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Follow Kenyon Bonner on his weekly walk to meet Pitt students where they are

Bonner stands on an Oakland sidewalk at night, wearing a Pitt script mask

It’s just about quarter past 6 on a Friday night when Vice Provost and Dean of Students Kenyon Bonner pulls into the parking lot near Bouquet and Sennott streets wearing a gray jacket with a Pitt script.

He waits on the breezy evening of Oct. 10 for Steve Anderson, associate dean and director of residence life, and Student Government Board leaders Eric Macadangdang and Victor So. Once gathered, they stuff a squeaky blue wagon full with face masks with Pitt logos, blue blankets and placards designed to remind people of the current health and safety guidelines, including wearing a face covering and physical distancing.

At 6:30, off they go — Bonner rocking a pair of custom-ordered Nike Air Force One tennis shoes that stand out in Pitt blue and gold — to meet people of central and south Oakland where they are.

The walks are a partnership between Student Affairs, Community and Governmental Relations and the Student Government Board. Bonner and the group have been on six community safety walks this semester, with more planned. Sometimes they head out at 6 p.m., sometimes at 10 p.m. Sometimes the group includes administrators such as Provost and Senior Vice Chancellor Ann E. Cudd and a regular, Paul Supowitz, vice chancellor for community and governmental relations.

Regardless, Bonner uses the walks to connect with and see how students in central and south Oakland are adhering to Pitt’s measures to mitigate the spread of the virus and keep themselves and the community safe.

“Part of it is keeping a pulse on students, hearing from them on what works well and what doesn’t,” he says.

He and the Student Affairs staff don’t know how the pandemic will play out, but they have to continue to manage students’ personal concerns while keeping them safe and trying to anticipate how students will comply with health and safety guidelines.

“It’s been an innovative, creative, challenging but exciting time,” says Bonner, whose easy-going manner seems to make meeting the challenges seem effortless.

Since he came to Pitt in 2004, he’s steadily progressed through residence life and student affairs positions that have aimed to empower students. He was named vice provost and dean of students in 2016. In the role, he’s worked overnight with security to better understand student habits after-hours and launched Riding in Cars with Kenyon—a series of social media chats with student partners as they drive about Oakland (pre-pandemic, of course).

So, it’s not surprising that if he has to step outside of the Zoom zone on a Friday night to encourage safe student behavior, so be it.

“I feel like this is a boots-on-the-ground effort to check in,” says Bonner, who’s also on campus about three times a week, working from his office in the William Pitt Union.

The walks, he says, “give me a better sense of what’s happening. I’m not in an office reading a report. I’m assessing the risk off campus. And it makes sense to hand out masks and emphasize safety.”

“I think it’s been received well,” he says. “There is heartfelt feedback and I think off-campus students see we care about their safety, too.”

As Bonner and team glide about Oakland, it’s football night and Pitt is away, playing Boston College. Many students are gathered on worn couches and plastic chairs on their porches, eating and watching the game.

As they head down Bouquet, Bonner and Anderson approach people respectfully. They toss masks to a couple sitting on a balcony. “Thank you!” the pair yell back. “I got two people inside, can I have a mask for them?”

A little farther down the street, Bonner climbs a few stairs to hand out masks to five people watching the game. Despite his face covering, he is recognized. “Dean Bonner, my mom is so excited to see you.” He can’t shake hands, but he nods in appreciation. “You guys stay safe.”

As the group nears Oakland Square, the sun is setting. Bonner and Anderson zig-zag through the dense neighborhood, disappearing into a dark alley where they hear music and once came across a crowded party. Nothing is happening this evening, but Bonner pushes a placard into the ground to remind residents of physical distancing.

We get to build the bond between Pitt community and neighborhood.

Eric Macadangdang

Bonner notes a couple of addresses where he witnesses potential issues. His office will send notes to the students, reminding them to remain courteous, respectful and to adjust their behavior to follow safety guidelines.

On they flow, into a neighborhood readying for Halloween: ghosts and orange lights hang on terraces and entryways. Already the group is thinking it needs to return soon with bags of candy and Halloween-themed masks.

On they stroll, past the dim lights and the pungent smell of a restaurant grilling lamb and selling gyros outside. Local patrons in a window look out and wave hello.

Macadangdang, president of the Student Government Board and a senior majoring in Urban Studies and History and Philosophy of Science, says the group aims to “hit two birds with one stone” on the walks.

“We’re being proactive — we get to hear of complaints,” to address them early on, he says. “And we get to build the bond between Pitt community and neighborhood, showing that Pitt wants to be a strong partner and that we all have a stake in keeping Oakland safe.”

One unexpected element about the walks, says Macadangdang, is the response to Dean Bonner. “He’s like a celebrity.” People know him, and it catches them off guard to see the dean in the neighborhood being so friendly.  

At the corner of McKee and Louisa, Aashna Sudhakar and two are friends are returning home from a study session. They are wearing medical masks and carrying food and backpacks. Bonner and the group stop them and reward their safety protocols, handing them blankets.

“Oh, it’s Dean Bonner,” Sudhakar, a junior neuroscience major, says with a tinge of excitement in her voice. “This is such positive reinforcement. It just makes it easier for us to do what we’re supposed to do.” The trio heads off, laughing down the street.

A little farther along, Bonner meets a maskless stranger. “You need a Pitt mask?” he says.

“Actually, I do. I don’t have one.”

Without breaking his stride, the dean hands him one. “Have a good night and stay healthy,” he says.

At one stop on Meyran, Cliff and Jude Barrineau, educators from Columbia, South Carolina, are in town to visit their daughter, Gracie, a mechanical engineering student at Pitt. They are sitting on the front porch, Pitt masks on, with Gracie’s friends. These guys have all been in a pod, so it’s safe, the Barrineaus say.

They scream and jump up at the field goal Pitt has just scored. But they also jump up because they recognize Bonner.

“It’s wonderful he’s out here,” Jude says. “We’ve been following him on social media. I knew exactly who he was. I read his emails. It’s a way we stay in touch with the University.”

“By the way,” Cliff adds, “I think the University is doing all the right things.”

Bonner offers them masks and blankets. “Sure, we’ll take another mask,” says Jude. “Can’t have too many.”

Every week, Bonner meets with his team, and they plan when to schedule the walk. If there’s one for homecoming, what should be different? Where should they go next — residence halls?

“In a Zoom world,” says Anderson, “these walks are really invigorating. It is nice to be with people and this is a good workout at a time when a lot of us are on Zoom all day.”

On this night, by 7:50 p.m., the walkers return to the corner parking lot. They’ve trekked nearly 4 miles. Pitt lost the game by one point, but the group sees the evening as a win. They pack away the wagon and supplies, say their goodbyes, and fade into the night.