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Class of 2020: Pursuing a Digital Purpose

Graduate caps, dots and titles Class of 2020 Pursuing a digital purpose

Congratulations to the Class of 2020!! That high school diploma, Bachelor’s, Master’s or whatever degree you’ve earned, Bravo! As a proud owner of five degrees (from high school through my doctorate) – I know just how freaking hard you worked.

And this past spring may have just been your hardest yet. A rollercoaster of emotions. Drastic changes in learning environments. Distances from your classmates, friends, and family. If it were up to me, you would have earned an extra course credit, transferable anywhere you are setting your eyes on next.

Since 2014 I’ve written to the graduating class with a message that helps support your next steps – with what I research, speak, and consult about – on the surface is social media. But on a deeper level, I’m educating about being a leader and positive influence online. 

All my work with young adults and graduates is through the lens of cultivating leaders to use social media to elevate, amplify, and make an impact online. These letters have changed yearly, as tools and possibilities have evolved, which you can still learn from below. 

But 2020 has obviously swirled up a bit more change than any graduate or technology platform could have planned for. 

So I humbly write to you, dear graduate. Opening a space with lots of grace for whatever emotions you are having in this very moment/point in time. You’ve earned every one of them. This year I am writing to you about purpose. Especially in a pandemic, we are called to get very clear on our purpose – and even navigate how that may need to evolve. 

When we apply that to social media and the internet – this post will share how you can upload your purpose on each platform. 

But I am not writing to you alone this year. I am joined by an orchestra of other educators, digital communicator professionals, and higher education leaders. Collectively I hope you can feel just how much we are cheering for you during this graduation season and into the future.

Class of 2020, while faced with celebrating your graduations at a distance, this letter gives you permission to celebrate and live out your purpose on social media – with intention. 

Platforms with Purpose

Each of my co-authors was asked to write about one platform and how to transform that tool for purpose.

These contributors were pushed not to just give advice or opinions – you’re going to get real examples of humans living out purpose. You won’t be told “be careful what you post or you’ll get fired/not hired” or be forced to use a tool that doesn’t resonate with you. You will get plenty of inspiration.

Embrace a little from each platform or go all-in on one. I start, very fittingly with one of your own – a class of 2020 graduate.

Instagram: Celebrate special moments

Sarah Aguilar, Illinois State University Student Trustee – Incoming graduate student at Florida State University

Dear Class of 2020,

Although this is not how we (I am a May 2020 graduate from Illinois State University) imagined what our graduation would look like it is still important to remember that you still accomplished a milestone. Whether you are graduating from secondary or higher education, Master’s, or Doctorate, you have completed a chapter in your life and are embarking on a new one. It is still a time of celebration and sharing with others what you have achieved and what your next steps are going to be. I have done so through Instagram and I encourage you to do the same! 

You have the opportunity to reflect on your experience and all that you have learned throughout your years at your school/university. Whether your school is using a hashtag or you want to create your own, I encourage you to list your accomplishments and reflect. Also, take pictures in your cap and gown and with your quarantined loved ones and pick your favorite ones to post! This allows you to share with others who are far and near just how special this moment is and that nothing can take that away. Check mine out:

Instagram Live: Life lessons on Live

Amma Marfo, Speaker, Facilitator, Author

As I think about wisdom to share with you all, I’m reminded about something that’s bringing me a lot of joy amidst this difficult time: the VERZUZ musical battles on Instagram Live.

There’s more to these battles than just an opportunity to revisit deep and memorable musical catalogs. I’ll limit my counsel to three:

1. The days are long, but the years are short

That might feel like a ridiculous sentiment in the present moment, when a refrain I’ve literally yelled is, “WHAT IS TIME?!” But the fact of the matter is, every artist who’s had the opportunity to be a part of these battles worked and worked to build a catalog that brings us such joy. They transcended genres, worked both solo and in groups, and experimented before they found “the sound” that shot them to stardom. And the same will be true for you. You might feel pressured to craft a career that moves in a straight line, utilizes one part of you, and offers stability. But you have time. You have time to explore, to build relationships that take your work in new directions, and to make your impact. Use that time. 

2. Collaborate, don’t compete

That might seem counterintuitive in light of the “battle” moniker, but my favorite part of watching these battles has been seeing the mutual respect of these artists shine through. Maybe they once jockeyed for the top spot on the music charts, but at the end of the day it’s been fun to watch these artists be fans of each other. The same should be true of the people you may be presently competing for jobs with. Even as a professional “solo act”, some of the best work I’ve done in the last five years has been because of – and has even NEEDED – other people. If you’re going to compete with anyone, compete with yourself. How are you better from one year to the next? From one role to the next? Look at the people around you not as obstacles to what you’re aiming for, but as a means to support and lift you toward it.

3. Mistakes will happen

Let them: More than one of these battles has been interrupted or even delayed for technical difficulties. Hell, it took three attempts before Babyface and Teddy Riley were even ABLE to battle. But people hung with them. Hundreds of thousands of people hung with them. Some might say, “That’s because they’re famous.” Maybe, but I prefer to think of it as the result of my first bit of advice. Because they’d earned the clout through years of solid hits, people waited. And the same will be true of you. You will make mistakes. Not just as you’re getting started, but all through your career. But people forgive mistakes when we keep showing up and doing our best. You’re talented, you’re motivated, and the moment we’re in is proving you’re flexible. Put all of those traits to work every day. And in the moments when you do misstep, the power of those other qualities will catch you.

Facebook: Network and participate in Groups

Danielle Sewell, Director of Digital Communications & Marketing, York College of Pennsylvania

The very features that make Facebook prone to serving us undesirable experiences also open up opportunities to create positive, meaningful interactions if we’re intentional about the way we use it. By design, the platform is meant to facilitate engaging interactions with like-minded people. So, Class of 2020, as you prepare to leave your mark on the world, it’s time to find those like-minded people. Help each other succeed. Encourage one another. Connect.

I highly recommend that you find a Facebook group that aligns with your interests. Facebook groups exist for nearly every industry, interest, local community, and professional organization. I’ve used Facebook groups to research home rental opportunities as I relocated for a job, for staying in touch with fellow alumni from my alma mater, and to post job opportunities when I had to hire freelancers.It broadens our network beyond the scope of people I would encounter in my day-to-day life — and when you ask for help or advice in those environments, you usually get it.

Start connecting, participating, and building your network now. That way, it’ll be ready and waiting when you need to reach out for assistance. And in the meantime, don’t be afraid to jump into the comments and offer your insights to someone else when they ask for help. This will help you to begin establishing yourself as a knowledgeable person (always a good thing, in any area of expertise), and you’ll be amazed at how many good conversations get started just by answering a simple question. 

LinkedIn: Connect with Purpose

Dr. Kelly Dries, University of Redlands

One of the often missed pieces of a LinkedIn profile is your summary section, and this is a key section of your profile where you can share what makes you, you. What makes you tick? What are you passionate about? What are your goals for the future? Do you want to help end homelessness?  Create the next big tech software?  Solve the climate crisis? Whatever your big dream is- your summary statement is a place where you can share it. Reframe LinkedIn from the “social media for business“ to a place where you can share your purpose with the world. 

Furthermore, LinkedIn is a place where you can find people who are invested in that same or similar purpose.  As a recent graduate, utilize the “Find Alumni” tool to see if there are any alumni from your institution who might be interested in similar things. Search your University name, then click on alumni, which will allow you to search by a variety of factors (where they live, where they work, what they studied, and what they’re skilled at). You can also use the search bar within this tool to search solely through your university’s alumni. One of my passions is writing, and my dream is to publish a book one day. I recently went to my university’s alumni search tool, typed in “author,” and found multiple alumni who had published books. I reached out to several to connect, and conducted a few informational interviews. In those conversations, I was able to engage with individuals also passionate about the written word, while gaining insight and advice as I pursue my goal.  LinkedIn is a powerful resource to help you share and advance your purpose: use it!

Resource: 10 LinkedIn Profile Summaries That We Love (And How to Boost Your Own)

LinkedIn: Recommendations are References

Dr. Anna Stumpf,  Lecturer & Program Coordinator, Online Master’s in Information and Communication Science, Ball State University

I look at recommendations and customer reviews for just about everything from food items to vacation destinations before I even consider reading what the company wants to tell me. If that’s how consumers behave, why would they be any different when they are hiring for their organization? They wouldn’t. So, what can you do when so many applications don’t even request references any more? You can build your own on LinkedIn!

I have received 27 recommendations or “product reviews” that a hiring manager would be able to read about me. Why does this matter? Much like a product review on Amazon, this is public and tied to the person’s professional LinkedIn profile so they will likely be very professional and honest in their recommendation of you. That simple layer of transparency adds quite a bit more weight to the recommendation than even listing this person on an application.

Giving recommendations says just as much about me as it does the person I am writing about. There is some very big potential here for building your professional brand! You can write recommendations about people to show your potential employers what a team player you are, how you find value with people, who you truly are in a professional environment, and more.

My challenge to you is to identify two people a week that you can write a recommendation for and do it without asking. Be intentional about looking through their LinkedIn, checking other recommendations or giving a unique perspective of your experience with them. Who doesn’t want to hire someone that takes the time to support and tell about the value in others?

Twitter: Build your personal brand

Brooke W. McKeever, Associate Professor and Associate Dean of Research, College of Information and Communications, University of South Carolina

Social media platforms like Twitter are a great way to show who you are as a person and as a professional, so that search results show something positive and relevant to prospective employers as well as others who may be in your network.

How do you want to be known? Include relevant skills, experiences, and interests in your bio. Associate with other strong brands in your bio, too. You can tag your university, previous companies or organizations for which you have worked or volunteered, extracurricular clubs or activities, etc. Produce valuable content of your own, if/when you can, but you can also share others’ content that is of interest or relevance to you, retweet people you know or admire, etc. Your personality can and should show in your Twitter profile, in addition to your professional strengths and interests.

Use Twitter to connect with companies and individuals you might want to work for one day. Follow people you respect and admire, and tweet to start or join conversations, not just to share content. To see this action, check out this Class of 2016 graduate Nicole Smith Twitter, who was the winner of @ChooseATL‘s Ultimate Job Interview Contest.

Digital Portfolios: Showcase your skills

Katie Ross, Education Director of Liberal Studies

As someone who hires, I always review candidates who have a digital portfolio link in a resume or cover letter. A digital portfolio is a perfect opportunity to grow your digital presence and display the competencies that employers are seeking. In a LinkedIn Learning survey of over 660 million professionals, the soft skills most companies are seeking in 2020, such as creativity, persuasion, collaboration, adaptability, and emotional intelligence, can be showcased through a digital portfolio.

If you’re looking to showcase your skills connected to film, games, or entertainment, I would recommend ArtStation. Through your research, you might find that leveraging the tools in LinkedIn would be most effective. Websites like Wix, Weebly, and WordPress are easy to learn and can be adapted to share your purpose effectively.

Find examples of your projects, papers, speeches, and experiences that shaped your college knowledge. Once you’ve collected all of the content, ask yourself what pieces of work connect directly to the skills sought out by employers. Don’t forget to develop an About Me page that connects your skills to the content you are showcasing and supports your story.

Your Own Website: Featuring Original Content

Tyler A. Thomas, MA; Senior Director of Integrated Content & Digital Content adjunct professor at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln

You’ve spent the last four plus years presenting your learned knowledge in the forms of written papers, projects, videos, podcasts, oral presentations, critiques and likely many other types of assessment. While you may not realize it now, every single assignment, internship experience or passion project are moments in which you refined who you are, strengthened your skillset, and helped hone the talents that you can now offer to a future employer. No matter if you earned an “A” or didn’t receive any feedback at all, it’s those experiences that I urge you to capture in an online portfolio or website as you apply for jobs and showcase what unique talents you offer a future business, brand or organization.

No matter your area of focus, you need to be focused on picking samples that showcase your abilities and strategic thinking. To get started, cull back through your projects specifically looking to those that show your talents the best.

A very basic framework as you are looking for website/portfolio content: 

  1. With your future role in mind, what is it that you created/managed/strategized/organized/developed that you have samples of? Find at least five and make sure you have some kind of visual to pair with each. 
  2. Unless you are curating an art portfolio, your samples should have some kind of strategy behind why you did what you did. Identify the business goal or objective for each of the project samples and include how your work focused on that. 
  3. Briefly explain how your work and/or role helped achieve the goal or objective of the project. Include any key results or feedback from the work.  

Samples of Student Websites from 2020

Blogging: Tell Your Story

Lesley D’Souza, Director, Strategic Storytelling & Digital Engagement, Western University Student Experience

In an age of shortened rhetoric to fit the needs of social media, blogs are a breath of fresh air! This is a space with the freedom to fully explore your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs as you want to craft them.

There are thousands and thousands of blogs out there, and the ones that are set apart from the rest are the ones that tell great, human stories. Finding your voice means more than just learning how to write and sound like you, it means being self-aware and reflecting on what your own, unique personal story includes and then building that into everything you post. It should talk about things that have happened to you. It should be emotional.

The whole point of blogs is that you want someone to have the space in reading to build a relationship with you. You need your readers to feel empathy. Check out this post on Western
University’s Thrive Online student blog – it tells a great emotional story about a graduating student.


  • Know who your audience is before you write. While writing blog posts might feel like it’s about you, it’s really about your readers. What do they want? What do they need? How can you craft your posts to meet these needs? Write for your readers, otherwise, you should probably start a journal.
  • Use headings. They can be really useful to break up longer posts and improve the flow for readers.
  • Use images to help tell your story. Pictures really are worth a thousand words, which is some serious oomph when it comes to blogging. Be sure to use your own photos, or learn about using creative commons photos and how to credit them properly.


  • Write an academic paper. Blog writing is personal and its strengths come from readers being able to connect with the writer.
  • Leave months between posts. You want to train readers to visit frequently to catch up on all the new stories you’ve shared. Ideally, you want a post each week, if not 2-3. If you’re worried about keeping up, try enlisting co-authors or guest writers!
  • Start a blog without knowing why you’re doing it. Whether you’re trying to establish a personal brand (and then you need to know what that brand is), trying to educate your audience about something you care about, or starting a business, you have to have a purpose to tie together your blog and all its posts that doesn’t feel accidental.

Podcasting: Engage Your Audience

Meghan Grace, Researcher, Consultant, Podcast Host

Our stories are at the heart of pursuing our purpose and as a recent graduate, you have a story and so much to share. Podcasting can be a wonderful way to pursue purpose and passion as it allows podcasters and

listeners to learn and share common experiences.

Haley Hoffman Smith is a young alumna from Brown University, who graduated in 2018. Since graduation, Haley has been on a mission to pursue her purpose of empowering women to engage in entrepreneurship and develop the confidence to go after their big ideas. In early 2020, she launched her podcast, Big Conversations with Haley Hoffman Smith, as a way to continue to pursue her purpose of empowering others.

A few notes on utilizing a podcast to share your story and pursue your purpose:

  • Reflect on your journey and look for common themes throughout your life and career. 
  • Tune in to other podcasts and explore the shows that already exist in the area you’re interested in starting a show.
  • Do some foundational strategic planning and draft out your show’s purpose. Answer the big question—Why does this show exist and why do people need to listen?
  • Regular content is important to listeners so having a backlog of content is helpful to ensure you can release new episodes.


Inspiration: Haley Hoffman Smith Brown University Class of 2018

TikTok: Real people in real moments

Morgan Campbell, Social Media & Digital Marketing Specialist, Indiana University

Trying to make your video viral on TikTok is a lot like job hunting. For some, it happens right away after one video. Sometimes it takes 10, 20, maybe even 50 videos before something gets popular. For others, it doesn’t happen for a while. We all have been there. You see your friends who get jobs right away, and you wonder what you are doing wrong. You send in several applications when finally something bites. For some, it feels like months until they finally get an interview. And that’s okay. It’s scary, but you learn how to improve yourself and how you want to be seen by employers over time. That’s where TikTok can be beneficial.

TikTok has shown the power of how one can express themselves. In 60 seconds or less, you can tell a story, create a piece of art, show how to make banana bread, or create a tutorial on how to draw yourself as a Disney character. TikTok is the perfect place to step out of the social boundaries other platforms have created in the previous years and show the world who you are. If you don’t know where to start, start searching for simple tasks, like resume tips. You will watch several people from different walks of life present real stories, advice, and tips to creating a resume and pulling off an interview. These are real people in real moments who have been in the same place before. TikTok gives you a view of the world in a raw, authentic way right at your fingertips. Not only can you learn from others, but you can show off the creativity you’ve been holding back on in fear of looking “unpolished.”

TikTok doesn’t care about the quality of your video editing, but the passion and authenticity that you pour into a video. They want to see the real you, and this can help you know who the “real you” is after college. Try new things, learn, create, and laugh with others on this platform. It’s somewhere everyone should give a chance at least once, just like someone will provide you with an opportunity in the future.

Final Thoughts

Graduates, you are just as much of a contributor to this piece as a consumer. Take what you read, sit with it. Reflect. Try it on. Heck even disagree. But do something. Take what you need, leave the rest. Come back another day with fresh eyes. 

But definitely (definitely please) comment at the bottom and let us know how you are living out your purpose in all places and spaces. Drop your IG handle or YouTube channel that you want the world to see. Post your ideas for your future podcast. Declare on LinkedIn your career goals and share the link so we get you connected with our networks.

As you ponder your next steps, consider this advice from co-author Morgan Campbell:

“Don’t stress yourself on trying to figure out what the real world looks like after graduation. Nobody knows what that’s like anymore. You are entering the world at a time that hasn’t been lived by anybody, and that’s okay. Use this time to figure out who you want to be and what you can bring to the table.”

There is space for you at the (digital) table. Stride forward purposefully.



Since 2013 Josie has served as a speaker, facilitator, and coach to college students on digital identity, leadership online, and community building. Interested in having Josie speak and/or support to your students? Learn about her most popular programs here and reach out here to get planning.

Stay connected and updated with Josie’s work and services by subscribing to her newsletter, the Digital Leadership Download.

About Josie

I’m Dr. Josie Ahlquist—a digital engagement and leadership consultant, researcher, educator, and author. I’m passionate about helping people and organizations find purposeful ways to connect, engage, and tell their unique story. I provide consulting, executive coaching, and training for campuses, companies, and organizations that want to learn how to humanize technology tools and build effective and authentic online communities.

My blog and podcast have been recognized by EdTech Magazine, Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Higher Education. My book, Digital Leadership in Higher Education, was published in 2020 and was listed as a #1 new release for college and university student life. I have been growing my consultancy since 2013 and am based in Los Angeles. When I’m not helping clients lead online, you might find me training for a triathlon, spoiling my nieces and nephews, or exploring with my husband and our rescue dogs in our new RV called Lady Hawk.

I’d love to connect! Find me on Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, and Facebook.

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