Engineering students lead a push for larger Lehigh social media presence

“Do you want the coolest job on campus?” Katie Hooven ’15 remembers being asked at the Work Study Job Fair in Lehigh’s Lamberton Hall late in August of 2011, her very first weekend at Lehigh.

The position, as it turned out, would be way more intense than the typical college work-study job. Katie and her cohorts would NOT be filing books on dusty shelves, collating copies in a converted closet, or any other stereotypical position. Instead, they’d be helping to lead the development of Lehigh Engineering’s social media strategy -- and the future of communicating about the life and times of a college campus.

Since then, Katie and the rest of the engineering students have cultivated the effort into a social media monster -- from a dozen first-year students crammed into an overcrowded office, into a 60-student strong program that provides insight and perspective on all aspects of engineering at Lehigh in words, photos, and video.

“That first year it ended up being a lot of trial and error and brainstorming,” Katie recalls. “When we met we would talk about the content we should include, balancing what we felt would be good material to offer with what was reasonable to expect of ourselves as first-year engineers. At the same time, we had to ask ourselves an even more fundamental set of questions -- how do we do this? What’s the right platform? What are the right mechanisms for connecting with the outside world?”

Chris Larkin, director of communications and marketing for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, has overseen the development of the program since its inception. He says he’s followed guidance from former Dean David Wu in enabling the team to flourish.

“Dean Wu once told me that management was about creating a space for talented people to be successful, and then getting out of their way,” says Chris. “We really tried to put that in action with this project as much as possible. And since today’s college students are immersed in social media from such an early age, it was even more crucial for us to find a crop of enthusiastic Lehigh engineers -- and then ‘get out of their way’ indeed.”

Throughout the 2011-12 academic year, the students went through a number of iterations until they came to a solid vision for the team’s future. Their goal was to grow Lehigh Engineering’s visibility by developing and sharing dynamic and evolving content based on their individual experiences, both academic and extracurricular.

One student became a dorm food critic. Another reported on their involvement in the campus’ improv troupe. Lehigh’s famed “Turkey Trot” received wall to wall video coverage. Discussions were raised on how to schedule classes effectively, the importance of time management as an engineering student, and particular topics gleaned from lectures and labs.

“On balance,” says Chris, “the Social Media Assistants deliver a compelling view of life as a Lehigh engineer, seen through their own eyes. They’ve very effectively used the tools of social media to open a unique window into Lehigh Engineering and collegiate life in general for prospective students and other audiences.”

But – and let’s remember the students are engineers, after all – they also wanted to develop a secure, repeatable, efficient system for themselves and future generations of students. The team centered on each student hosting an individual blog using WordPress, and then using Facebook and Twitter to coordinate the content and expand their reach. This coordination effort took off with the addition of Marc Rosenberg as the College’s Web content manager. His background as Web editor for The Morning Call proved invaluable in orchestrating the stream of online content that was soon to become a deluge.

The power of 1st person

As the project progressed, the team’s social media presence began to diversify even further. After all, the first-year students were moving into their ‘upperclass’ years and fanning out across the majors, and a new ‘frosh’ group was moving in behind them. The returning students began to coalesce into blogs dedicated to their home departments, and a new class took over documenting the opportunities and challenges of their first year at Lehigh.

Fortunate Tshirangwana ’18 writes three to five blog posts per week, trying to provide the most accurate portrayal of her life as she can. A native of South Africa, she shares her thoughts on everything from the taste of American food to the view from her dorm room in Dravo to various campus events. Before coming to Lehigh, Fortunate had been following the posts of a particular blogger to whom she could relate.

“Once I started researching Lehigh, I came across the site through the engineering college web page,” she says, “and immediately started following Shelia Rukundo’s blog. She is a year older from me and from Rwanda, and I thought, ‘who else could give me a better perspective than a fellow African?’ From reading the blog, I really got to understand just how important sweaters and layers are in Pennsylvania in February. Not only that, but I got to learn about Engineering 005 and 010 and it helped me get really excited to come to Lehigh in the Fall.”

The team also realized that the more mediums they covered – the more ways they had to reach out to their audience -- the better. So, in 2012, Vinicius Aguiar ’16 made a pitch to become the team’s resident photographer.

Says Vini: “Marc and Chris tell us all the time to be creative in finding ways to use the Web to appeal to people exactly like us, to create content that each of us would have found valuable in our own college search processes. I’m an amateur photographer, and wanted to create a stream of photos to give people a more personal side, a candid and honest view of our campus.”

Aguiar set up an Instagram page to allow all members of the team – and the Lehigh community – to share their images of Lehigh Engineering in action. He also contributes regularly to the college’s Flickr account.

“Coming to see Lehigh is a big differentiator for people deciding upon a university, but not everyone has the chance to come to campus and have that visual experience,” says Aguiar. “Instagram is a great way to reach the large demographic of high school and college students who use it.”

Weibo, RenRen, and YouKu (oh my!)

Vini’s use of the Social Media Team as a launchpad for his own creativity helped pave the way for another exciting extension of the team. Last fall, first-year students Irene Gao ’18 and Taiji Zhou Tai ’18 have begun to tackle an even bigger untapped audience: the youth of China.

For many years, the Chinese government has had a large and comprehensive firewall in place that has made it nearly impossible for Chinese nationals to use social media like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, In China, the functionality of these platforms are essentially replicated by incredibly popular social media sites Weibo, RenRen, and YouKu. While interviewing for a position with the team, Irene and Taiji made a pitch to become, in essence, Lehigh’s Chinese social media ambassadors.

They started by translating and posting blog posts to RenRen, the Chinese equivalent to Facebook, tweets to Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, and videos to YouKu, the Chinese equivalent to YouTube. They used their own content as well as the content created by their colleagues across the team, and other items of news and interest coming out of the College.

“We translate a lot of the posts and captions into Chinese to allow parents, who may not speak English, to be able to see what students at Lehigh are up to,” says Irene. “But most of our peers – Chinese students seeking education in the U.S. – are already fluent in English, so translation isn’t as crucial as you may think.”

With the recent blockage of Gmail in China, Lehigh Engineering’s RenRen and Weibo accounts have become even more important as an outreach tool than first imagined.

“Because Gmail was blocked, it makes it really hard for people to reach out to the Admissions staff, so a lot of students have been turning to our RenRen and Weibo accounts to ask us questions,” explains Gao. “We’ve been able to talk to admissions representatives for them and respond through the other social media sources still available in China.”

In addition to the social media aspect of the project, Irene and Taiji have created a group on the Chinese version of WhatsApp. Students who are applying early or regular decision can scan a QR code to join. “In the group, we discuss what makes Lehigh different than other schools and help answer questions that they might have about Lehigh,” says Taiji. “This gives future students the chance to get a feel for Lehigh before they even fly to the States.”

Maturing into grad school

The most recent project started by the social media team is an effort to support the College’s graduate community. A new role has been created to help amplify the visibility of graduate study and research opportunities. These “Digital Marketing Assistants” work to coordinate graduate student interviews and highlights from faculty research.

“Graduate students don’t always get the attention they deserve, so we’re creating a plan for videos and articles to profile some of their achievements,” says Marc. “Prospective grad students often seek to engage with successful, ongoing faculty research projects, and can ‘see themselves’ in the successes of other students. So, much like the original undergraduate blogs, we believe that we can support the recruiting of future graduate students by promoting the exploits of current students and the achievements of our world-renowned faculty.”

“I think that social media is not much of a financial investment, but if utilized correctly, it can really go a long way,” Marc continues. “With the ease of use and low barriers to entry, the potential for growth in social media reach is almost endless.”

“Anybody that’s our age is likely to be invested up to their ears in social media,” concludes Katie. “So if we’re posting in a way that puts Lehigh’s best foot forward, that’s good for the school and good for us as future alumni. I’m psyched that I’ve been able to use my work-study grant to build something new for the College and help drive recognition for what we’re all about at Lehigh.”

-Amber Schrum '16 is a student-writer with the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Lehigh Engineering's social media profile includes Facebook, Twitter, Instragram, YouTube, Flickr and more.

ISE major Fortunate Tshirangwana ’18, a native of South Africa, found Lehigh through the engineering blogs.

IDEAS major Vini Aguiar '16 joined the social media group in 2012 as the team resident photographer. Above is one of his photos taken on Lehigh's main campus.