Written by Shannon Palka, CSU STEM VISTA 2014-15
I have spent the better part of this year trying to figure out best practices for recruiting students to apply for and participate in high-impact practices. In true millennial suit, I created a social media presence (and may have gone overboard with the #hastags); I reached out to everyone I could via email; I asked professors and faculty members to reach out to students on my behalf; I tabled at CSU-wide conferences; I stood in front of lower-division classrooms; I approached strangers in science building hallways. I did everything I could to get the word out. And I think I did a good job. I’m proud of both the sheer number of people that applied to CSU I-Corps and the quality of the applications we received. But I don’t think I necessarily used my time wisely.
It’s so nice to think social media and email can do the bulk of our PR and recruitment work for us, instantly contacting all of your followers and everyone in your address book. All you have to do is draft one post or one email. It’s easy. It’s convenient. It’s scalable. But – I’ve learned – it’s not that simple.
Over the course of this year, I’ve managed a Twitter account, which is being followed by about two CSU students. (That’s a generous estimate.) The account is much more popular with CSU administrators and other organizations running similar programs. The account contributes to our presence in the academic-entrepreneurship space, but if students are seeing our profile, they’re not interacting with us.
I have also drafted endless emails to club presidents and executive boards. “Forward this to any students who may be interested!” was my catch phrase. Sometimes I got a response asking a follow-up question. Most times, I suspect, the email just disappeared in the recipient’s inbox.
My suspicion that these electronic recruitment efforts were mostly in vain was confirmed by the students who did apply to I-Corps, our program. We included a “How did you hear about us?” question, and only one student said through an email. That means more than 98 percent of applicants heard about I-Corps either from a faculty member (all involved with CSUPERB) they worked with or at a presentation we hosted at their campus.
I was physically shaking the first time I spoke in front of a group of students alone last October. I was five months out of college, and I had been working with CSU I-Corps for only three months. I was still in the process of mastering the language I was to use, and I felt …kind of confident answering questions about the program, the process, etc.
It went miserably. I never wanted to stand up in front of students again. But I did. I had to the next week. I had to again and again and again after that. Don’t worry: I don’t shake anymore in front of a room of students. That went away after the second or third time. But it worked. My nervous, sometimes miserable presentations ultimately produced nearly all of the applications we received. I don’t mean to brag – I’m still not a good public speaker by any measure. But I make this point to question everything we think we know about communicating with students and millennials broadly.
Even for Gen Y, there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction, for learning about someone’s passions directly from them, and tailoring outreach to the individual. Yes, sometimes I would get likes or retweets or views from electronic outreach, but that doesn’t have the “stickiness” of a real, meaningful conversation. When thinking about the return I want for effort expended, it’s much more effective to organize and promote a lunchtime presentation (with snacks? The starving student stereotype still holds…) than it is to spend 20 minutes a week posting on social media. Try as I might, how could I ever hope to compete with a Kim Kardashian selfie?
But for the 30 minutes I was standing in front of students, I was more relevant than Kim K. It’s not easy to speak in public, I know. But a bulk email or a “trending tweet” won’t have the lasting impact that will drive a student to apply to a program two or three or four months after they read it. Being present, being attentive, and speaking directly to a student about something that could have a substantial impact on their education and career? That message has staying power. The stickiness of standing in front of someone and speaking to them is far greater than what 140 characters could have. So, please, don’t dismiss millennials as the hyper-cyber generation who shuns face-to-face interaction. Talk with your students. Talk with us.