In 2020, as the pandemic shuttered people inside, Stephen DeBacker, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and Undergraduate Program Director in Mathematics, started walking. “I needed to walk to survive,” he laughs. For a few months, he walked around Ann Arbor. When he was allowed to return to his office, he walked the four-and-a-half miles from his home to campus and back again. When his colleague and friend, Sarah Koch, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor in Mathematics, and also a regular walker, learned the number of steps DeBacker hit in a day, a friendly rivalry ignited. “I had to stay competitive,” she says. DeBacker and Koch aim to walk, and often surpass, 20,000 steps, or roughly 10 miles, every day. 

During this time DeBacker also noticed that many international undergraduates—unable to return to their home countries given travel restrictions—were becoming increasingly isolated. “During remote learning, a lot of international students were not even leaving their rooms,” he explains. “They’d go to the lobby to pick up groceries and that was it.”

Over the holidays, DeBacker and his spouse cooked meals for students who couldn’t go home to their families; Koch helped them with delivery. She says this kind of care comes naturally to DeBacker. “One of the great things about Stephen is that he’s really good at looking after people. He does a great job of taking care of students and making sure they have what they need. He's always doing that.”

As Ann Arbor started to thaw in the spring of 2021 and more people became vaccinated, DeBacker wanted to find a way to get students out of their rooms, away from their books, and in touch with their well-being. “The safest option was to be outside and have them walk with us,” he says.

And thus, the Walking Club was born.

Walk to Wellness

Jingyi Gao is an LSA senior studying math and computer science. She’s from Beijing, China, and hasn’t been able to travel home in two years. “Not going home is pretty challenging for me and my other international-student friends. Family is a super important support for us and we're not able to connect with them outside of Zoom meetings,” she says.

Last winter, Gao was a student in DeBacker’s class. She says he asked students how they were doing—really doing—as routinely as he talked about equations and exams. “He's always trying to make sure everybody is okay and getting exercise,” she says. “When he asked me if I was getting outside, I’d say, ‘No, I’m just staying home to do math.’ That’s when he was like, ‘Why don’t we go for a walk during the summer when you have more time?’”

Gao started walking with DeBacker, Koch, and other international students around Ann Arbor. They’d walk every weekday—Fridays were reserved for kayaking, Wednesdays for the Ann Arbor Farmers Market—rain or shine. “During thunderstorms we walk loops through the parking structures,” Koch says.

Together, the Walking Club explored neighborhoods and parks around town, talked about hobbies, told jokes, taught each other idioms and animal sounds in different languages, and even discussed math pedagogy. “I'm a very nerdy person,” Gao says, “and the way I make friends is in class working together on hard problems. But for me it’s hard to get to know people outside of class, and the pandemic made it worse. Walking Club helps with that.”

The professors feel the benefits to their well-being too. “I’ve spent more time outside than I ever have before,” Koch says. “Before Walking Club, I stayed in my office all the time. Now I go outside.” She laughs remembering a night last summer when the Walking Club took a midnight stroll through campus. “The sprinklers in the Diag came on. It was so hot, so we all ran through the sprinklers. It was so much fun.”

Gao says it surprised her that professors would be willing to spend time with students outside of class, but she quickly realized they were doing it for her and for other students like her. “I used to think a professor’s only job was to teach,” she says. “Stephen would ask how we’re doing, which I thought was kind in and of itself. Until this summer, I hadn’t noticed that he actually enjoys spending time with us. He wants to make sure we’re okay.”

When this 2021 semester started, DeBacker and Koch decided to continue the Walking Club, and opened it up to the entire department community. “Everybody is invited,” Koch says. “Math undergrads, grad students, post-docs, faculty. It’s important to find safe ways to be together after so much isolation.”

Because of the demands of classes and homework, the Walking Club now has an early start time: 6:05am Monday to Friday. The sunrise wake-up might deter some participants, but DeBacker and Koch have gathered over 90 interested people on their listserv from across the math department. “We want students to know there are people who will invest time in them beyond academics,” says DeBacker. “When I was an undergrad, I had people who took an interest in me, and it was very important to my education.”

Early October, the Walking Club walked 80K steps—40 miles—across Southeast Michigan. They have no plans of stopping as Michigan winter rolls in, and are exploring safe ways to be together outside when the temperatures drop. “We just need some tents with large propane heaters,” DeBacker jokes.

For Gao, the consistency and commitment of the Walking Club has offered a solid foundation of connection and joy during a lonely time. “Walking Club has helped me feel that people in the math department care about each other. It’s become a huge support for me,” she says. “Stephen and Sarah are super intelligent people. They have big achievements. But outside class, they’re just like talking to your friends on a walk.”



Photos courtesy of Jingyi Gao