Best Practices for Creating Community in a Graduate Program

By Niki Messmore

If student affairs graduate programs were to be depicted in a painting, they would most likely be said to resemble one of Bob Ross’ “happy trees”. In reality, graduate school is often more of a ‘whomping willow’ than a happy tree. Grad school can be difficult in many ways (class/work/life balance) but it can be an especially isolating experience. I’ve written about the 4 types of #sagrad loneliness before in my personal blog and was surprised to hear from the number of people who identified with those experiences.

Community is key to supporting student success and I would like to discuss best practices for creating a community within a student affairs graduate program; particularly through social media.

I’ve taken on several roles, both official and unofficial, to help create, build, and sustain community in Indiana University’s Higher Education & Student Affairs (HESA) program through social media.  We’ve experienced success in building community through Twitter and Facebook during recruitment, orientation, and ongoing experiences, and I’d love to share some practices that have worked for our program.

Overall

1. Explore a deeper understanding of social media, both as a philosophy and the technical aspects. Social media works when there is engagement; i.e. capture people’s emotions, ask questions, interact, post interesting news about the program, etc.

2. Create a social media guide. Identify the purpose that social media will play in building community within the cohorts and the strategies that will help to engage students. For example, the guide I created is 5 pages and identifies our philosophy on social media and how we will be engaging students, alumni, faculty, and friends via Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr. Intentionality is the key to success.

3. Create a ‘how-to’ guide. The term ‘digital native’ is unrealistic and we can’t expect all grad students to understand how to use the different social media platforms (Twitter, Facebook, etc). Consider writing a manual if you don’t have one already. For example, I’ve written a 13-page document (Professional Social Networking for the #SAgrad) outlining how to technically use social media (create and manage accounts), how to professionally use social media (live tweets, student affairs hashtags and connections), and best practices.

Twitter

Twitter usage is increasing in the student affairs world thanks to excellent live tweeting sessions and hashtags that connect us across institutions. Therefore Twitter is not only a tool to engage students within a grad program but good professional development.

1. Create a Twitter account for your program. For example, the IU HESA program has a Twitter account for the HESA student organization that I currently manage (IUSPA_HESA). This will give you an official voice in sending out news, interacting with students, and reaching out to alumni, faculty, and staff. Several other great programs out there tweeting with their students include BGSU BGSDA, UT HEASPA, Northeastern CSDA, Baylor HESA, and FSU HESA.

2. Create a program hashtag. Make sure it is unique (check Twitter to see if it gets used by unaffiliated people), captures your program brand, links the reader back to your program (i.e., that it makes sense), and is easy to remember. For example, for IU’s HESA program uses #IUHESA. It was first used by alum Sean Ryan Johnson in 2011 but has been sporadically used since then; I revived it as part of our branding in July. Since then there have been almost 200 tweets using the hashtag. It’s helped masters, doctoral, faculty, and alumni connect to one another over Twitter and has been great in building relationships with one another; adoption of the hashtag by the IU School of Education has been beneficial as well.

Other examples actively used by SA programs include #IUPSAHE and #HESAnation; my search did not demonstrate that there are many grad programs actively using hashtags to connect with one another.

3. Create lists. On your Twitter profile you can follow people and add them to lists that can be made public. Create separate lists for alumni, institutional student affairs staff, and faculty. This will allow people to use the program Twitter account to find one another and interact.

Facebook

1. Create a Facebook group for your interview weekends. One current first-year student informed me that IU’s Facebook group for the outreach experience was a strong factor in selecting IU. Why? Because she really cared for the community that was built in the Facebook group.  Current HESA students posted in the Facebook group, encouraged questions in group, interacted with prospective students, and during the weekend experience many group photos were uploaded – effectively building a welcoming community for students.

2. Create a Facebook group for your admitted cohorts (one for each cohort and then one combined group has been effective for us). This increases opportunities for interactions in both a fun and academic capacity. For example, our Facebook groups are a combination of social plans, updating on events, and sharing articles to help create discussion on issues of social justice and other areas of higher education.

 

This is a brief outline of some of the best practices in creating community via social media during my time at Indiana University’s HESA program. Based on personal observation, I can see a distinct difference in the HESA community, especially among first-year grad students. I believe that social media, coupled with creating social events in July and August, helped to build a stronger community within the program.

How does your program use social media to build community? Do you think social media engagement relates to overall program engagement? Leave a comment or tweet me at @NikiMessmore.

 

 

Best Practices for Creating Community in a Graduate Program

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