“Do you add your students on social media?” This is the beginning of a conversation that typically leads to me wanting to pull my hair out. Often student affairs pros answer this question with one of the following, “Absolutely not,” “Only after they graduate,” or “occasionally but only if I have a closer personal relationship with the student.” When I go on to ask why they choose to not connect with students, the most common response is that it is unprofessional and blurs the line between a professional and personal relationship potentially making for awkward/inappropriate situations. While this explanation may have held water in the early 2000’s at the advent of contemporary social media, it is floundering today. We live in an age where it is nearly impossible to find someone who isn’t connected to some social media at some capacity. So, if we aren’t connecting to our students who are so deeply invested in the social media culture then, what are we missing?
As a residence life professional, community development is one of my favorite conversations. I always run across other pros who ask me why my RA staff is so invested in their work, or why our attendance at events and programs is so high. I always tell them it is because I invest a significant amount of my time into developing a strong community with my staff and with my building as a whole. Part of this is connecting with students at their level on social media. When I was an RA I would read through my roster of residents and add all of them on Facebook and Twitter before the Fall semester started. This allowed me to get a feel for the individual resident’s likes, dislikes, motivations and social attitudes. I was then able to tailor my programs, conversations and other initiatives to individuals, which ultimately led to a happy floor, which then led to an opportunity to develop a strong floor community.
Other than passively utilizing social media to gauge individual dynamics to later influence floor/building dynamics, I actively engage residents as well. It only stands to reason that we, as student affairs professionals, would meet the students at the venue where they are most active. Examples of this active engagement are things like congratulating students who post things about a success they just had (i.e. getting an “A” on a paper, joining an honor society, etc.) wishing individual students a happy birthday (often times Facebook will remind us,) and just purely being social by posting appropriate things to individual students accounts or for the community at-large to see. When I was an RA on the top floor of a high-rise building for three years I started a Twitter hashtag to promote floor pride. So, any time someone on our floor (or off it for that matter) did something they were proud of or wanted to give praise to the floor as a whole or another member of the community they would hashtag #PSUPenthouse. These little things are things that have always been particularly successful in the facilitation of a strong floor and building community, but community development isn’t the only thing to utilize social media for. Students wear their hearts on their social media pages and oft give us prompts for much needed conversations.
Life, Love and Loneliness
Let’s face it; many of our students (and potentially co-workers) share just about everything on social media. From the inconsequential what they ate that morning and how the Dunkin’ Donuts employee messed up their order, to the potentially life altering break-ups or family issues happening around them. Of course it can be frustrating sorting through the minutiae of the over-sharing student’s life, however it can be extremely powerful when we catch the few things they want someone to catch.
Social media gives us the opportunity to share the happiness of success with students, appreciate the positive relationships they are engaged in, but it also allows us to act as a safety net for when things aren’t going so well. When a student goes through a rough break up and they change their relationship status on Facebook that is the perfect opportunity for us as professionals to check-in with the student (assuming, of course, we have that kind of relationship.) If a student expresses exasperation about their home life (i.e. “I can’t stand being home!” “Get me out of this place!” etc.) that too is a great way to prompt a conversation about their wellbeing and to just make sure they are okay. The one situation we all hope to never have to come across is a student having suicidal ideations. However, if it is happening, we might as well be one of the first to know so we can assist the student as soon as possible. In the past I have had students post things like “It’s all too much right now, maybe I’ll just end it.” Of course, it was a bit awkward prompting the conversation based off of this post however, after I approached the student about it they confided in me about all the difficulties they had been having that I had missed in other interaction and we were able to refer them to the appropriate help. I absolutely believe connecting with students on social media can potentially save lives, and allow for other conversations about problematic behaviors.
Snapchats are Worth 1,000 Words
College is fun. I had a fantastic time socially as and undergrad, but I definitely did some really stupid stuff. As I was going through school, Facebook was big, Twitter was on the rise and Snapchat didn’t exist until the very end. So, the stupid stuff my friends and I were doing wasn’t being as readily documented as it is today. Then, people would post pictures a week after an event of even the next day. Now, students send pictures of all their activities almost immediately via Snapchat. If you are friends with your students on Snapchat this could lead to potentially awkward situations but it could also lead to potentially lifesaving or, at the least, very powerful conversations.
I always say “Students are going to do what they want regardless. The question is whether or not they tell you about it.” What I mean by that is, students will find ways around the rules and policies, they always do. However, when a student is having a serious issue with drinking, drugs, or sexual encounters hopefully they can talk to us about them. Typically they won’t start the conversation themselves even if they are having an issue so, it is our responsibility to initiate the conversation they may need. For instance, I had one resident who would always post pictures of themselves drinking large quantities of alcohol (underage,) doing drugs and suggesting they were participating in frequent unprotected sex. Thanks to social media (particularly Snapchat) I was able to have several conversations with the student about these behaviors and as it turns out, they wanted someone to talk with them about these issues because they were merely a symptom of a larger mental health concern. Yes, we can be put in uncomfortable situations by using social media with our students however, once we get over that discomfort I believe it can help us do our jobs better.
To Instagram and Beyond
As student affairs professionals, connection is key. It is what we preach, advocate and train for. But how can we fully connect with today’s generation of students without meeting them at their level where the most communication and interaction happens in their day-to-day lives? Once we get over the fear of being seen as unprofessional or inappropriate, I believe the student affairs community will benefit greatly from students and professionals interacting on a daily basis and on a more personal level. My challenge to other student affairs pros is this: if you don’t have anything to hide, go and follow or friend your students. This will ultimately lead to a more complete experience with your student staffs, students and co-workers. Now go out there and take a selfie with some students!
> BONUS <
Podcast With Josie Ahlquist on Digital Identity, Social Media & Leadership