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Duke campaigns aim to empower students via social media

Students are increasingly using social media to advance messages of self-empowerment on campus.

Recently, campus campaigns to empower students’ sense of self and address campus issues have become more prevalent. Efforts such as #DukeEncourage, Duke Compliments, the Eating Disorder Awareness Campaign and others are increasingly mobilizing through social media and may suggest a greater willingness of students to speak openly about controversial issues.

Empowering campaigns make students feel like they belong to the greater Duke community and can help hold people accountable for their actions, said senior Michael Habashi, chair of the Honor Council.

“It is important to expand community so that we are all a part of it regardless of friend groups and social settings,” Habashi said. “That empowers each of us to keep others accountable.”

One ongoing community-wide campaign is #DukeEncourage, an effort sponsored by the Honor Council to strengthen individuals’ sense of worth through posting inspirational messages in public places and hosting open dialogues in the Marketplace every Monday since Jan. 28. DukeEncourage messages have appeared on the wooden barrier erected on Bryan Center Plaza during its renovations and on post-it notes around campus.

Campaigns that target the entire campus by being accessible and visible through means such as posters and social media help create accountability, Habashi said, by providing a means through which casual acquaintances or even strangers can challenge questionable student behavior without overstepping social boundaries. The random conversations that dominate the freshman experience during Orientation Week end within the first few weeks of school as it becomes less acceptable to reach out to strangers, Habashi added. In some cases, becoming overly complacent within long-standing friendships can make it more difficult to have honest and critical conversations when necessary.

“If someone is in your friend group to tell you that it’s not a good idea to have your 14-year-old brother in a port-a-potty, that it’s probably not a good idea to portray Asians a certain way, that it’s probably not a good idea to call a party something, then you won’t do it,” Habashi said.

DukeEncourage is one of several efforts tapping into social media to convey its message. Student interest in social media outlets like Facebook and Twitter make them particularly useful tools for spreading awareness, Habashi noted.

Though some projects are homegrown Duke efforts, social media has made it very easy to adapt beneficial things happening on other campuses to Duke. Duke Compliments and DukeConfess, two popular Facebook forums that allow people to anonymously compliment other students and share secrets, are based on initiatives at other universities. The Facebook pages have 1,682 friends and 1,218 friends respectively.

Sophomore Taylor Turkeltaub turned to more traditional media—such as photographic exhibition and in-person discussions—to raise awareness during the National Eating Disorder Awareness Week in late February. She said that addressing problems publicly is the only way to solve them, but that most similar campaigns trivialized eating disorders as just body image and self-esteem issues without addressing their psychological and societal roots.

Though attendance at events during the week was not always high, Turkeltaub said she was optimistic about the impact on campus awareness and support for the initiative. Since that week, many people have expressed interest in participating in the future.

Turkeltaub also said that previous experience working with and witnessing projects at the Women’s Center helped her with her efforts this year. Due to her involvement, she was able to identify where there was more room to inform students about eating disorders and then formulate a vision for how Eating Disorder Awareness Week could be tailored to this campus.

As a result of the succession of empowering campaigns, the traditional Duke attitude of effortless perfection is now beginning to be replaced by a more authentic approach to navigating college, said Gary Glass, assistant director for outreach and developmental programming at Counseling and Psychological Services.

“What we’ve seen is that students are being more critical in responding to this myth of effortless perfection and really striving towards a more real attitude towards struggle,” Glass said. “It’s a great trend.”

Though students have been the primary actors in these movements, Glass said that efforts by staff and faculty to create good relationships with student leaders and redefine leadership at Duke have helped encourage students to be more thoughtful about campus life. The Hart Leadership program in the Sanford School of Public Policy, for instance, focuses on developing leadership in public life and has helped contribute to some campus movements. Common Ground, one initiative created through the program, is currently in its 10th year and continues to offer an immersive retreat centered on diversity and human relations.

Students are more willing to speak up and reach out for help now than in past years, Glass said. For instance, CAPS has received an increased number of requests to collaborate with student organizations such as advising group Peer for You and suicide-prevention program To Write Love on Her Arms.

“People in my position have just invited students to look more closely and I think the natural intelligence of Duke students has really started to [help them] overcome their fears of being these image-centered beings.” Glass said.

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