Diary of a college freshman: now accessible online

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

During her first week at Furman University last semester, Amber Kirtley enrolled in a cardio-kickboxing class to avoid the dreaded "Freshman 15." After one intense class, she discovered that yoga was more her speed.

For her humanities class, she was a little nervous about reading the "Epic of Gilgamesh" because she didn't understand the book's title. And, oh, she's just a little peeved about the shortage of parking on campus.

Anyone would know these details about Amber's life if they clicked on her biweekly journal at engagefurman.com. The freshman from Maryville, Tenn., is one of six Furman students who write journals about their first-year experiences. "I'm trying to convey the ups and downs of college," says Ms. Kirtley, now known as Journal Girl. "I'm trying to be real, and I hope that comes across."

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Increasingly, colleges across the United States are turning to online student diaries as a way to recruit prospective students. The idea is simple: Supply the budding authors with a digital camera and let them write about their freshman year as it's happening. The approach seems to be working. At Furman, about 30,000 people, from alumni to parents and high school students, read it every week. Alfred University in Alfred, N.Y., reports that its journals are the most heavily viewed pages. From a school's point of view, it gives readers a better idea of what campus is like, and so might spark interest in a school visit.

"It's a trend, and more and more institutions are finding the need to present their schools not just through marketing materials, but also by showing real student experiences," says Jim Shaynak, senior associate director of admissions at Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa.

Since Mr. Shaynak started The Year in the Life diaries three years ago (yearinthelife.bucknell.edu), the response has been overwhelmingly positive. Although it is a marketing tactic, "it's not some watered-down version that is fixed or changed by admissions. We do our best not to apply a marketing admissions theme to the students' stories. But the students are up on Bucknell, so they are going to be good promoters."

There's certainly nothing new about student blogs - there are millions of them floating in cyberspace. What separates these online journals from the rest of the pack is that they are university sponsored and featured prominently on a school's admissions pages. These journals are photo heavy and focus on a few events every few weeks. But one has to ask - how real are these journals? And are they simply mouthpieces for the school?

"A kid who is going to see this diary is going to approach it with a healthy skepticism," says Paul Marthers, dean of admissions at Reed College in Portland, Ore., who is still weighing the pros and cons of a school-sponsored online journal. Some of the difficulties, says Mr. Marthers, are choosing the right people to represent the school, deciding whether or not the diaries are a passing fad, and whether prospective students are going to assume freshmen were "coached" on what to write.

Some writers, in fact, do tend to play the role of cheerleader for their school. But these are the types of students administrators want writing for their sites, not someone disengaged in campus life. Many belong to sororities or fraternities and participate in other activities such as band, sports, and various clubs, and are upbeat about their schools.

Surprisingly, these active students have carte blanche. Their journals are posted unedited and the schools leave it up to the students to write responsibly and to post appropriate photos.

"We're taking a little bit of a risk - a big risk - because we're giving them that flexibility," says Greg Carroll, vice president of marketing and public relations at Furman in Greenville, S.C. "One of the most effective things we'll tell them is, 'Just remember that your mom is reading this, your friends, your relatives.' We could shut the thing down if we had to," he says, but it has never reached that point.

Most of the journals seem fairly routine. Students describe packing up the car, together with the parents and heading to college for the first time, and how there aren't enough hours in the day to finish assignments and participate in activities. Occasionally, however, students don't paint a rosy picture, and this is where it becomes more interesting. In Amber's recent journal entry, she whined about multiple parking tickets. She complained that because her parking registration wasn't sent in early enough to park in the South Housing Parking lot, she never has anywhere to park her Isuzu Rodeo. She also complains that foreign-language requirements are taking too much of her time.

"I haven't heard from any administrators, which I'm kind of sad about," says Amber of her parking dilemma. "I thought, 'Maybe they'll let me park closer.' It hasn't worked for me."

Because these journals are posted unedited, offensive language could be a concern, but it's posed only a few problems over the years. A couple of years ago, one of Bucknell's female diarists posted a picture of a male student wearing a bra. "You'd sit back and say, 'Is this appropriate?' " says Shaynak. But since this reflects dorm life, he says, "we left it up and allowed it to remain up." And sometimes, a student's writing is too stiff, so Shaynak steps in and asks for livelier fare.

Some journals are more structured than others. For instance, Furman students can write about whatever they want - weekend getaways, parties, dorm life. At Bucknell, administrators pick specific topics, such as life inside the classroom and making the most of campus activities, for the students.

About four "issues" come out each semester. Freshman Brittany Vogt from Jonesborough, Tenn., says before she arrived at Bucknell, the diaries definitely piqued her interest. "It's what got me to come here - seeing what campus life was like."

And when schools feature students from other countries, it might even boost interest from outside the US. A few years ago, Furman featured a writer from Jamaica and since then, applications from Jamaica have been steadily rising.

"He wrote a whole thing about how if you looked really forlorn and you sat around the kitchen in the women's dorm, they would cook for you," says Carroll with a laugh. "He had photos of all these women cooking him food. His perspective is interesting because this is not Jamaica. Sixty degrees for him is cold."

Although the journals are geared toward prospective students, it's sometimes the parents who read them regularly.

"My mom started reading the journals, and then she told me about them. I would read them when I could, but she would print them out and lay them on my bed," says Amber. "It was one of the major deciding factors for me to come to Furman. I identified with Katie's journal, and she just made it sound so fun and they did a lot of different things. It connected me to a place."

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