Last week, the Instagram account @utscstudentexperience, run by the UTSC Office of Student Experience & Wellbeing, posted a unique video: “Hey everyone, it’s Lindsay Lohan. All UTSC students of Toronto, Canada, I wanted to let you know that you will be welcomed back to school in January [and] your hard work has been recognized.”
The video, purchased through the personalized video website Cameo, was part of the office’s efforts to welcome students back for the winter semester with celebrity shoutouts. All the videos — including ones from actors Anthony Anderson, Gina Torres, and James Pickens Jr. — featured messages of encouragement to students.
The Varsity spoke with the Office of Student Experience & Wellbeing’s Rebekkah Nighswander, First Year Programs Coordinator, and Delicia Ansalem, Communications and Marketing Officer, to discuss the project.
Initial idea and planning
Although UTSC students first saw the celebrity messages in mid-January, Nighswander and Ansalem told The Varsity that their team has been working on the initiative since the end of the fall semester. “We were thinking a lot about how [we were] going to welcome students back,” Nighswander recalled. “We were thinking about… how [we could] create programming that isn’t something you necessarily have to show up for but that we could share on social media and share with our students.”
A group of work-study students were the first to suggest the idea. Nighswander also said that the students had a great deal of influence on choosing which celebrities would give the shoutouts.
“The work-study team looked through [the catalog of celebrities], and everybody got to identify their top five [choices]. We tried to take, maybe, everybody’s top one,” Nighswander added. She and Ansalem also weighed which celebrities might resonate with students the most: “Our hope… was that with having familiar [people], and maybe people that you look up to, that would be a motivator.”
Reaching out and logistics
Cameo allows users to request video messages from celebrities who post listings on the site, with prices ranging from $5 USD to $3,000 USD. The cost for a 15-second video from Lohan is listed at $400 USD. For Torres, it’s $100 USD, for Anderson $150 USD, and for Pickens Jr. $250 USD.
“[Cost] was a factor for us,” Nighwander said. “We tried to find a balance of celebrities who were within a particular price point, but then also [ones] that students would connect with.”
Cameo users also provide a general idea of what they want the message to say. “The instructions that we gave to the celebrities were: ‘How do we help students feel motivated for the semester? Can you speak to studying this semester, and can you congratulate them on… the hard work and resiliency it takes to get through all of the world events that are happening right now?’ ”
In response, they received a variety of personalized messages. “The important thing is that the good people at UTSC wanted me to let you know that they appreciate all the hard work that you guys have been doing,” said Torres in her video.
“I want to send you some positive vibes for a great winter session,” said Anderson. “Here’s to you all acing all of your classes and all of your finals. Welcome back to class. Now crack open a book and get to studying!”
Feedback from students
Although U of T is a school that both Nighswander and Ansalem would describe as “traditional,” they explained that they had permission to be as creative as they wanted to be when creating the Office of Student Experience & Wellbeing’s marketing strategy. They also mentioned that the feedback they’ve received thus far has been extremely positive, noting that they’ve gotten both thank you messages and messages requesting a copy of the shoutouts.
“It was really heartwarming to see that feedback because it is a tough time, and we want students to feel motivated again,” said Ansalem. “Our theme for this month, or what we normally do for January, is ‘new year, new you,’ so it’s a nice fresh start. A little jumpstart.”
“All of [the feedback] motivates us… to reach out to more students and see what exactly… they expect or… want, especially at this time,” Ansalem added.“[We’re] watching out for the student experience online, virtually, as well as their overall well-being throughout the semester. It definitely motivates us to push our priorities with those two factors a bit more.”