Today we bring you Part 2 of our interview with Jessica Stahl from The Student Union -- an online community centered around international students studying in the United States. You can read the first half of the interview here. Let's take a look at the rest of the interview:
GS: What kind of feedback have you had from readers, especially students, regarding the posts written by the international student bloggers?
JS: The feedback has been really good so far. We've tackled a lot of difficult subjects, including LGBT issues and Islamophobia, and on a lot of blogs I've seen comments on those sorts of posts go very negative very quickly, but I'm happy to say that the response we got was almost entirely positive and supportive -- and thoughtful as well. We want thoughtful debate and discussion, and we've been getting some.
And actually, what's been most gratifying is that we've actually had readers send me posts about their own experiences that I then put up on the blog. I really encourage that and wish even more readers would get involved that way.
One of our most emotional recent posts came about that way. I was contacted by a Japanese student in the U.S. after the earthquake and we ended up speaking on the phone for about half an hour as she told me about her parents, who live in Fukushima, which is where the damaged nuclear plants are located.
GS: What are some of the challenges you've faced in creating this new online community?
JS: The biggest challenge is always going to be building an audience and getting them involved. We're lucky because to some extent we have the brand of VOA behind us, but that only goes so far. So that has been a challenge, and continues to be a challenge - finding ways to get the word out to the current and prospective international students who would be interested in what we're doing.
It's coming along slowly but surely though! I'm grateful for every new commenter or Facebook fan or Twitter follower we get, and I make sure to interact with anyone who contacts us in any way.
GS: Can you share some of the methods you've used to spread the word about the Student Union? Which methods have been most successful?
JS: I've largely relied on social media - Twitter, Facebook and various online forums. And that's been pretty successful. I've gotten into a lot of great conversations and met a lot of interesting people on those platforms, and I've made some great connections as well. EducationUSA in particular has been really kind to us since we connected online. So social media has been very valuable.
Although, if I'm honest, the best method for spreading the word has been when the bloggers go and show off their latest post to their friends and families. There's still nothing like old-fashioned word-of-mouth.
GS: Ideally, what is your vision for this community in the coming years?
JS: I'd love to see the community become a real go-to resource for current and prospective international students. I hope prospective students see it as a place to ask questions and get insights on the types of things they won't hear about through other channels. And I hope current students use it as a place to share and commiserate and discuss.
But I also think that when it comes to the specifics of what we'll be doing, some of it is hard to know in advance. Because my goal has been and will continue to be that we are driven by our community. I mean, I didn't know when we started in September that we'd end up building a user-submitted glossary - it just grew out of what we were doing. So I want to make sure that we keep doing that sort of thing and responding to the conversations that develop.
GS: And finally, if there are international students that are interested in guest blogging for The Student Union, how can they get more information about doing so?
JS: I LOVE when people send me guest posts. As long as they fit with what we're trying to do, I'm really happy to post other perspectives and stories. Anyone interested in submitting a guest post can email me with either their idea or a completed blog post at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Plus, I expect to be looking for some new bloggers for next school year, so anyone who's interested in blogging regularly should keep an eye on the blog, because I'm sure we'll announce that over the next few months.
GS: Thanks again Jessica. We appreciate you taking time to let us know more about The Student Union, and we encourage our readers to explore the community.
JS: Thanks GradShare!
GradShare is continually looking for like-minded online communities to introduce to graduate students for the benefit of enhancing their graduate school experience. We recently had an opportunity to speak with Jessica Stahl and learn more about The Student Union community, and exciting venture by Voice of America that is bringing attention to the globalization of academia. Let's check out the first half of this two part interview:
GradShare: Thanks for joining us Jessica. So how did The Student Union get started, and what is your role within the community?
Jessica Stahl: The topic of studying in the U.S. is something we know VOA's audience is interested in, and that we've always covered. But we wanted to find a way to make it more real and to dig deeper- to relate the true stories, and the lesser-told stories, of what it's like to be an international student in America.
So, we started the Student Union back in September as a place for international students in the U.S. to talk about their experiences and learn from what others are going through. There's a core group of students who write for us on a regular basis, and we also get contributions from readers and other bloggers. Their stories range from the poignant to the useful to the hilarious, and each one gives a unique insight into the life of an international student.
My role is to serve as the editor and facilitator. The students know way better than I do what's important and interesting, because it's actually happening to them, so I mostly try to stay out of their way as much as I can!
JS: You're right. VOA is a multimedia news service broadcasting around the world in over 40 different languages. The Student Union is part of our effort to expand what we offer on the web, and belongs to a larger VOA blog network that includes great blogs on things like technology and "Americana."
GS: What are some of the main features that the community has to offer?
JS: Well obviously the centerpiece is the posts that our bloggers write, and the contributions that we get from readers. On any given day if you check the blog, you'll be able to scroll through recent stories and explore stories by topic.
But there's actually a lot more than that if you start to dig in. We regularly share links to useful or interesting things that we find online - everything from articles about visa procedures to fun games for practicing English. And we often do posts that are based on a "question of the week," where we get the readers and the bloggers involved in contributing their perspectives on a particular topic.
A lot of what we do is also driven by interactions we have with readers over email, or on Facebook or Twitter. For example, we recently started building up a glossary of terms about studying in America that may be confusing or unclear to non-native English speakers. This started because we found an article talking about how confusing the word "college" can be, since it means something different in America than it does in most other English-speaking countries, and a lot of readers chimed in to agree and to suggest other words that might trip people up.
GS: Can you tell us about the bloggers that you have at The Student Union?
JS: We have about 15 students who write for us on a regular basis. They come from literally all over the world and are located all across the U.S. (although somehow we ended up with two bloggers from tiny St. John's College in New Mexico - they were both just so good!). And they're all volunteers - they write because they remember what it was like when they were applying to study abroad in America and they want to share their knowledge with other students who are currently in that position.
A number of the students are current graduate students, and one is in the process of applying to graduate school, so there's a lot that will be relevant to the GradShare community. But even the bloggers who are in college have lots to say about adapting to new cultures and lifestyles, and that's relevant no matter what level of education you're at.
GS: So what type of topics do these international student bloggers cover?
JS: We've covered a huge range of topics in our short time. Obviously the students have written about the big things like getting a visa, financial aid and scholarships, and finding a balance between school and life. One of my favorite posts recently was by Alex, who's from Uganda, about his struggle to get the score he needed on his GRE exam.
But they also talk about things that I never could have anticipated, and to me this is where the blog gets most interesting. For example, when Tara, who's from China, first arrived in California, she struggled with adapting her definition of beauty. Back home, paler skin was considered more beautiful, but in California even the Chinese-American girls tan on the beach. And Senzeni, who comes from Zimbabwe, wrote a post for Valentine's Day about the conflict between her parents' ideas about dating and marriage, and the ideas of her classmates.
Preparing for this interview, I went through the blog archives all the way back to when we started - I'd actually forgotten how funny and poignant and useful some of the posts have been. We're really lucky to have a great group of writers who are incredibly willing to share even the most embarrassing and personal things.