The summer of 2005, I received my second packet of residential life materials for Vassar College. I scrambled through the paperwork and found the sheet that listed my roommate assignments, which I was anticipating since I checked off that I was a night owl who worked best after midnight on the roommate questionnaire. I had two names, some e-mail addresses that seemed to belong to parents, and phone numbers.
However, due to the emergence of Facebook, which had JUST ARRIVED at my school (just like in The Social Network, when they talked about which “elite” schools should be able to use it, we were a second round pick after the Ivies or something), these outdated forms of communication with classmates were quickly forgotten. Sure, my alma mater set up a message board for the Class of 2009, where my one and only comment was to a girl inquiring about Girl Scouts. Just to let you know how successful that message board was, it wasn’t until weeks into the school year that one of my new friends revealed that she made that posting, and we realized we had spoken via those message boards briefly before actually getting to know each other. (We are still very good friends.) But it was through Facebook groups, where incoming students frantically planned meetings before school started and tried to find their dorm-mates, that we got to know each other.
While these seemed new and exciting at the time, in retrospect they were invaluable resources to students like myself, who were first generation college students. Social media helped me talk to people who were just as nervous and scared, and also let me begin the emotional and social transition to college. Not to mention, the more practical discussion about, “What should I bring to college?”
Social media is continuing to shift the college counseling and admissions experience for students. Sure, many college admissions offices have an Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube channels, Vine, Tumblr, or Twitter, or whatever is being invented as you’re reading this sentence. Beyond that, social media is helpful for more student-based mentoring and networking.
As an avid Tumblr user, I’ve noticed that the tags for “Vassar” or “Vassar College” are filled with both current and prospective students (as well as the odd alum, mostly me). Conversations emerge about everything from, “What size photo should I submit for my ID?” to more serious issues of race and gender expression and acceptance of campus. People talk about why they love their current school, or complain about the problems within the school. Marginalized students use social media to identify, organize and protest campus issues.
The ability to have candid and open dialogue about the college experience at particular institutions is especially important for students as they negotiate and formulate their ideas of identity and community. Yes, social media is often without filter, and the average teenage prospective college student and young adult current college student may not necessarily have the most informed understanding of privilege or intersectionality or microaggressions. What I have seen, however, is that social media is helping students find their voice to understand and engage in these dialogues.
Going forward, it will be interesting to see how higher education institutions engage with growing social media. Do you hold students accountable for their online exploits? What if they participate in acts of violence and bigotry? Do you allow for this conversation to happen outside of “safe” spaces to allow students to fully engage in the subject matter? Is this even something you would ever want to moderate? Where would you even begin?
At the end of the day, future, current and former students are talking to each other. They are sharing their hopes, their dreams, their fears, and their frustrations. Next time you like a Facebook status about your college football team (which we didn’t have), or you favorite a tweet about a now famous alum, or you watch a YouTube video of the president of your college doing the name game, you are participating in the creation and preservation of a campus culture and adding your voice to the conversation. On that note, I’ll go ahead and continue being that “old” person on Tumblr who goes around giving unwanted advice to current Vassar students.