree. Later, she attended Yale, where she earned a doctorate in French literature. In both schools, she says she struggled with an anxiety disorder that emerged after her father’s sudden death.

Experiences with depression and anxiety have deepened and informed Brubaker-Cole’s understanding of the challenges Stanford students face and have made her willing to talk openly about her own emotional life, she said.

She served as associate vice provost for undergraduate education at Stanford from 1999 to 2008 before relocating to Oregon State University, where she served as vice provost for student affairs. Brubaker-Cole said she “struggled mightily” in deciding whether to return to Stanford as vice provost. She said she felt vulnerable within the Stanford culture, given her own tendency toward perfectionism.

As she heads into her second year, Brubaker-Cole said she is committed to helping students feel a “genuine sense of belonging and community, which is necessary to well-being.” Part of achieving that sense of belonging, she said, is talking about emotional life as a part of education.

She said, “I know from my own life how important personal, spiritual, development awareness and learning is to being effective as a student and to growing intellectually. I want to be at this university in student affairs because I care so deeply about our ability to nurture the growth, development and well-being of the whole part of every student. So that’s why I’m here.”