Graduates’ blog welcomes students

By Lisa Schulz

Fourteen current Columbia graduate students are opening doors for new students by sharing their words, vibrant photos and videos of personal experiences through Marginalia, a blog that speaks for 487 other grad students.

Marginalia—which is defined as the stray notes scribbled in the margin of a paper—began in September 2011 to convey the Columbia experience to prospective students. Each representative of a graduate program tells stories once per week with topics ranging from Columbia events and personal works, to advice for any student.

“It’s putting a face to a department,” said Michael St. John, third-year graduate student and blogger for the Interdisciplinary Arts and Media Department. “Normally, when you’re applying either grad or undergrad, you’re pretty intimidated about starting something new.”

The 14 candidates applied for the paid blogging positions and were required to compose short essays, a sample blog post and topic ideas.

Next year, new bloggers will be chosen to keep the experience fresh, said Cate Lagueux, director of the Graduate Admissions Office.

Before the blog, which has had approximately 6,000 hits in three months, Lagueux would write about Graduate Open House and other important aspects to incoming graduate students. In an effort to relay a better understanding of the graduate program, Lagueux said she found that opinions from current students were the best way to convey the understated graduate experience.

“One student talking to another student is going to be taken more seriously than somebody from the Admissions Office,” Lagueux said. “I could tell you all day why the Open House is awesome, and you would go, ‘Right, that’s your job.’”

Graduate Preview Day is basically a shortened open house for new students to ask questions and speak with a panel of current students regarding their experiences, Lagueux said.

St. John said Marginalia, which is the first blog he’s written for, is by nature “off-the-cuff and very casual posting.” Each ambassador has his or her own style of writing, he said. He described his own style as “structured and strait-laced.”

Some bloggers have let off steam in their posts, which show students that the program also involves hard work, Lagueux said. However, professionalism is an important aspect in any blog, St. John said.

“If it comes from a place of commentary or critique on what you’re ranting about, I think there’s merit to that,” he said. “But if you’re spewing at the mouth for no apparent reason, do you really want to hear that?”

Creating a name as a blogger is also important, according to St. John, who is a teaching assistant for Storytelling and Aesthetics and Production I and II courses. He writes about himself and his own work to show his readers that he’s “not just an anonymous blogger,” he said.

“I take pride and utmost concern about having awesome photos to go with any type of writing,” St. John said. “We’re visual people. Especially for a blog, if there are boring pictures, you’re not going to want to read about it.”

Classmates of the bloggers are also able to collaborate and submit multimedia for the blog, St. John said. Social media outlets like Facebook help spread the word to the small graduate student population, in comparison to undergraduates, he said.

Even with multimedia, content is most important, said Jenn Tatum-Cotamagana, blogger for the Creative Writing and Nonfiction programs in the English Department.

“Your writing has to be concise, and a personality has to come through,” said Tatum-Cotamagana, who is also a second-year graduate student and professor of Writing and Rhetoric. “There’s going to be some thread, something that keeps people coming back in the writing.”

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