During my last summer before becoming a university student, I did all of the things that I was expected and encouraged to do as a prospective student: go on virtual tours, attend events, register for my courses and register for Jump Start. However, I struggled to picture myself at UBC: who would my roommate be?Where would I spend long hours studying? What would my new life look like?
After I got accepted into UBC and started familiarizing myself with the campus, I found videos of other engineering students who could show me by bringing their cameras everywhere they go.
They build personal connections with their audience, whether it’s through a room tour, crying about a failed exam or reflecting on their unique experiences and lessons learned during first year. They give advice (or some say “universi-tea”) that isn’t publicized in student brochures.
But who are the people behind the content, and what does vlogging reveal about the changing way students engage with their academic communities?
Rise of the study vlogger
Vlogging, a portmanteau of “video” and “blog”, is first traced to videographer John Nelson Sullivan, whose documentations of downtown New York in the 1980s inspired the medium. Vlogging has exploded in popularity in recent years.
Many study vloggers have gained traction from students looking for inspiration on how to improve their study habits, make their school life look more aesthetic or find a better work-life balance.
During exam season, Anna Shrestha, a third-year political science major minoring in economics, finds that vlogging her study sessions makes her more productive.
“Vlogging during finals and midterm season definitely helps me too because if I'm recording, then I have to tell [the viewers] that I'm working,” said Shrestha.
Studies also suggest that vlogging can help students with their public speaking and communication skills, especially for English language acquisition.
“A lot of my friends say that I can get myself out of any situation by talking,” said Shrestha. Vlogging is a clear vehicle for those skills, and it helped her build them.
While vlogging can turn into a lucrative opportunity for sponsorships, many study vloggers aren't incentivized by money.
Isa, a third-year sociology student, uses vlogging to stay connected to distant family. Isa's last name has been omitted to maintain her privacy.
“Sponsorships are great but [vlogging] is more of a personal thing,” said Isa. “My mom always tells me that my cousins and my grandma in the Philippines watch my videos. It gives them a sense of reassurance because you're going to be worried about sending your kid out into the great big unknown.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, vloggers redefined the medium around their new social isolation. Isa used vlogging as a coping mechanism that allowed her to escape her loneliness as a remote student to join a virtual yet lively academic community.
”During the pandemic, I was lonely because everyone was at home and then the study vloggers filled that void for me,” said Isa. “I was somewhat living vicariously through them and enjoyed seeing that people can make something out of the situation that we had.”
Although vlogging may seem like a performance of self for an audience, vloggers also expressed that it helps them to look inward and remain grounded.
“I think the most rewarding thing about vlogging is that it forces you to be in the moment and look for something that you can capture on camera and being able to have these video diaries for yourself.”
Vlogging builds support networks
The medium can also represent marginalized and underrepresented communities in academia, and help members of those communities to find each other.
Hannah Meaney, a third-year biomedical engineering student and a co-head of mentorship for the UBC Biomedical Engineering Student Team (BEST), initially struggled as a woman in a male-dominated STEM field. Vlogging helped her find women in the same program and befriend them.
Vlogging can create support networks, which can be vital to advanced and prospective students alike to navigate bureaucracy and obstacles at UBC.
Catrina Callow, a second-year biomedical engineering student who vlogs with UBC Engineering Stories (a channel catered towards UBC engineering students), hopes their videos can assist engineering students with transitioning from high school to university.
“It makes me so happy that we're able to help people because you don't get tons of time to decide what university you want to choose and what program, but then when there are current students that can give that help, it's really rewarding,” said Callow.
However, vlogging also comes with the responsibilities of being a public figure. Although vloggers are often open to providing insight about their experiences, they can feel overwhelmed by questions which can force them into the role of an unsalaried and underqualified academic counsellor.
”There are instances where people who watch my videos email me asking for advice and information about applying to UBC but I don’t know everything so that part can be challenging,” said Maddy Huehn, a third-year nutritional sciences major and study vlogger.
'You're always working': Challenges and pressure of vlogging
Some vloggers have been called out for unrealistic and stress-inducing videos that emphasize hyper-productive or aesthetic lifestyles that most university students don't relate to.
“I wanted to show a realistic college life,” said third-year environmental science student Chad Hennig. “There are so many [vlogs] that are so questionable. Do some of these people really study every single day? There are some people with amazing grades but claim they go partying every single night. I don’t believe that.”
In an often-toxic hustle culture bent on monetizing hobbies, vlogging can quickly become an informal job once the views start pouring in.
Isa, whose channel has over 19,000 subscribers, often questions whether she should care about the analytics and marketing aspects of being a vlogger when originally it was a personal hobby to keep her family updated on her life.
“Do I want this to be a hobby? Should I care more about growing my channel?” said Isa. “It's a lot of rose-tinted content, [but] you're always working.”
Some vloggers struggle with being fully authentic as they do not want to reveal too many personal details about their life. There can be tension between the public image that vloggers present vs. the insecurities that they choose to conceal.
While Isa portrays a realistic lifestyle in university and opens up about her struggles as a university student in her vlogs, she often ponders how much of her personal life can she keep to herself while setting realistic standards with her content.
“How do I keep to myself, while at the same time, how can I portray a more genuine university experience by the time everyone at university is miserable?” said Isa.
Vlogging can also be time-consuming. It’s not hard to pick up a camera and start recording, but editing can take hours to add polishing touches to the video. There can be significant pressure to upload consistently.
Callow views her vlogs not only as an outward-facing way to build community, but as a form of reflection on her personal growth and development.
”I know some people keep journals or they'll take photos, but I have videos of my days at university that I'll always have the chance to revisit to see the growth through my university experience,” said Callow.
Vlogging can feel unnatural for many of us who prefer not to talk to a camera, but those awkward moments can be enjoyable to look back on as a form of self-reflection. Some even consider the medium as a part of their development.
”[My early vlogs are] embarrassing as hell but I love looking back at my growth as a person,” said Shrestha.
A previous version of this story used Isa's full name. The article has been updated as per The Ubyssey's Anonymity Policy upon request to maintain her privacy. This article was updated on June 11, 2022 at 1:34 p.m. to reflect this change.