VCU, Iraqi students boost social media for nonprofits

VCU, Iraqi students boost social media for nonprofits

Ali Al Yousif, a medical student from Basra, Iraq, is part of a team of young Iraqis and Virginia Commonwealth University students working to improve the social media strategy of Goodwill Industries of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia.

"They do very, very good work," Al Yousif said. "They have a Community Employment Center. They [offer] courses and develop skills for people to give them a career so they can work. But they are mostly viewed as [just] thrift stores. So we're trying to change that image through social media – Twitter, Instagram, Facebook."

Al Yousif is one of 23 young Iraqis and 19 VCU students who are taking part in VCU's fifth annual Social Media Institute, a four-week summer course in which teams of Iraqi and VCU students develop social media strategies on behalf of 10 nonprofit organizations.

Along with Goodwill, the teams are working on behalf of William Byrd Community House, Nature Iraq, the Conclave on Social Media Measurement Standards, Ronald McDonald House Charities of Richmond, Virginia Union University, the Virginia Holocaust Museum, James River Writers, the League of Women Voters-Richmond Metropolitan Area and VCU's Department of Music.

Roshna Abdulrahman of Irbil talks with Social Media Institute co-director and associate professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., after class.
Roshna Abdulrahman of Irbil talks with Social Media Institute co-director and associate professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., after class.

"We are developing social media campaign strategies for our 10 clients, depending on what they need," said Social Media Institute co-director Marcus Messner, Ph.D., an associate professor at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences. "We're not doing a cookie cutter campaign where everything's the same. The students have to really listen to their clients to find out what they need and what is possible and what is sustainable."

The Iraqi students were selected as part of the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program, which is sponsored by the U.S. government and administered by Meridian International Center. The program selects 125 promising young Iraqis each year to take part in four weeks of leadership training and classroom instruction at five universities in the United States. VCU's Social Media Institute is co-sponsored by the Robertson School and the Global Education Office.

At VCU, the Iraqi students learn social media skills, while other universities focus on themes such as leadership, law and social justice; entrepreneurship and community development; public policy; and food systems and security.

"Throughout all of our institutes, we do our best to instill leadership skills that they can carry back with them in whatever field they're pursuing," said Erin Koepke, program officer with Meridian.

The program's long-term goal is to improve U.S. and Iraqi relations by supporting the future leaders of Iraq.

"It's building the blocks of a healthy strong relationship between the U.S. and Iraq," Koepke said.

Mikaela Rice, a junior creative advertising student at VCU, is part of the team working with the William Byrd Community House – which provides educational, developmental and nutritional programs to children in Richmond – as well as the organization's William Byrd House Market, a farmer's market held Tuesdays at the intersection of Idlewood Avenue and South Linden Street.

"Basically their whole thing is they help low-income families with early childhood education," Rice said. "The market is focused on making low-income families get healthy meals and fresh produce from local farmers. We're putting together a social media plan for them that will solidify their presence and give them a plan to better engage their audience."

Rice said it has been a "wonderful experience" to take a class alongside the Iraqi students.

"I didn't know entirely what to expect, but it's been amazing how quickly we've all become friends," she said. "It's just been a great experience to see and actually interact with them in a way that's not filtered."

Ibrahim Abdulkhaleq, a medical student from the southern Iraqi city of Amarah, decided to apply to the Iraqi Young Leaders Exchange Program because he wanted to learn more about the U.S., and to learn how better to use social media to influence people.

"I have a charity with my friends. We have to know how to use social media to influence people, to get people engaged, to get volunteers," he said. "The charity is about fundraising for food, clothing for poor people in Iraq. We go around the city in poor areas, meet people, [find out] what their needs [are] and try to give them what they need."

Abdulkhaleq is part of the team working on a social media strategy for the Ronald McDonald House, which provides housing for families of children receiving medical treatment at Richmond-area hospitals. The charity, he said, has inspired him to possibly bring something similar to Iraq.

"It's given me an idea of what I might do in the future with my charity," he said. "Our hospitals are a little bit crowded because families don't have anywhere to stay, so they stay in the hospital. It's crowded and noisy sometimes."

Students from Iraq and Virginia Commonwealth University listen as Social Media Institute co-director and associate professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., delivers a lecture.
Students from Iraq and Virginia Commonwealth University listen as Social Media Institute co-director and associate professor Marcus Messner, Ph.D., delivers a lecture.

When VCU's Social Media Institute started in 2010, the teams focused on bringing the nonprofit clients in the social media age – launching Facebook and Twitter accounts for them, for example. Now, Messner said, the emphasis is on fine-tuning their social media presence.

"Almost everybody is already on Facebook and Twitter now," he said. "So we're trying to optimize their engagement, make it better, increase their audience."

The teams are also placing a heavy emphasis on launching Instagram accounts for the nonprofits this year, as the photo and video-sharing platform is the fastest growing social network and is particularly popular with young people.

"Facebook is really the social network that is becoming kind of uncool," Messner said. "It's still the biggest one, so you can't neglect it. But college students, for example, they're still on Facebook but it's not the platform they're really engaging on. So this year we're focusing on Instagram and Pinterest as well."

Each of the teams has been issued a "social media kit," complete with an iPad air, a tripod and a lavalier microphone. The students have been posting continuously on social media, tagging their posts with the #vcusocialmedia hashtag.

As part of the course, a number of social media experts from Richmond and elsewhere have offered their insights to the class.

Speakers so far have included Jonah Holland, public relations and marketing coordinator at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden; Jeanine Guidry, founder of the nonprofit Arts in the Alley, who discussed Instagram engagement; and Jon Becker, J.D., Ph.D., director of learning innovation and online academic programs at VCU, who discussed online networks.

For Corbin Ayers, a senior strategic advertising student at VCU, the highlight of the course has been the opportunity to get to know the Iraqi students.

It's more than just a class – you get to meet new people from different cultures who have different perspectives on how they live their life and how they were brought up.

"It's more than just a class – you get to meet new people from different cultures who have different perspectives on how they live their life and how they were brought up," he said.

Messner said an important part of the course is to get the VCU students to learn about Iraq beyond its portrayal in the news.

"We also put an emphasis on getting our VCU to view Iraq beyond a 30-second sound bite on the evening news," he said. "So they talk about their culture, present on their cities. Today was a little more tense because we had students presenting on Mosul, which has been taken over by ISIS. So it was a little emotional – for some of them, it's difficult to see what's going on back home."

Vivian Medina-Messner, a VCU journalism instructor and co-director of the Social Media Institute, added that the Iraqi students and VCU students interact on topics large and small.

"The VCU students ask questions about Iraq, the Iraqi students ask questions about American culture. So for VCU students, it allows them – especially for those who don't get a chance to go abroad – it brings that global perspective to the classroom," she said. "But it's not just all about the textbook and working for clients. It's also just trivial things like, 'Oh, wow, you did your eyebrows and your makeup. They look so cool. Do you have any tips?'"

Another key component of the course is that the Iraqi students develop ideas for a service-oriented project to implement back home.

"They're learning about social media and they're learning about leadership – and then the idea is that they'll create a sustainable project where they can make a difference back home," Medina-Messner said.

"The whole idea is to build a community online, but also face-to-face," she added. "And utilizing what they have learned about social media – bring people together, organize events and fundraise – to make a difference. Social media is great, but you have to mobilize people."

Since the institute was launched, it has done work for roughly 50 nonprofit organizations in the Richmond area. This year, for the first time, the students are also working with an Iraq-based nonprofit. The organization, Nature Iraq, an Iraqi nongovernmental organization seeks to protect, restore and preserve Iraq’s natural environment and cultural heritage.

"We are working and developing strategies to reach out the local Iraqi populations and educate them about their natural resources, how to maintain them, how to protect them," Medina-Messner said. "And we're working to help them reach out to an international audience because most of them are from different countries other than Iraq."

Abdulqayum Adnam Mohammed (left) and Ali Adil Abdulhussein are among 23 young Iraqis who are learning about social media and helping nonprofit organizations alongside 19 VCU students in this summer's Social Media Institute at VCU.
Abdulqayum Adnam Mohammed (left) and Ali Adil Abdulhussein are among 23 young Iraqis who are learning about social media and helping nonprofit organizations alongside 19 VCU students in this summer's Social Media Institute at VCU.


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Iraqi student Mohammed Saihood, left, works on his phone next to VCU student Anne Marie Dumain, a senior public relations major.
Iraqi student Mohammed Saihood, left, works on his phone next to VCU student Anne Marie Dumain, a senior public relations major.