Hands holding smartphones

Social Networking

For some UC Davis students, social media offers a huge audience.

Social media has become a common part of many UC Davis students’ lives, but for some it has become a way to advance their careers, further their studies, build a community or even a career path — all while connecting with millions of people.

With more than 14 million Instagram followers and 3 million Twitter followers, Ph.D. student Gil do Vigor (@GilDoVigor) may have the largest social media following of any Aggie, and he hopes to use his star power to convey his research. He rose to prominence after appearing on the 2021 season of Big Brother Brazil, a reality show where contestants are confined to a house and vote to eliminate one of their peers each week.

He finished in fourth place, and said he could have made much more money from his celebrity status staying in Brazil instead of moving to Davis to study economics (he recalled declining a recent invite to a star-studded party in Germany because it fell during UC Davis’ finals). But he sees value in his research — the impacts of violent drug markets — and hopes to continue to spread awareness on social media and beyond.

“The research, it needs to reach the people,” he said. “I prefer to use my social media to let people know the results that people are finding, and what I’m finding, too.”

Social media also made his transition to Davis easier: He said a WhatsApp group with other Brazilian students helped him acclimate, especially because his move to UC Davis was his first time outside of Brazil. When he crashed his bicycle early in his time as an Aggie, a group of Brazilian friends descended on his home to cheer him up.

He said he grew up poor, watching his dad use drugs, and saw an education as his “way out.” Rather than seek work as an actor or spokesperson, he hopes to find a career as a government minister and help advise economic policy decisions for all of Brazil.

“I intend to use my voice in order to make people understand a little better how science is important and why, regardless of my fame, I chose the Ph.D. education,” he said. “Education is something that’s going to be with you forever.”

Being real

Emma Bishoff, a senior double majoring in American studies and neurobiology, physiology and behavior, also is open on social media about her reasons for choosing UC Davis. She started uploading makeup videos to YouTube as @EmmaBishoff in middle school, but began to take the platform seriously when she moved from Columbus, Ohio, to Orange County, halfway through high school.

“I had two years of high school left, and I knew nobody,” Bishoff said. “It was a great outlet at the time.”

She eventually found a niche in college application videos, and a 2019 video showing which of the 22 universities she applied to had accepted, rejected or placed her on a waitlist has been viewed more than 160,000 times. When she arrived at UC Davis, she said she was earning about $300 a month from YouTube ad revenue and was recognized twice by viewers during the first week of her freshman year alone.

As her life changed, so did her video topics. She came out as queer in a video just before arriving at UC Davis, and posted a follow-up video a year later sharing what she had learned about herself and the LGBTQIA community.

“I’ve had tons of people reach out to me who are queer or trans — they said it’s great to see someone with a big platform talk about it at Davis,” she said.

She later joined the Associated Students of UC Davis’ Gender and Sexuality Commission and helped organize ASUCD’s first Pride Festival last summer.

Bishoff said she also made an effort to talk more about her own mental health struggles and show an unvarnished personality. She has posted videos discussing her own inability to focus during lectures and a subsequent ADHD diagnosis, changing majors, coping with stress and more.

“My main goal is to offer people comfort and relatability,” she said, noting numerous connections and positive interactions she’s had online and on campus. “That was my goal — to connect with people — even if I didn’t know that when I was starting out.”

Natalie Torres holds an iPhone in front of her face

Natalie Torres, a senior human development major, has built a community of 23,000 followers on TikTok around her desire to attend medical school after graduation. (Karin Higgins/UC Davis)

Studying together

Others have found connection over a shared career path or field of study.

Natalie Torres, a senior human development major, has built a community of 23,000 followers on TikTok around her desire to attend medical school after graduation. She posts videos as @NatalieThePreMed about her classes, goals and schedule — the latter of which involves waking up at 3 a.m. so she can work from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m. before heading to class.

Her social media presence started as a way to relate to other premed students. Torres noted she doesn’t put much time into her account — despite having at least two videos cross the million-view mark (a video encouraging people to work as phlebotomists has been viewed more than 6 million times, and another about the types of required classes she finds difficult is nearing 2 million views). “It’s still a fun way to inspire, aspiring to inspire other premeds that the balance between undergrad and applying to med school is a possibility.”

She said other students have recognized her from social media and struck up conversations about her studies.

“I tell them what I would’ve done differently, but most importantly that everyone’s path is unique,” she said. “I started working in a hospital at 19, and it showed me things I wouldn’t have seen until medical school. I push the idea of working in a hospital during undergrad to help others get the real deal of what medicine actually looks like.”

She works at Sutter Davis Hospital as a phlebotomist and also works as a medical scribe when she is home in Los Angeles, and said people have approached her in the gym to say her videos inspired them to become certified and find a job as a phlebotomist. Torres said she has enjoyed feeling like she’s influenced fellow students’ decisions, but added the conversations she’s had with them have “inspired me in moments where I found it tough to keep going.”

Colin McCarthy holds an umbrella outside

Colin McCarthy (Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis)

Another student focusing his social media presence on his chosen field of study is Colin McCarthy, an atmospheric science major. He created a Twitter account, @US_Stormwatch, focused on weather when he was in eighth grade and taking frequent backpacking trips with his dad. He later found a niche in extreme storms, and the San Francisco Chronicle called his “one of Twitter’s hottest weather accounts” in September for his coverage of Hurricane Ian’s impact on Florida.

He also posted firsthand observations from outside his residence hall showing lightning and historic rainfall in Davis that month — before he had taken a single class at UC Davis. The freshman’s account is now nearing 82,000 followers.

“I kind of cover extreme events all over the world now,” McCarthy said.

In his first few weeks on campus, he had already met people who followed his account. Over the summer, he and a group of friends rented a boat on Lake Tahoe, and the captain said he followed McCarthy’s account.

A big joke

Not all connections through social media are so serious. Miles Riehle, a sophomore majoring in environmental policy analysis and planning, has extended his self-described “sometimes extremely” dry sense of humor to Twitter with a four-second clip of actor Daniel Craig introducing a Saturday Night Live musical act: “Ladies and gentlemen, the Weeknd.”

He ushers in the weekend by posting the same clip every Friday evening, usually uploading it around 4 or 5 p.m. (he once noted his post was slightly later because he had fallen asleep). It’s caught on: The New York Times proclaimed in a headline that “it’s not the weekend until @CraigWeekend says so,” and his replies are often full of rejoicing.

Riehle said he doesn’t tell many people about the account in real life because he doesn’t want to seem like he’s bragging, but added he has gotten a laugh out of being a part of discussions about the number of followers people have on social media: “After ‘600’ and ‘uh, maybe 1,400,’ I got a kick out of being able to answer with, ‘hmm, maybe about 580,000.’”

He’s also shared the fun of his account with friends on campus, telling them ahead of time when he would post his tweet so they could be the first to like it.

“It was fun having people gather around while I did my weekly ritual of hitting the ‘send tweet’ button, and given that it was still relatively early in my first year it was a memorable experience with new friends,” he said.

Wendy Ly headshot

Wendy Ly (Courtesy)

Career path

For others, social media has blossomed into something unexpected.

Wendy Ly ’21 started an Instagram account dedicated to skincare in June 2020 so she would have marketing experience to mention on her resume by the time she graduated, but it quickly grew into much more. By that fall she had amassed 10,000 followers on @WendySkin and was earning some money from her account, and in December of that year signed a contract with an agency to negotiate brand sponsorships on her behalf.

Ly said she was taking extra classes to graduate early, and would treat her social media as a full-time job, often staying up until 3 or 4 a.m. filming videos. Progress was good, but she wasn’t sure the money would be consistent enough to merit making it a career after graduation, she said. Then her accounts — with 70,000 followers on Instagram and 200,000 on TikTok — earned her a six-figure income in 2021, just in time for her fall graduation, Ly said. Four months later, she moved to Los Angeles to focus on her budding career.

Her brand continues to grow, and her YouTube account surpassed 1 million subscribers at the end of 2022. She said she grew up in a low-income family, raised by her mother after her father died, and hopes to use her income from social media to one day provide for her family.

“I am grateful for my sleepless nights,” Ly said. “I love what I do and wouldn’t trade this for the world.”

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