I’m sitting in my office with a cup of tea thinking about how many of the academics I work with experience anxiety when it comes to talking about themselves. When I sat down to write this episode, I realized I was having some of that anxiety myself.
Today’s episode of The Social Academic is all about me, Jennifer van Alstyne. But, it almost didn’t get recorded.
I thought talking about myself and why I started my business, The Academic Designer LLC, was something you wouldn’t want to hear. I don’t know why I felt that way. I’m always asked about my origin story when I go on podcasts as a guest. I tell most of my clients how I got started.
I had a lot of hesitancy when it came publishing on The Social Academic about myself.
You probably noticed that most of my content is focused on educational how-to’s about how to have an online presence as a professor. When I went back to my very 1st blog post, called Welcome to The Social Academic, I realized that I don’t share a lot about myself with you.
When I told a friend I was going to record this episode, she said, “I’ve always been curious about you!” Getting that kind of response made me feel warm, and helped me get ready to record my story for you. My friend is probably excited that this episode will finally come out. Thank you for encouraging me!
Have you ever worried about bragging or self promotion? Professors tell me that it brings them anxiety to talk about themselves. They don’t want other people to feel like they’re bragging. They don’t want to come across as narcissistic.
But telling your story, sharing why you do the research you do, will make a difference to the people in your life. And the people who care about your research. The people you want to help most.
It’s been 5 years since I started my business The Academic Designer LLC working with professors to build personal websites and social media so you have a strong online presence you can feel confident about.
5 years into my business, I realize I am personally struggling with the same thing that stops my clients from talking about themselves online.
It’s a great reminder that our feelings about what we share, how we share it, and why change over time. I knew that it was time for me to push past my comfort zone and share this episode, my story, with you.
I’m Jennifer van Alstyne. Welcome to The Social Academic blog, podcast, and YouTube channel. Before we dive into today’s episode please subscribe to The Social Academic. Stick around for the whole episode because I’m going to share about my online presence program for professors where we work together 1:1 to create the digital footprint you need. Get support from me on your personal website, social media, and a new bio that shares who you are with the world.
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Origin story, finding the spark
I remember the moment I had the idea for my business so clearly. I was sitting in my professor’s office at the university, her desk with an old desktop computer and even older books. My bag on the floor was leaning against my leg. My professor and I finished up a meeting about the online course we designed together. I packed up my things, placing the cap back on my pen. I slipped it into my bag and stood to leave.
My professor asked me, “Do you know anyone who would be great for this role? We really want someone who wants to grow and learn for their future career.”
You see, my academic department was hiring a graduate student assistant to do professional writing and communication. They were putting together a team to handle things like the website and social media.
I sat back down. “You want me for this job. I’m perfect.”
I already knew I wasn’t interested in moving on to a PhD, despite all the encouragement of my mentors and peers. This? This role would give me an opportunity to gain valuable skills and experience. But I only had one semester left before I was done. My professor was looking for a person on behalf of the supervisor of this role. And they had discussed someone who could stay on for a year or more.
So I argued for myself. And told her why I was the best. It was the first time I felt so sure I was the right person for a project.
I pitched myself then because I knew I was the best person to help. My professor’s disappointment that I didn’t want to continue in academia didn’t deter me from sticking up for myself. It didn’t lessen the excitement I felt when talking because I knew in that moment I had a path forward perfect for me.
I didn’t know at the time that my business, The Academic Designer LLC would help professors increase their confidence talking about themselves. That I would love empowering academics to build an online presence so they can help more people with their research and teaching. That specificity about my business came later.
It was in my professor’s office that I discovered that spark, and knew that I would own my own business after graduate school.
Thinking back on it, my professor impacted my feelings about working with academics. You see, she didn’t have a strong online presence. The 1st thing that came up when you Googled my professor’s name was her faculty profile. But her faculty profile hadn’t been updated in years! It didn’t reflect her promotion or current research interests.
You may have noticed that your faculty profile on your university website doesn’t really reflect who you are now. Maybe it hasn’t been updated in a while. Oftentimes it’s limited. Many faculty members, just like my professor, weren’t sure what information made the most sense to include on their faculty profile.
Universities often put the responsibility on professors to write their own faculty profiles. Universities don’t offer the kind of support professors need to keep your profile updated as your research and teaching interests change over time. Universities also don’t offer the kind of staff that is needed to support the technical side of updates, actually making those changes on the website. And if your university does provide staff support, they’re likely overworked and might not get to update your faculty profile because of the many responsibilities they have.
Writing a new faculty profile for my professor was the most impactful thing I could do. Before I graduated, my professor had a new faculty profile that reflected who she was and the research and teaching that were important to her.
I knew then that even small changes to your online presence could make a big impact for professors. A new faculty profile can bring you new opportunities.
Imagine what a personal website could do. A space online that you control. Something separate from the university. A website of your own where you can share your research in creative ways. Where you can invite people around the world at any time to explore what you care about.
A couple weeks after graduating with my 2nd master’s degree, I became a small business owner.
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Meet Jennifer van Alstyne
I’ve been interviewing people here on The Social Academic and talking with them about their online presence. It’s fun because we get to talk about their research and also about social media.
Today I’m going to tell you a bit about my experience with social media. I’m going to talk about some of the things I like to ask my guests.
My name is Jennifer van Alstyne. I am a Latina woman. I’m an immigrant. I’m the owner of The Academic Designer LLC.
I’m also a poet. One of my very 1st interview guests here on The Social Academic asked me how poetry impacted my work today, and I said, “It’s so much like social media.” I told him that I love form and constraint, the kind of rules that help you be more creative. That gives you a box to focus your energy.
Social media is the same way for me. Each platform whether it’s Twitter, LinkedIn, or YouTube which I’ve been experimenting more with recently, has its own rules. Its own constraints. I love that!
In grad school, my research focused on representations of nature in poetry. When I think about it now…Looking back, I dedicated a lot of my time studying the writing of old white men. Don’t get me wrong, I loved my research. It just didn’t help people the way I wanted. I knew I couldn’t make the kind of impact I wanted for professors if I stayed in the academy. Especially as a woman of color.
I feel much more aligned with the work I do in my company, The Academic Designer LLC, helping professors around the world share their research online. As a latina woman, I love that I get to work with professors who are making massive impact in their respective fields. And that I get to work with professors at all types of universities whether you’re at an ivy league school or a community college. I’m not limited to any single campus, which means I get to help you too!
There is one story about grad school I want to share with you. I wanted to share it with you because it’s about an award I got, one that made me feel seen. It’s something I’m so proud of. The award was from the grad student association for my academic department. 6 years ago they got together and organized personalized awards for each grad student in the program.
What was my award you ask?
I got the award for Person You Most Want To Stick Up For You In A Meeting.
I love that. That’s so meaningful to me. My graduate student association saw me as someone who will support you, stand up for you, protect you if I am able. It makes me smile, because that’s how I see myself too.
Being named Person You Most Want To Stick Up For You In A Meeting by my fellow grad students is more meaningful to me than academic and research awards. It matters more to me now than my publications. My peers saw me as someone who will stick up for you. Someone you want to stick up for you.
I feel like that’s what I do for my clients when we work together 1:1. I know we can build an amazing online presence for you together.
Actually, this was a good story to share with you because some of that anxiety when it comes to talking about yourself? I experienced that then too. And it stopped me from saying anything on social media.
I should have posted about my award then, because it made me smile.
But I was too anxious to post about myself all the time on social media. I didn’t want to come across as narcissistic. I didn’t want to make anyone feel bad.
I remember writing a post and then feeling like I had to apologize, and be like “Don’t worry – EVERYONE got an award.” Which was true. Yes.
But what mattered was how much being a Person You Most Want To Stick Up For You In A Meeting mattered to me. How warm it made me feel to be seen. To want my voice in support of yours. I counted the posts I shared that semester that might seem like bragging…I decided to delete my post.
Don’t do that. If you’re in academia, celebrate the things you care about. Share what you’ve worked hard for. Don’t hit delete like I did.
Be open to sharing on social media.
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Talking about my past over dinner
Being open to sharing your accomplishments can be easier than being open about your struggles. Or about the things in your life that aren’t so positive. I’ve definitely dealt with that before.
I was sitting in a farm-to-table Italian restaurant in Cold Spring, New York over Thanksgiving with one of my mom’s best friends Barbara and her husband Peter. We spoke about the death of my mom, when I was 13, and her struggle with prescription pill addiction and bi-polar disorder. It had been almost 15 years since I had seen Barbara and Peter.
In that time, my father had died of pneumonia after a long battle with cancer. I had escaped a physically abusive ex-husband. I found myself a young undergraduate student alone in the world struggling to find a reason to live.
Barbara was totally engrossed as I talked about my life over an endive and pomegranate salad. She had questions about what I went through, about how I survived.
She was so curious without judgment, I even told her a dark secret about my mom, Kitty, her close friend. Kitty adopted me from Peru as an infant, told me, “I never should have adopted you. It was a horrible mistake.” Twice. I was 13 when she died.
Barbara leaned in to talk more, but Peter had a solemn look on his face, now well wrinkled in his 80s. He said, “Let’s change the subject. This is the saddest story I’ve ever heard.”
The saddest story he ever heard.
He actually repeated it because Barbara asked, “What?” in surprise. The saddest story he ever heard.
That was a whole new level of seen for me. I’ve heard sadder stories than mine, now. I mean it’s never a competition. But I did often feel like I was carrying around a heavy tapestry of sad. This weight I got used to, that’s become a part of me.
I’m grateful for the therapy that got me to a place where I can talk openly about my past, without overwhelm.
But I don’t want to overwhelm anyone else. It’s probably why I’ve given you a whole lot of sad in just a few sentences. When people ask me why don’t I talk about my past, I often say because it’s too sad. I don’t want to upset people. And that has kept me from opening up with the people I care about.
Yes, there was anxiety about what people would think. Fear of judgment. Fear of what you might say about me.
But that doesn’t change that it happened to me. That it’s my life. And I can’t change it. No amount of “not telling you” will make my sad history disappear.
Not telling you relieves my anxiety. But it doesn’t help me, or you.
What I went through helps me help you better. I’ve had fear about being online. Paralyzing fear. I deleted my social media accounts after leaving a physically abusive marriage. The idea of being seen by the person I feared most kept me awake each night. I was scared to sleep. I jumped every time the phone rang. Eventually, I moved on campus where I could feel safer.
As I began to heal, I started to recognize how small I’d let my world get. I missed the friendships and larger network I’d stopped communicating with. Staying off social media altogether was no longer right for me. So I started a new Facebook account and sent out friend requests one at a time. Baby steps.
I kept being surprised when people connected. I looked deeper into my past, reaching out to childhood friends. Having so many people connect in a short timeframe made me feel good about myself because they were real people that I knew.
I started connecting with my professors, visiting writers, or people I met at events. When I presented at my 1st conference in undergrad, I connected with my fellow panelists. I moved past my fear and allowed myself to be more connected with the world.
Now I help professors build deeper connections with people online in ways that impact their research. I help them feel less isolated in the academy.
Telling my story is powerful. It may help you, or others feel seen too. Even if you judge it. Even if you judge me.
I was adopted by people who regretted adopting me.
I am a survivor of domestic violence.
I am an orphan, who had no family.
Except that I did have family. And social media became so important in connecting with them. That’s what I want to share with you next.
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How social media has impacted my life
Having an online presence has impacted my life in many ways. I’ve been invited to speak, publish, lead workshops. My poetry has been read by more people than I’d ever imagined. My blog The Social Academic has reached you in over 191 countries around the world so far in 2023.
What’s the weirdest thing to happen to me? I was invited to audition for a reality tv show!
But the most impactful thing that has happened to me since taking my social media profiles public was being found.
Both my adoptive parents died before I went to college. It was so easy to fall out of touch with friends when you moved around like I had.
I couldn’t even afford a phone in college. Seriously. I signed up for Google Voice because I felt like I was missing out. Each person who said, “Oh, I would have texted you to meet at the dining hall, I didn’t have your number,” weighed on me.
I often feel like people forget about me. Like if I’m not there talking with you, if we haven’t seen each other in a while, I’ve dropped off the face of the earth. Like I don’t exist to you anymore.
Social media was the easiest solution for me to communicate with my friends. To keep in touch with people so they wouldn’t forget about me. So as a person alone in the world, I could still have connection.
I’m someone who needs to remind myself that “people care more about you than you think.”
It was actually through social media that my birth sister, Patssy reached out to me. I have a sister. One who has been missing me and thinking about me much of her life.
I have lots of siblings: Patssy, Veronica, Andrea, Isabella, and Leonardo.
When my sister Patssy found me, I was scared. I was still in that space of fear, with anxiety about being seen. I remember literally saying, “How did you find me?” And not knowing what to say.
Sometimes Patssy sends me videos on Facebook of her with my nieces. I get to see my little brother Leonardo on Instagram stories. And my sister Andrea and I share a love for singing. I got to hear her perform at a concert at her college in Peru when the video was posted online.
What a gift it was to connect with my family. Imagine if I hadn’t had the strength to build my online presence. Imagine if I hadn’t taken the chance to be public again on social media. My family in Peru might not have found me. The feeling Patssy had, the timing of her search for me. I had moved 11 times across 3 states since I’d been adopted as an infant. But Patssy reached out through social media and found me 27 years later.
Social media has changed my life. I know it can change yours too.
OK so maybe a long lost sister isn’t going to reach out to you from across the world. But more people are going to care about you.
When you’re more open about yourself, you invite people to engage with what you care about too (like your teaching and research).
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Your online presence
Having an online presence can help you connect with people around the world. More people care about you and your research than you think.
Help them by having an online presence that invites them to connect with you. When people Google your name, you want them to find a bit about you. Things like your bio, a photo of you. Can they learn about your research? Do you have a website that helps them explore it further?
I’m here to help you with your online presence. I have lots of free resources on The Social Academic blog to help you get started.
For professors who want more support, I offer done-for-you services like bio writing. Join my Online Presence Program for faculty members ready to build an amazing digital footprint.
I want to help people discover your research and teaching. This is a custom program where we get to work 1:1 to create your online presence together. We’ll talk about your social media, create a custom calendar that works for you. We’ll do your faculty profile, plan your website, and more.
I’m here to help you, so don’t hesitate to reach out at Jennifer@TheAcademicDesigner.com or on social media @HigherEdPR.
If this episode touched you, send me a direct message. Share The Social Academic on social media with your friends. Getting an email or DM from you just makes my day, so I would absolutely love a message. I’d love to hear from you.
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Jennifer van Alstyne is a Peruvian-American poet and communications consultant. She founded The Academic Designer, LLC to help professors, researchers, and graduate students manage their online presence. Jennifer’s goal is to help people share their work with the world.
Check out her personal site at https://jennifervanalstyne
or learn more about the services she offers at https://theacademicdesigner.com