As online tutors, we love stories of students using social media to enhance their educational experiences. When we heard about a UCLA student who became online-famous in his community for helping others through Facebook, we tracked him down and learned what all the hype was about.
If you check out the class page for any university, you’re likely to find thousands of freshmen asking between-the-line questions that aren’t really answered in the orientation packets they get in the mail: What’s the best chemistry class to take if you’re not in pre-med? Are local air conditioning units allowed in dorms? What Greek organization should I rush?
Students post these questions in the hope that a stranger out in cyberspace has some insight. At UCLA, one senior has taken the concept to a new level.
Winn Hyunh is the fourth-year chemistry student behind the “PenQuin” Facebook account, which has gained meme-like popularity in the Bruins community. He recently received the Chancellor’s Service Award, which honors graduating students who have made unique and significant contributions.
Behind the generic profile picture of a penguin, Winn has made it his mission to equip students with his experiences with financial aid, enrollment, housing, textbooks, orientation and job searching. He conducts research and responds within the hour to hundreds of incoming questions.
We chatted with Winn about the challenges behind being a first-generation college student, making friends at school, and the distracting effects of the internet.
If you could change one thing about your freshman year, what would it be?
If I could change one thing, it would be to develop closer friendships. I made a ton of friends during college, but I think I could have done a better job getting to know my friends.
What’s it like being a first-generation college student?
It has its perks in that you have a supportive network in school and more opportunities for scholarships. However, being first-generation also has its drawbacks in that you have to discover a lot about school yourself (i.e. how to apply to college, what Greek life is, how to apply to scholarships) on your own or to seek mentors that can help you throughout the process.
This article said that you think your biggest accomplishment has been helping students via Facebook. How was that different than your “in-person” service? Did the school know about this?
When helping students online, they were mainly messages or posts onto Facebook, so responses were very timely, and the help was much more broad. I would compare this somewhat to being Google, but at the same time, some questions have opinionated answers, so genuine responses would be more unique. No, my school did not know about this.
Do you think Facebook made it easier for students to approach you with questions? Do you think it made it easier for you to communicate?
Yes. There is more anonymynity online because of private messages. Some incoming students may not want to give a “lost” impression to other students, but at the end of the day, whether posting onto Facebook or sending a message, students will still get the answer. I think Facebook did make it easier to communicate with students, though.
How did you fit answering questions into your daily schedule?
I would answer questions between classes or during my break while working. I also spend time on Facebook chatting with friends, so it just slipped right into my schedule. During the year when I have breaks or gaps between classes, I’d still be on my phone, so it wasn’t too hard to work in.
How important is it to have extracurriculars as part of your schedule? How have they impacted your life?
Extracurriculars were essential to my schedule. They not only prevented me from becoming lazy but also gave me invaluable insight into how others may perceive or experience the world, how everyone is a unique leader on a team and taught me how to better understand identity.
Has any student come to you with a personal issue other than a general question?
Yes. (Not sure how to answer this; best to keep anonymous.) At the end of the day, though, reminding them that there are many resources on campus and in the community helps a lot.
Do you plan to continue to help incoming freshmen even after graduating?
If time permits, yes. I cannot say yet, though, since I don’t have unlimited access to Internet while abroad Asia, and the times that I’m awake, the other side of the globe is asleep.
What are your plans after graduation?
Going to graduate school to one day become a professor.
What do you think will be the future of education and technology?
I think the two have synergy if used right and dissonance if used wrong. Technology enhances education by making abstract concepts easier to visualize, encouraging collabration through communication and providing an avenue for anonymous feedback.
However, technology may also serve as a detriment by serving as a distraction for students, making online resources more valuable than teachers in the eyes of students and helping students find shortcuts to unattractive assignments. While technology has a largely untapped potential to enhance education, its detrimental side affects should also be recognized. With power comes responsibility, and this is no different for technology and education.