How Cory Booker Helped Save the Bridge Peer Counseling Center at Stanford

New documents reveal Booker’s undergraduate role in preserving a campus institution

Andrew Granato
Jan 24, 2017 · 7 min read
Sen. Cory Booker. Image via Creative Commons.

The Bridge Peer Counseling Center has long been a fixture of Stanford. Long before Cory Booker (’91) was a U.S. Senator and one of the biggest names of the Democratic Party, when he was still an undergraduate majoring in political science and writing columns for the Stanford Daily, he was a Peer Counselor at The Bridge, and quite an involved one at that. Booker served tirelessly in a time when the Bridge’s very institutional survival was in question, and played a significant role in its recovery.

I am a Bridge Counselor, and during the summer, I was tasked with going through the Bridge’s archives. In those archives, I found dozens of journal entries, memos, and administrative files either by, directed to, or about Booker. Taken together, these files help to shed light on the college years of one of America’s most prominent figures. This article is not intended to comment on any of Booker’s policy stances.

Founded in 1971 as a drug assistance-counseling center at the height of the countercultural wave, The Bridge, named after the Simon and Garfunkel classic “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” quickly became a general peer counseling institution. For decades, student volunteers have undergone extensive training and taken hours of shifts in order to serve as staffers and provide a crucial mental health resource to Stanford. The Bridge’s model has been replicated around the country and, recently, even in foreign countries like China.

The Bridge is structured as follows. Students can take a class and undergo counseling training, including QPR (Question-Persuade-Refer) suicide prevention certification, and if they pass an evaluation, they will be invited to staff. Staffers sign up for a weekly three-hour shift, during which they will be responsible for providing counseling to people who call in or physically come to the Bridge, currently located in Rogers House. Aside from staffing, there are a variety of administrative and coordinator positions, including a few people who serve as “live-ins,” the most involved and time-consuming position, in which a student elects to live at the Bridge’s house for a full academic year, serves as an administrator, and takes the calls that come in between midnight and 9 AM.

Decades of records demonstrate that the Bridge’s fundamental model, including an emphasis on helping the counselee work through their situation instead a focus on giving advice, has not fundamentally changed. Aside from its basic responsibility for counseling, the Bridge has offered a profusion of workshops; helped build up specialty counseling programs, including one of the first LGBT-centered counseling programs in the country; and served as a center for mental health activism. Students and psychologists around the country, when they learn about peer counseling, are learning from the Bridge: Peter Salovey ’80, a Bridge staffer and live-in, became a psychology professor who wrote what is considered the definitive textbook on peer counseling before becoming the current president of Yale University.

Booker served in many roles at the Bridge, including as a “live-in.” According to the archives, Booker was a Bridge workhorse, and a Spring 1990 Bridge staffer list jokingly refers to Booker’s role at the Bridge as “Shepherd.” He served as a staffer, a section leader for the basic Bridge class, a liaison to help develop a Black Peer Counseling program, a live-in during 1989–1990, and a massage workshop leader.

Apparently, the massage workshop, about which pages and pages of files are dedicated, was “our most popular workshop,” with attendance that was sometimes “overwhelming.”

Booker’s years as a staffer and live-in were years during which it was unclear if the Bridge would be permitted to survive. Stanford is often cramped for administrative space, and files from the late 1980s to 2000 reference the “issue of space allocation” and the creeping possibility that the Bridge would lose its housing. An op-ed in the Daily in the 1980s quotes the then-Assistant Dean of Student Affairs as saying, “No one is well served [by the Bridge], and I question why it is a Stanford priority.” (According to Bridge records, during this period, the Bridge performed as many as 157 counsels per quarter, plus hundreds more referrals).

The period of greatest concern was 1988–1990, about which there is an entire binder of documents alone. In February 1989, the academic year before Booker served as a live-in, the live-ins were asked to submit a report justifying the Bridge’s need for the space to the Associate Dean of Campus Affairs. A decision was made to postpone discussion until the following year.

Then, on October 17, 1989, one month after Booker began serving as a live-in, the infamous 1989 earthquake badly damaged Stanford’s infrastructure, including the building in which the Bridge was then housed. The October 24, 1989 edition of Off The Wall, then the Bridge’s newsletter, begins, “I’m glad that everyone has survived the EARTHQUAKE physically intact. I think we’re all amazed that the Bridge building did.”

The then-Associate Dean of Campus Affairs and then-Assistant Dean of Students (the one who claimed that no one is well served by the Bridge) were put in charge of the project of deciding the future of the Bridge. Memo after memo between administrators and student counselors particularly focuses on the issue of live-ins, who require a physical space. Administrators wanted to move the Bridge out of housing altogether and into an office that would prevent the live-in position from continuing and remove the Bridge’s traditional space. (In the winter of 1990, the five live-ins performed 48 counsels while the rest of the staff, numbering in the dozens, performed 109. In other quarters in the late 1980s, the live-ins performed over 45% of all counsels in a quarter.)

Booker was a key liaison to the administration and fought hard to maintain the live-in position and Bridge housing. One memo from the time is titled “Some of the Reasons for Live-Ins,” and various memos from administrators are specifically directed at Booker; evidently, administrators considered Booker to be a conduit to the Bridge. Booker was not the only live-in frequently negotiating with the administration, but he had a major presence at the table.

The Bridge kept its status as a housed organization. Today, it receives the highest student special fees approval percentage, voted on by undergraduates and graduate students, out of any organization on campus, with 96% voting in favor.

Aside from memos and administrative files, the Bridge also keeps annual logs, where student counselors are free to jot down notes, reflect, or generally write about whatever they want. During Booker’s years at the Bridge, it is hard to read the Bridge logs and come away with any impression other than that Booker was a gregarious and widely beloved figure.

Booker’s frequent writings in the log are full of offhand observations (“I’m a product of the sixties”), effusive praise for other staffers (variants of “You’re awesome!!” appear over and over), and corny jokes (“Q: How many religious studies majors does it take to screw in a light bulb? A: None — they use divine light.”) Booker is effusive in his writings, filling even small notes with multiple exclamation points. His enthusiasm can be easily felt over 20 years later.

Many entries in the log written by other people are actually directed at Booker. One student writes, “Cory — talk to me, what to do when a counsel asks you out”? Another student writes a small essay entirely devoted to Booker, including, “Thanks for coming tonight, Cory — you’re awesome — you lowered my blood pressure lots. Love you — what an amazing friend you are BOOKMAN!!”

As a political figure, Booker has cultivated a reputation as an almost comically nice and good guy. He has told a story on the campaign trail about a time when he, while serving at the Bridge, helped pull a suicidal person off a roof (a reporter came to Stanford to check on the veracity of the story; longtime Bridge advisor Dr. Alejandro Martinez confirms that it is true). He hosted people in his own home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, helped paramedics stabilize a car accident victim, and ran into a burning building to save a constituent. His book is called “United,” and his speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention was literally about “the understanding of love.”

In these cynical times, there is an urge to charge our elected officials with blanket insincerity — to regard every last one of the bums as a cold, calculating faker who only exists to ride and manipulate the moods of the public. Booker has been attacked as, among other things, a “phony.” This impression is bolstered by the reality that people who fit this description do, in fact, exist, and some of them get pretty far in politics.

Booker is, of course, a politician, and some politicking is to be expected. But some people genuinely are friendly and gregarious, and whatever one’s opinion of his policy preferences or his service record, one should be prepared to grant Booker at least one trait that many powerful people lack, a trait that is evident going back decades to his college years.

He isn’t faking it — he’s a genuinely kind person.

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