Going Viral: Social Media, Student Affairs, and the Call for Community-Building

Liam Rice

January 22, 2019

There is an unspoken curse of being a higher education professional today: every targeted advertisement on my social media feeds—so, every ad—is some form of college advertisement. Constantly bombarded by suggested posts on getting a B.A in Agricultural Education from the University of Connecticut or a M.A. in Creative Writing from Harvard University, the latter of which I assume is purely location-based from living in Boston, it makes me regret hashtagging #highered or #SAPro on my Instagram post. It’s become so pandemic that I rarely receive an Amazon ad of the exact shampoo I was discussing earlier in the day. As someone who spends a good deal of time interacting in the digital world, I constantly find myself analyzing when, where, and why colleges and universities engage with others on social networking sites. While the New Professionals and Graduate Student Knowledge Community knows no age-bounds—its one of the great aspects of our profession—the drive towards online communities is undoubtably championed by late-stage Millennials and Generation Z. As we continue to impact our institutions and field, we must begin to shift the understanding of social media away from marketing and admissions towards online student development practices for all student types.

Higher education can often be a lethargic monolith, whose size and tradition limit how quickly institutions can adapt to new communities and concepts. While we call for opening up our institutions to all desiring students, few institutions have truly transformed their practices. Financial needs, external pressures, and internal worries all work together to slow our movement. These concepts also apply to higher education’s relationship with social media and online communities; it seems like colleges have just figured out how to use Facebook. Their usage is terrific in connection and engaging students, in 2008. The slow-changing nature limits how institutions perceive the internet and its potential usages. Academics still champion on-location, in-classroom learning and brush aside online classrooms, all while Southern New Hampshire University goes all-in on the digital experience. When discussing social media and the college experience, institutions continue to be wary.

I recently presented on social media and student development at the NASPA Region I Annual Conference. Being a graduate student solo-presenting to well-seasoned peers can be intimidating enough, let alone when presenting on the educational value of social media. I discuss how social media was born on college campuses, how online communities are truly no different than the student union, how higher ed professionals must do better in engaging with students online. A great introductory read is danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: The Social Life of Networked Teens (2014). When we opened up for questions at the conclusion, a senior career development official stated a belief all too familiar to anyone who was a student at any point after 2000: students need to watch what they post online, employers and admissions departments are watching, social media is dangerous. I swear I flashbacked to many conversations with my mother as I applied to colleges and posted poorly filtered Instas in 2012 (Valencia filter, anyone?). The optimist in me believes he truly is looking out for his students with these beliefs; the educator in me pushes back. In the age of the internet, it is a disservice to our students to not actively engage with them online. As boyd (2014) purports, social networking sites are simply networked publics, whose goals are barely different than the malls and parks of previous generations. Students have been and will gather online to create, challenge, and champion their own communities. It is our duty to meet them there.

            Thus, we engage with the current higher education zeitgeist involving social media. While beautiful shots of the towering management-school building or students playing ping-pong in the campus center can do wonders for advertising the institutions to those who have yet to enter and those who have exited its gates, it does so little for those who are current members. As an undergraduate, I would scroll through my school’s Twitter feed and be impressed with all the institutional accomplishments. It did little, however, to engage me with my community further than base-level wonder. As Generation Z begins to move into the halls of our campuses with their meme accounts and sardonic humor, it is vital that we holistically educate them. If student affairs is “everything outside the classroom,” as we are so often called, we must push forward an education identity for social media. We must make room for students to interact and fail, to conflict and connect. We must rework our understanding of the educational power of community online, if for nothing more than to clear up our feeds of sponsored college posts.

 boyd, d. (2014). It's complicated: the social lives of networked teens. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Liam Rice is a second-year student in the M.S. in College Student Development and Counseling program at Northeastern University in Boston, MA. He can be found on Twitter at @liam_what or Instagram at @asideofwhiterice.

Opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of NASPA. If you agree or disagree with the content of this post, we encourage you to dialogue in the comment section below. NASPA reserves the right to remove any blog that is inaccurate or offensive.

To comment, you can login to your preferred social network. Comments are lightly moderated and we do provide the option for users to flag a comment as inappropriate.

Get in Touch with NASPA