Video series ‘WashU Between the Lines’ launches in time of uncertainty

Students Gupta, Mather hope series sparks honest conversations

Earlier this semester, Shelly Gupta (left) and Rory Mather recorded the personal stories of campus leaders for the video campaign “WashU Between the Lines.” (Photos: Jerry Naunheim Jr./Washington University)

The plan was set. Washington University in St. Louis students Shelly Gupta and Rory Mather would launch their video campaign, “WashU Between the Lines,” after spring break. They hoped the series — deeply personal stories of uncertainty and hope, failure and resilience — would encourage students to know each other, as we say at Washington University, by name and by story. And not just the stories posted on Instagram or Facebook.

Then COVID-19 happened. Campus was closed, Commencement was canceled and students moved home, sometimes to communities ravaged by the virus. 

“We were faced with a choice — scrap the campaign or move ahead,” said Mather, who graduated in 2019 with a degree in biology from Arts & Sciences and expects to earn in May a graduate degree in systems science and mathematics from the McKelvey School of Engineering. “Ultimately, we decided that now, more than ever, students need to lean on one another. Yes, we are living through this terrible moment in history, but that doesn’t mean our own feelings and past experiences are now trivial.”

Senior Olivia Szymanski opens up about her uncertainty about the future to Mather.

As members of the Student Union Health & Wellness Committee, Mather and Gupta both have advocated for expanded mental health resources. But they also believe in the power of conversation.

“We all are walking around with these preconceived notions of one another,” Mather said. “How do you push past that? It starts with being honest and true with one another, by asking the hard questions and listening to the answers.”

They recruited 13 high-profile members of the university community to tell their stories, including quarterback Johnny Davidson, Title Mine organizer Candace Hayes and Dance Marathon executive Cameron Bryant. Every interview starts with three commonly known facts followed by three hidden truths.

“We weren’t looking for happy endings or valuable lessons, just honesty,” said Gupta, a senior studying accounting at Olin Business School. “A lot of the people we interviewed told us that this was the first time they had ever told these stories. No one had asked before.”

Topics range from conflicts with family to financial struggles to uncertainty about the future. Back in February, senior and Student Life editor Olivia Szymanski shared with Mather and Gupta that she doesn’t know if she’s good at what she loves — writing. 

“It can be hard to be surrounded by people who know exactly what they are doing,” Szymanski said during her first take. “But I have no idea what’s next for me.”

Szymanski’s video feels even more salient today. 

“The idea from the start was to let people know, ‘You’re not the only one. We are all looking for answers.’” Mather said. “Today, those answers seem even more elusive, but we can decide, right now, we can be there for one another.” 

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