Learning to communicate in the digital world

Harrison Smith likes computers. In fact, that’s what he decided to study when he arrived at Union College a couple of years ago. But through his job at a popular music blog he discovered that instead of learning the language of machines, he’d rather use them as tool to connect with people.

“I realized I wanted to change my major to communication in the middle of last semester,” said Smith, a junior from Lincoln. “I talked with the chair of the Division of Humanities about what was available, and when I mentioned that I work in social media she told me about the new communication emphasis in emerging media. I looked at the curriculum guide and thought, ‘all right, this is awesome.’”

Smith is one of the first students at Union College to embark on the new emerging media emphasis in the communication degree program which will start in the 2013-14 school year. The emphasis incorporates classes that teach students to apply their communication skills to the online world by learning how to be an online journalist; use social media to as part of a public relations or marketing campaign; tell stories using video, audio and multimedia tools; and understand how to leverage a worldwide audience and the immediate feedback of social media.

Already well immersed in the social media world, Smith works as an assistant to a local music blogger. “My friend interviews bands that come to town and then we post the videos on YouTube,” he explained. “My job is to deal with the online community that has built up around these videos; replying to tweets, managing Facebook and posting stuff for fans to engage with. I talk about what’s happening in the music scene and post articles from other websites.”

Although only three years old, BryanStars Interviews boasts 120,000 Twitter followers, 50,000 Facebook fans and millions of views on YouTube. Smith has personally been involved only in the last eight months. “The blog had been big for a while, but recently it was growing so fast that my friend decided he needed extra hands and hired me,” he said. “It’s the coolest job on the earth, and I seriously cannot complain.”

The new emerging media emphasis is perfect to assist Smith in developing the proper skills necessary for his career. “I would love to help businesses grow their presence in social media,” he said. “I want to show them how to better interact with their customer base.”

The emphasis is aptly timed as employers increasingly demand greater social media competency from their young employees. “In the past few years we’ve been seeing graduates going into jobs or internships and being tasked with running the entire social media presence of the organization,” said Ryan Teller, director of Public Relations at Union College and one of the developers of the new program. “People think ‘oh, they’re young, they know how to Facebook,’ but there’s a pretty significant difference between Facebooking on a personal level and knowing how to use social media as an effective mass communication tool.”

Six new classes will be offered to support the emphasis, including Digital Storytelling and Social Media Public Relations and Marketing. “Teaching these principles and skills is incredibly important for our communicators and marketers in getting jobs and being effective in today’s market,” emphasized Teller.

“The courses will mostly be taught by adjuncts who are practicing in the field right now,” said Michelle Mesnard, chair of the Division of Humanities. “I think part of the strength of the program is that it will be taught by people who are doing these activities in their day-to-day work and are on top of the latest developments.”

The new classes will also be incorporated in the curricula of both the business program and religion program, including contributing toward a completely new major called Social Media Ministry. “Pastors and people working in churches in the future and are really going to have to be connected to social media and understand how to use it for the church and outreach,” said Bob Fetrick, Chair of the Division of Religion and Associate Professor of Religion and Communication. “This major will give pastors the skills to interconnect their churches and church workers a new mode for evangelism. Ministry is ultimately about relationships between people and social media is a great tool to strengthen those connections.”

“What I love about social media is that it’s instant,” said Smith. “You can get a response from somebody in moments —there’s no waiting. If someone has been burning to talk to you they don’t have to wait two weeks for a response, you can get back to them immediately. That to me is what’s most rewarding: being able to help people right away.”

To learn more about this new emphasis or any other program at Union College, schedule a free visit during one of our spring preview days. Learn more by calling 800.228.4600 or at www.ucollege.edu/experienceu.