By Susannah Foley
It turns out, if you build it, students will come. Really come. Since launching SNHUconnect two years ago, 30,000 online undergrad and graduate students have logged on to the social media platform and nearly 9,000 are regular users.
“Our idea was to create a virtual student union — a center of student life, a home for every club and a place for peers to swap teacher recommendations or weekend stories,” says Tiffany Fifer, SNHUconnect community manager. Let’s just say: It worked.
As with a real-world student center, Fifer figured the connections would be even stronger with a team of peer leaders cheering on from the sidelines — or, in this case, the news feeds. So starting in the fall of 2014, she reached out to 17 students (and counting) to welcome, buoy and engage their fellow classmates. As Fifer puts it, “Peer-to-peer support is the basis of the online community, so we looked to some of the most active members who had made the site so accepting.”
Here, four faces come out from behind their screen names to chat about why they volunteered and why Connect — as they’ve nicknamed the site — has connected so well with so many students.
Nineteen with Words to the Wise
Danielle Hickey, 19, is pursuing a degree in creative writing from her hometown near Erie, Pennsylvania, and has her eye on a career in publishing. While Hickey started out at a brick-and-mortar college, she knew — within two days — it wasn’t for her.
After rebooting her studies at SNHU, she clicked on Connect and found a “support group, a hardy band of friends and an all-encompassing sense of belonging.” Now, as a peer leader and prolific poster with a real way with words, she says, “I want students to share their reasons for starting out or starting over. Mostly I want to encourage students to ask for help when they need it and never be afraid to strike up a conversation.”
Hickey takes her own advice to heart. “On Connect I have friends my age and friends with children my age. I feel very lucky to have such a wide range of people to learn from and alongside.”
Lisa Phillips, 27, is pursuing a B.A. in psychology with a concentration in addiction studies and is drawn to “the tough stuff,” she says, being a licensed counselor in a rehab program. But Connectors know her by her unofficial moniker: the Queen of Connect, so named for her frequent and inspiring posts. “It started as a joke and it’s stuck,” Phillips says, laughing. And she’s bestowed royal titles to others — a duke, a duchess, a princess or two.
Jesting aside, Phillip’s peer leadership style is highly empathic. “I encourage people to look at setbacks as learning experiences,” she says. That’s a skill Phillips developed firsthand. “I dropped out of high school, didn’t get my GED until later, and I didn’t start college until I was 26. I’ve learned not to be so hard on myself.”
Phillips, who lives just five minutes from one of SNHU’s New Hampshire satellite campuses, is spearheading the site’s first real-life event. “We’re planning a picnic the day after graduation and already hundreds of students have expressed interest,” she says. In other words, the queen will meet her royal court.
Advice with a Twang
Carrie Pennington, 26, from Spartanburg, South Carolina, is studying European history and has big plans to earn her master’s, write historical fiction and even establish her own literary imprint. But her real job is juggler — of four jobs, that is, while maintaining a 3.9 GPA. Her peer superpower is her friendliness.
“I love talking to people the way you would if we were hanging around an actual campus. I love the different conversations — academic and personal, lots of football talk, political discussions. And the different backgrounds — people from Ohio, from New England, and, of course, from the South,” Pennington says with a bit of a twang. “I love how Connect helps shrink the distance. I want people to say, ‘Hey, I like this place. I’m going to stick around.’”
The Family Man
Luis Cabrera, 48, from northwest New Jersey, is pursuing a B.A. in history. He calls his historical interests “kaleidoscopic — U.S., European, Middle Eastern, I love it all. I like being challenged.”
That’s rather an understatement. Cabrera, who sees himself teaching high school or college history one day, came to SNHU last year after careers in the Army and in the telecommunications industry — and a diagnosis of leukemia. “I can’t seem to do anything the easy way,” the father of seven says with a laugh.
The illness and ongoing treatment “actually keep me in school,” he says. “I’ve always wanted to earn my bachelor’s — now, I think, what am I waiting for?”
Being a peer leader comes naturally for someone from such a large family. “That’s me being me — encouraging others, putting others ahead,” says Cabrera, who is also the leader of the online outdoor club. The best advice he’s given is also the best advice he’s received: “Eye on the prize. You’ve started this for a reason — you want that diploma.” He adds, “We all do.”