International Education Hot Topic: Social Media Peer Advising
As the clock ticked closer to his first trip overseas to Australia to study abroad, Josh Larsen, like many students these days, turned to a Facebook group of past and future study abroad program participants for information, guidance, and reassurance.
It didn’t matter that Larsen hadn’t actually met any of the individuals who were answering his questions and helping him form a base of information upon which to make important decisions. The information was from peers, so it made a special kind of impact.
“I was able to talk to other people in my situation and get some answers and advice on what to do when going overseas,” said Larsen, a University of Nebraska – Kearney environmental science graduate who studied abroad via GlobaLinks Learning Abroad’s AustraLearn program in 2006 at Southern Cross University in New South Wales, Australia. “This made my experience all the more pleasurable and exciting.”
Peer advising, the practice of bringing together study abroad alumni with prospective participants for information sharing, is a time-tested educational tool used by colleges, universities and independent study abroad programs. The practice occurs at study abroad fairs, pre-departure sessions, information sessions, classroom visits, one-on-one meetings and other cultural events.
The use of peer advising within the social media realm, however, is a relatively new approach, one that brings purposeful peer-to-peer interaction into Facebook groups and other social media forums, said Deborah Morrison, director of marketing for GlobaLinks Learning Abroad, a Westminster, CO.-based provider of international education programs across the globe.
“Most study abroad offices and providers use social media these days to reach a wide variety of the different student audiences,” Morrison says, “but it is a more novel idea to utilize peer advisors within social media groups.”
Social media isn’t a replacement for traditional peer advising but is yet another tool for communication, especially considering one of the largest social media demographics is individuals ages 18-29, Morrison says.
Characteristics of Social Media Peer Advising
Where and how does peer advising take place?
It takes place in a number of different social media forums and applications. These include:
- Facebook via pages, groups and events.
- Twitter via hash tags and key words.
- YouTube via video bloggers.
- Websites for peer reviews, including Abroad101.com and ReviewYourStudyAbroad.com.
- Instant messaging/live chat hours.
Even when setting up peer advising in a social media format, study abroad offices and program providers are likely to follow the traditional model of peer advisor selection, training, incentives and outcomes.
Social media peer advising can work in tandem with traditional advising efforts because it feeds the needs and expectations of today’s student audiences for constant access to information and direct connection to participants not just on their home campuses but across the globe.
One Program’s Experience With Social Media Peer Advising
GlobaLinks Learning Abroad launched its social media peer advisor program in 2010 after noticing certain students who had a special knack for assisting participants in its Facebook groups, said Melissa Cech, GlobaLinks’ senior coordinator for outreach and student services. The program now has a handful of peer advisors who act as ‘Alumni Mentors’ and ‘Officers’ in the AustraLearn, AsiaLearn and EuroLearn groups and pages, with plans to add even more.
“This semester for the first time we will invite alumni into our participant groups to interact with students preparing to go abroad,” Cech says. “Not only is this a great way for inquiries and participants to get a firsthand account of where they’re going to be living abroad, it’s an opportunity for alumni to practice speaking about their experience before they head off into interviews with potential employers.”
Benefits and advantages to using peer advisors within a social media strategy include:
- Distance and time differences between group participants are not an issue.
- Students who may not normally connect have the chance to do so and potentially share ideas that may otherwise never have been explored.
- Study abroad offices or program staff can tap recently returned students as “the experts” on specific program and country experiences.
- Inquiring students, participants and alumni all benefit mutually from communicating in the various social media forums.
- Doesn’t require a budget, other than staff management time.
But there also are challenges and costs to using social media peer advisors, including:
- Staff time and resources to supervise social media interactions, including deleting inappropriate or inaccurate information and keeping up with large volumes of posts.
- Sustaining the relationship between the peer advisor and study abroad office/program.
- Maintaining consistency over time in peer advice.
- Ensuring important information and guidance isn’t “lost in translation.”
Why Become A Social Media Peer Advisor?
Larsen is now one of GlobaLinks Learning Abroad’s peer advisors.
After completing his first study abroad experience and deciding to go abroad for a second time to earn his master’s degree, Larsen once again turned to the AustraLearn Facebook group for information. This time, however, rather than asking most of the questions, Larsen was answering them.
“I saw people having the same questions and the nervousness of what was going to happen when they got Australia,” he says. “I wanted to help out and decided to help answer questions from the future study abroad students. I also gave advice based on the experiences that I had a few years ago when I came to Australia for the first time.”
Larsen’s regular efforts to help others on the Facebook group caught the eye of Cech, who manages the company’s social media outreach, so she invited him to be an Alumni Mentor.
“Josh is our ‘original’ peer mentor on Facebook and has been advising other students via our groups and pages for at least a year,” Cech says. “He has definitely gone above and beyond in this call of duty through our AustraLearn inquiry group as well as our Facebook page.”
Larsen isn’t paid for his efforts but helps out because of the positive experience he had studying abroad and as a way to give back since he can’t afford to donate money to help others study abroad.
“I also do it because I think every student should do a study abroad program,” he says. “It helps expand your knowledge and give you a different perspective on how things are done and what other people in different parts of the world think. If I can help one student have a better experience, then it was well worth my time and effort.”
It is difficult to put data behind the value of social media peer advising efforts, Morrison says, but GlobaLinks Learning Abroad has seen increased engagement from students and fewer student issues resulting from incorrect expectations from its efforts. It intends to continue to improve upon the model.
“It just makes sense to take advantage of the many advances in technology and communication across the globe in a way that benefits our students and provides them yet another layer of service,” Morrison says.
Larsen is now earning his master’s degree in Australia at Griffith University, and in the process, has expanded his knowledge of the country and what is involved in earning a degree at an Australian university. This, in turn, has helped him serve as an even greater resource for future study abroad participants.
“If anyone is thinking about doing a study abroad program anywhere around the world they should do it,” he says. “It’s a great experience. In my case, it has changed my life completely.”
Larsen also recommends social media peer advising to others.
“I get the satisfaction of knowing that I helped someone to have a better experience studying in another country,” he says. “It just makes me feel good that I have helped someone else out. I have also gained a few friends through this process that I never would have had if it wasn’t for me helping them through their study abroad experience.”