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Preparing Future College Freshman with Digital Education and Outreach

In the next few weeks, college campuses will be flooded with new students that will compose the future Class of 2017.  This arrival is a pivotal experience in a young adults life; an experience most college graduates will look back upon.  This successfully occurs through adjustment into campus networks through social, emotional, and academic means (Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison, 2013).
Best practices within higher education are to provide a new student orientation program, as well as follow-up programming and services the first six weeks of class, in addition to offering a first year seminar (Mullendore & Banahan, 2004).
But what impact can social media have on transitioning freshman students?
Much research exists to say that it does, calling higher education leaders to pay attention to online tools for campus communication and community engagement.  A key ingredient for new students to adjust to the college experience is to maintain and build relationships, even those from their hometown and high schools.  Social media, specifically Facebook can aid in this transition, as students are able to maintain all types of relationships (Junco, 2011).  A recent study by Gray, Vitak, Easton & Ellison (2013) showed other sites can be beneficial to the college transition.

“Social media- including social network sites, personal blogs, and geographically bounded discussion forums- may ease students’ transition from high school to college by providing them with information and social support, as well as, a way to find and connect with other students” (p. 193).

When used properly, these tools have been shown to provide a medium of which a young adult can successfully transition.  Further, social media can foster integration, where Heiberger and Harper (2008) claimed students who use social network sites are more likely to be retained at the university than those who do not.  The ability to keep a student enrolled is only the beginning of the student success story.  More importantly, is that students are fully integrated and engaged in the university experience.
Below I include a portion of a larger student success paper for my California Lutheran University doctoral program in Educational Leadership.  The full paper can be found here: Student Digital Identity Education.  Considering the power that social media has in transitioning new students to campus, as well as keeping those students enrolled, I propose harnessing these tools further.  I will provide guidance on how to harness social media tools in a multiphase comprehensive educational and outreach strategy through the lens of providing student digital identity education.
This will begin as soon as a new student is accepted to the university, heightened at new student orientation, and continued throughout the course of the freshman year.  The three components that make up the proposed student success initiative, called Digital Identity Education for First Year Students which includes

  • Pre-College Community Development
  • In Real Life (IRL) Digital Orientation
  • Virtual Campus Engagement  

For the means of this post, only the pre-college community development phase will be covered, with the next phases highlighted on future posts.

By grounding this effort in student development theories, student success research and trends of college student social media use, the initiative is equipped to respond to the call author Livingston (2010) makes to higher education leaders.

“Higher Education needs to use its natural resources in ways that develop content knowledge and skills in a culture infused at new levels of investigation, cooperation, connection, integration, and synthesis” (p. 59).

The goals of this initiative will build onto each previous phase, as freshman move from incoming, new, and continuing student status.  Overall the learning outcomes of the initiative include:

  1. Prior to the fall semester, the freshman class will be aware of how to connect with other students and the university through online platforms.
  2. New students will be aware of the digital tools available and the directory of university presence on social media.
  3. The freshman class will learn the privacy settings for popular social media sites.
  4. Students will reflect on their personal and professional digital identity, as it factors into their short and long-term student and career goals.
  5. Freshman will have an awareness and acknowledgement of the university technology policies, in addition to national laws that connect to social media behavior.
  6. Throughout the course of their freshman year, students will receive consistent online engagement from the university.
  7. Students will become active participants on social media as learners, content creators and engaged communicators.
  8. The IRL (in real life) campus community will mirror the communication and interaction through a virtual medium.

Josie Ahlquist Social Media
Pre-College Community Development  
The moment a student receives and accepts the admissions offer from their future university the work of digital education and development begins.  As a new member of the community, social media can meet this current high school student virtually at any geographic location.  Various studies have discovered that the Internet allows for communities to be built without meeting in person (DeAndréa, Ellison, LaRose, Steinfield & Fiore, 2012; Gruzd, Takheyev & Wellman, 2011; Reich, 2010).  Further, that this virtual community can provide a psychological sense of connection between users (Reich, 2010).  For future college students, a peer-support network can develop before college begins (DeAndréa et al., 2012).
The components of this stage are virtual community awareness, scheduled engagements, and strategic prompts.  The university needs to be clear in defining for the freshman class what social media use at their future campus will look like.  Energy, consistency, and quality should be themes during this time, as students get closer to arriving to campus.  From the beginning, awareness should be a priority in providing clear directions on how to find the virtual campus community online.  This includes

  • Defining and promoting one freshman class Facebook page
  • Designating a common hash tag
  • Providing all university social media accounts that may be of interest to new students

Next, strategy must be developed and initiated for scheduled engagements online.  These can include

  • Programmed Google+ hangouts
  • Weekly Twitter chat times
  • Facebook group polls and icebreaker like question prompts

Many options for managing this strategy can be used, including having current student leaders, student affairs professionals, faculty or even the campus president as the moderator of such online discussions.
This strategy moves into the final component of this phase, with the use of strategic prompts.  The campus should take a purposeful role in activating the conversation online, requesting for information, and feedback as they prepare for new students to arrive.  Action items could include:

  • Asking students to submit pictures to Tumblr, Instagram, or Facebook with their new university gear.
  • Inquiring what food truck students want at the welcome back concert.
  • Requesting blog submissions for the campus blog, with students answering a list of ‘about you’ questions.

Through this initial phase, social media will be utilized strategically to build a virtual community and harness what authors Gray et al. recently discovered, that by using social media students have the ability to connect with the campus (2013).  As a result, usage will decrease uncertainty of what the college experience will be like.
Based upon the timing of this post, days or weeks before the start of school, and the challenges I have proposed in phase I, activity should be at an all time high from both students and the university.  This high level of user-generated content and communication will prepare students for phase II, where the virtual community becomes IRL (in real life).
Why would I recommend so many action items so close to the beginning of school?  The one thing certain working in higher education, is that as soon as one academic year arrives, another is planned for.  Change and implementation also takes longer than expected at universities.  So, take these suggestions and back-pocket them for how to best start engaging with your next freshman class.
My best wishes to the freshman class, as they transition into a very new and exciting time in their lives.  My collegial support also goes out to all higher education professionals, putting in extremely long hours to prepare for and execute the start of school.  The class preparations, late night programming events, student leader trainings and building openings.  Doing what we do best, student engagement and transition work.
DeAndréa, D. C., Ellison, N. B., LaRose, R., Steinfield, C. & Fiore, A.  (2012) Serious social media: on the use of social media for improving students’ adjustment to college. Internet and Higher Education, 15, 15–23.
Gray, R., Vitak, J., Easton, E. W. & Ellison, N. B.  (2013).  Examining social adjustment to college in the age of social media: Factors influencing successful transitions and persistence.  Computers & Education, 67, 193-207.
Gruzd, A., Takheyev, Y., & Wellman, B. (2011). Imagining twitter as an imagined community. American Behavioral Scientist, 55(10), 1294-1318.
Heiberger, G. & Harper, R.  (2008).  Have you facebooked astin lately?  Using technology to increase student engagement.  New Directions for student Services, 124, 19-35.
Livingston, L.  (2010).  Teaching Creativity in Higher Education.  Arts Education Policy Review, 111, 59-62.
Mullendore, R. & Banahan, L. (2004). Designing orientation programs. In M. Upcraft, J. Gardner, & B. Barefoot (Eds.), Challenging and supporting the first-year student: A handbook for improving the first year of college. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Reich, S. M. (2010). Adolescent’s sense of community on MySpace and Facebook: a mixed-methods approach.  Journal of Community Psychology, 38(6), 688-705).

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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Rebekah Tilley

Assistant Vice President, University of Iowa Center for Advancement

Rebekah Tilley is the assistant vice president of communication and marketing for the University of Iowa Center for Advancement (UICA). In that role she supports fundraising and alumni engagement efforts for the university, including its CASE Gold winning Iowa Magazine, and serves UICA in a variety of strategic communication efforts.

Previously she was the director of strategic communication for the University of Iowa Tippie College of Business, and the director of communication for the University of Kentucky College of Law. She is a Kentucky native and a proud alum of the University of Kentucky.

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