State of the Arts: Through the looking glass

By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Staff Writer

Yousra Hussain (C’22) did not have the chance to tour colleges in the U.S. prior to making her decision. An international student from Bangladesh, Hussain was not financially equipped to take a flight from Dhaka to the States or to visit colleges to see where she could see herself spending the next four years of her life. Instead, she scoured the internet, and stumbled upon the University of the South’s social media pages.

“My decision [to come to Sewanee] was mostly centered on what I garnered from the official Sewanee Facebook and Instagram,” she said. “Colorful trees, unimaginably beautiful sunsets, gowns for academic honor, and a Gothic campus almost distracted me from the reviews I read about Sewanee.”

The pervasive drinking culture, Sewanee as a predominantly white institution (PWI), and the general lack of international student support are a few of the concerns that Hussain voices that are, understandably, not reflected on the University’s social media pages. While she felt represented through the highlighted stories of students of color on social media, she was a little shocked to find that the reality did not match the presentation. 

On the other hand, Lakeisha Phillips (C’22) did not follow Sewanee’s social media until she made her decision. It was a visit and Perspective Sewanee that convinced her that the Mountain was the right place for her. As a current student, however, she engages with the University social media, even conducting an Instagram takeover for the Admissions office recently. 

“It was really fun because I got to show a lot of different things that I don’t get to show on tour, like what I do before practice and what my room looks like,” said Phillips, also a tour guide for the Admissions office. “It’s showing people the different aspects of campus that they don’t usually see on tours.”

Phillips, like Hussain, recognizes that Sewanee has a “look.” Among the many photographs that are posted on social media, Sewanee sunsets, campus beauty, and students in gowns are the three main aspects that are most prominent. 

Many, if not all, of these photographs are the work of one man: Buck Butler (C’89). Currently serving as the editor of the Sewanee magazine, Butler takes most of the photographs for the University. These photos are often featured in promotional materials, such as brochures or pamphlets, and find their way online to the website and onto the different social media pages. 

However, it did not start out this way. Butler is not a trained photographer. Despite always having had an interest in photography, he did not start taking the craft seriously until his daughters, Isabel Butler (C’20) and Kate Butler (C’23), were born. He invested in camera equipment and learned more about photography because he wanted to take good pictures of his children.

“That’s where it started,” he said. “I never really did much except for family stuff, but I started acquiring skills and information.”

When he took up his current post in 2007, Sewanee did not have a photographer. A freelancer took most of the photos for the University, but Butler soon realized that there was a need for more. 

So he started to meet that need. Today, with over 22,000 likes on the Facebook page and with approximately 11,700 followers on Instagram, Butler carefully balances the needs of the different audiences that social media pages cater to, including prospective students, alumni, current students, faculty, staff, and community members.

On Facebook, particularly early on, the audience was, and is, primarily alumni. 

“[Alumni] really respond to things that connect them to their own experience of Sewanee,” said Butler. “They like news, but what they feel most strongly about is their own experience and what it meant to them.”

Butler cites a recent example of a post that appeared on both Facebook and Instagram: that of Boo Shackelford, a dog belonging to Director of Tennis John Shackelford, waiting patiently on the porch of Fulford Hall. 

“A lot of people have very fond memories of Sewanee dogs, especially back in the 70s and 80s when there were faculty dogs that roamed campus without leashes,” he explained. “People remember dogs being in the classroom or in the chapel, knowing certain dogs on campus, outside the dining hall, so having a dog in a Sewanee setting speaks to people about their own Sewanee experience.”

Something else that connects people to their Sewanee experience, as both Hussain and Phillips have noted, is the natural and architectural beauty of the campus. As a result, according to Butler, “pictures of campus beauty always do very well,” in terms of likes, comments, and shares. Overlooks, particularly snowy or foggy weather, the University Farm, and Sewanee traditions such as gownings, Convocations, academic processions, and tapping the roof, all promote audience engagement. 

The prominence of these photographs on social media, especially on Facebook, is a result of a technological technicality. Facebook’s algorithm, for instance, stops sharing posts that garner fewer likes. 

“If our goal is to engage people, whether it’s alumni or current students or prospective students, we have to get the content to them,” explained Butler. “We have to show them content they like.”

The line between what constitutes a successful social media page and reflection of the true goings-on at a university like Sewanee is, perhaps, a difficult line to tread. Downstairs at Fulford Hall, Allison Bruce (C’19) strives to walk that line as best as she can. 

A recent graduate of the college, Bruce worked as a summer intern in the Office of Admissions and now is the Assistant Visit Coordinator. She also runs the Instagram page for Admissions.

“The way I view social media, it’s a very intimate connection with a person who is looking at the feed and the University,” she said. “It gives off the impression that it’s no filter, that it’s really what we’re all about.”

Bruce did not have an Instagram page of her own until her sophomore year at Sewanee. When she was applying to colleges, she – like Phillips – did not rely on social media to give her insight into a school unless she was trying to see what the residential halls looked like. Now, since social media has become “a big focal point,” Bruce finds herself thinking creatively about the content that the office is generating to make Sewanee more accessible. This is one of the reasons she loves the student Instagram takeovers.

“[The students] can really be themselves and be silly and show Sewanee in a way that’s organic and feels tangible,” she said. “It’s not this abstract idea of a college. It’s something you can see on your phone and you can have a connection with. That’s been my thinking about our presence on Instagram, that the University can be accessible in somebody’s back pocket.” 

Tim Neil (C’13), the associate director of admission and the international enrollment coordinator, is acutely aware of the importance of this accessibility to international students in particular. For students halfway across the globe, Neil understands the need to post as many videos and photos as possible, but is also aware that for students from China, all of the mainstream applications –– Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter –– are blocked. So he shows them Sewanee through the apps that they do have access to, primarily WeChat and WhatsApp. 

Having recently returned from a trip to South America, he has advised the students he has met on the road to search for Sewanee’s social media pages because they are the best way to see what Sewanee is truly like. 

“I think the common misconception is that you’re going to be bored at Sewanee,” he said. “There are certainly some challenges with adjusting to this place, but this is a relationship-oriented place. If we can connect a prospective student to someone who is like them, we might give them an opportunity to get them to say, I might give Sewanee a closer look, and dive in deeper.”

Social media plays a large role in what we see and what we consume. Although the University Instagram now showcases different events and different student organizations on campus through their Stories, students like Hussain, living in a number of Southeast Asian countries, in a different time zone, may not see those stories. 

Hussain acknowledges that there are many other factors that played into her final decision to come to Sewanee, such as financial aid and college ranking. However, it was the University’s social media that made her consider Sewanee in the first place. To find the reality of her experience a little wanting speaks to the messages we send through social media, but more so to the issues embedded within the institution and the community. 

Perhaps the answer lies not in highlighting existing and prominent problems on campus, but in tackling those problems head on. 

When asked whether she still would have decided to come to Sewanee if a truer version of the University and its environment was reflected in its social media, Hussain gave a telling answer. 

“Honestly? I don’t know.”