Confab Higher Ed and the rise of student storytelling

2014-11-14 13.22.02 The recent Confab Higher Ed, the largest gathering on web content strategy in North America, provided an abundance of awesome people and information, but perhaps most notable is how it placed an unprecedented spotlight on the use of student storytelling in social media.

In addition to our SUNY Oswego session co-presented with our star student blogger Alyssa Levenberg, “Student Stories and Content Strategy: ‘Alyssa Explains It All’ to Prospective Students,” Meg Bernier of St. Lawrence University discussed “User-Generated Content: Empowering Students to Tell Stories” on the excellent student-run @herewegosaints Instagram account and Oberlin College’s Ma’ayan Plaut and Ben Jones showcasedstudent storytelling in “A Tale of Two Projects: Relationship-Building Through Legacy Content.”

It’s a long way from around a decade ago when I first started researching student blogging because of the success my social media mentor Rachel Reuben was having with it at New Paltz. The idea met with plenty of skepticism, doubt and even discouragement. Asking other colleges who had student bloggers led to one of my enduring principles of empowerment: We don’t approve blog posts, we approve bloggers.

It took years, but when we cleared the last technical hurdle when our then-new web developer Richard Buck set us up on WordPress, we finally debuted the blogs — to amazing traffic and feedback — in fall 2008. I was proud of all the initial bloggers, with the journal of Erin Scala, a legally blind student with a keen sense of humor, downright inspirational. Not everything went perfectly, but it represented a work in progress that surmounted the skepticism and drew many positive reviews from our most important audience — incoming students. Screen shot 2014-11-14 at 8.39.23 AM Students kept the project moving forward but we hit a new level after an unassuming tweet from Twitter user @lysslyss15 to the @sunyoswego account in fall 2012, saying she made videos and asking if we needed help. Alyssa didn’t even really expect us to respond, but when I looked up her videos, I immediately realized she had the “it” factor that would resonate with students. We met and our discussion turned into “Alyssa Explains It All,” a series of talking-to-the-camera video blogs offering advice to incoming or new students.

The inaugural installment on time management debuted in September 2012, and Alyssa later became an intern and full-scale ambassador whose responsibilities included making videos answering questions received from incoming students via social media.

In the years since, this project has been mentioned regularly at national and international conferences, but this was the first time Alyssa presented at a conference of this magnitude. Alyssa was a rockstar at Confab Higher Ed, her videos very well received and people stopping her to ask questions throughout the conference. You can watch the video of our presentation or see the slides below.

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Meg’s great presentation on the student-run Instagram account at St. Lawrence also included a very nice detail: Her initial proposal to do it was rejected. She kept believing, went back and analyzed what students were already posting and presented it again to finally earn approval. The result has been not only fabulous content but an inspiration to other colleges taking the lead, including the #lakertakeover we do from time to time on the @sunyoswego Instagram account.
Ben and Ma’ayan have built the Oberlin Stories Project — a sort of student blogging on steroids resulting in hundreds of student voices sharing their tales of why they love Oberlin — as well as ongoing regular student blogs. My favorite is a podcast series by student musicians Hannah and Davis that turns the spotlight on other talented conservatory students. That’s how you empower current students to show your music program can hit the right notes for prospective students.
Beyond those presentations, we drew inspiration from Boston University’s Dean Kenn Elmore who presented the amazing keynote “New Major: American Cool.” Many of us web folks consider ourselves nerds, but Kenn showed that by taking risks with a sense of dignity, patience, intelligence and a sense of control, cool things can happen. Empowering student stories involves yielding some of that sense of control to allow them to shine — and Confab Higher Ed celebrated the awesome results.
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I don’t have enough words to say how amazing all the presentations were at Confab Higher Ed, but I thank everybody who made it possible and participated. And here’s hoping that by showcasing the rise of student storytelling, colleges and universities everywhere will allow student voices to show how cool pursuing an education can be.

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One response to “Confab Higher Ed and the rise of student storytelling

  1. Pingback: How Social Media Helps Colleges Engage with Prospective Students | DoubleEdu

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