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How Vlog University teaches Pittsburgh teens the power of social media, videos and more

vlog university
Stephanie Hacke
August04/ 2018

Manadaze Townsend knows what it’s like to struggle. The 16-year-old once lived in a crowded house of nine people and he remembers days when there wasn’t enough food to go around. He found he had a choice between giving in to his situation or rising above it.

“It’s about overcoming adversity,” says Manadaze, a Perry High School junior who had a hard time talking about those difficulties.

A three-week digital camp, Vlog University, coordinated by Never Fear Being Different, helped Manadaze find his voice through video production and social media. By sharing his video on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, he hopes to inspire others to realize that they, too, can overcome bad situations.

vlog university
These VlogU graduates will be positioned to help traditional economies and businesses understand social media and how to effectively utilize social media platforms to grow their businesses and open new markets. Photo by Ray Carrington.

This summer’s VlogU, funded by The Buhl Foundation and Remake Learning, taught 15 Pittsburgh high school kids how to create social media content, engage audiences and become effective online influencers. The focus of the camp is to shape emerging youth leaders and students into more effective users of social media platforms and innovative digital resources.

“It wasn’t just technical skills,” says Jordon Rooney, founder of Never Fear Being Different, who has 160,000 social media followers. “They’re understanding how things work and, from there, they’re learning how to build their own platforms.”

Rooney created Vlog University after seeing how big of an impact positive social media can have on the world.

“The goal is to take an issue, bring attention to it, make it shareable and make people care about it,” says Rooney, whose videos have received more than 20 million views.

Vlog University has three main components: digital information literacy, effective online leadership and career development. The kids learned how to use cameras and create videos. They created talk shows and made videos about their lives. With some help, they even created a marketing campaign that included three videos for Moop Shop, a Pittsburgh handbag store.

“This program is amazing. More students should get the chance to learn what we did,” says Kumari Kharel, 15, a sophomore at Baldwin High School.

“It’s going to help us in life,” Kumari says. “We learned how you can make money by doing some of these things.”

And that’s part of the idea behind VlogU: To help kids see they can use social media skills to be cultural influencers among their peers and even work toward marketing careers that require these kinds of skills.

“Being young is an advantage,” Rooney says. “Social media about is about having a big personality. It’s about thinking of creative ways to bring attention to something.”

vlog university
Vlog University kids screened their finished videos to the public. Photo by Ray Carrington.

Another VlogU student, Moses Bernard, 16, created a video about his struggles growing up in Northview Heights, where he witnessed violence and gunshots. But he also saw successful people come from his neighborhood.

He hopes his video will unite people in Pittsburgh, no matter where they live.

“I learned to not only tell someone my story and my problem,” Moses says, “but also to add a solution to it.”

You can view the videos soon on Instagram.

Stephanie Hacke

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