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Photo of Emily Cole
Cross country runner Emily Cole chronicles her experiences as a student athlete. Photo by Chris Hildreth

Social Stars

More than influencers, these media-savvy students are budding entrepreneurs

A group of ambitious Blue Devils is not waiting for graduation to make big entrepreneurial moves.

With the rise of influencer culture and social media celebrity, it’s no surprise that college students are trying their hand at cultivating an online personality. In the case of several Duke students, with thousands of subscribers and millions of views, they have already celebrated a great deal of success in their self-made social media careers.

As these students record lucrative brand deals and chat with their talent agents from their dorm rooms, resources to help them are developing at Duke. Classes such as Building Global Audiences, taught by Aaron Dinin ’05, help equip students with the skills they need to balance being a typical college student and a budding online personality. It’s tough, Dinin explains, because the students must commit a great deal of their free time to content creation: “Somebody who’s willing to put in the hours of continuously pumping out content will achieve results. You can get lucky once. You can get lucky a few times. But to consistently grow an audience, you must be continuously pumping out content.”

And to make money as a social media personality, you have to grow an audience. No one likes to talk about their income, but a recent study by Influencer Marketing Hub found that about half of the more than 2,000 creators it surveyed made at least $15,000 a year from their online identity. Nearly 20% reported making between $15,000 and $75,000.

Most Duke students have the benefit of tapping into generations of alumni who have been there before in their respective career paths, but these student creators are contemplating what their next steps look like in an industry where they will be the first generation of alumni experts in their craft.

“The space didn’t exist for alumni to be in,” Dinin explains, “and it’s something that we as a university haven’t put a lot of resources into yet.” While Dinin and others are working to change that, the students themselves are setting the precedent for social media success and their potential career trajectory as they leave the Gothic Wonderland.

Meet the social media stars of Duke:

Picture of Tulio Sasaya on skates
Sasaya with his Insta360 Invisible Selfie Stick. It's invisible only in his finished videos.

Tulio Sasaya, Junior
Plano, TX
TikTok followers (@tulio_sasaya): 643.5k
Instagram followers (@tulio_sasaya): 459k
YouTube subscribers (@TulioSasaya): 9.03k

“It’s the first day of class, and I’m already running late,” Tulio Sasaya says with a laugh in a TikTok video as he rollerblades down Campus Drive. The camera he’s holding, an Insta360 Invisible Selfie Stick, disappears from view in the final video due to the lens placement, giving the impression that he’s being filmed from the front by an anonymous videographer.

The expensive camera is more than a necessary piece of equipment. “I begged my dad to buy it for me,” Sasaya admits. His parents were supportive of his budding TikTok fame, where his very first skating video went viral with millions of views while he was still a high school student, but they weren’t quite onboard with the idea of it being a serious entrepreneurial venture. Their minds were changed, however, when the camera brand reached out to Sasaya to offer their sponsorship for one of his videos.  “They started to see it as a more serious thing. It was kind of my full circle moment.”

Although the bulk of Sasaya’s original content revolved around inline skating (he perfected one of the earliest formulas to going viral on TikTok: cool action shots of him skating in a beautiful location paired with trending audio), he considered ways to diversify his content very early in his social media stardom. Not afraid to experiment, he abandoned his skates to record a humorous video of him cutting his brother’s hair into a bowl cut. The video was his first viral success off skates, with 6 million views.

“It just proved to me that good content is good content,” Sasaya said. He now describes himself as an “online personality” who interjects his good-natured authenticity into his content. His growing audience has become a supportive and encouraging community in his comment sections.

Now that he is established, Sasaya is working toward sustainability on social media. “I’m trying to focus more on YouTube,” he shares. “The ad revenue is better; and in terms of longevity, it’s also better.” And although his future as a creator looks bright, Sasaya is grateful for his Duke education just in case. “Having a computer science degree as a backup or fail-safe option is really nice.”

Chen cooks up food adventures, in which she travels and samples local cuisines.

Allison Chen ’24
Westchester, NY
TikTok followers (@alchenny): 344.6k
Instagram followers (@al.chenny): 244k
YouTube subscribers (@alchenny): 176k

Like many students who arrive at Duke, Allison Chen wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to study. “I’m now a visual studies major, but I’ve changed majors like five times at this point,” she jokes. One of her greatest passions had always been food; so, with just an ounce of worry from her parents (“They were definitely very skeptical, as I think any good parent would be.”), she decided to take a gap semester off from Duke to study baking at a French pastry school. She recorded daily vlogs of her time learning and baking in France and was pleasantly surprised when one of her videos quickly went viral with more than 200,000 views. The success empowered Chen as a content creator: “I was like, OK, I need to keep going.”

With more than half a million followers across three channels, Chen’s recipe for success includes a blend of her own cooking and baking, as well as what she calls “food adventures,” where she travels and samples local cuisine or embarks on a new culinary learning experience such as chocolate school. Action shots of Chen pouring sugar into a mixer or cheerfully sampling a croissant are accompanied by an energetic voiceover narration, a technique that many content creators find helpful in their filming. “Anyone can create content,” Chen explains, “but for it to be truly engaging, you need to talk in a certain way. You have to emote enough for it to come across on camera.” Her technique works: She’s regularly praised by her followers for her soothing voice, quick wit and, of course, her impressive culinary skills.

Chen’s online celebrity has grown so much that she has been stopped by touring high school students on campus and asked for pictures. She handles the ups and downs that come with growing fame with poise. “I should honestly look at my comments less,” she shares. “You’re never as good as they make you out to be, and you’re never as bad as they make you out to be.” As Chen looks toward life after graduating from Duke, she feels fortunate that exciting media opportunities and more are rolling in – and her family is fully on board, too. “As my Mom’s friends have sent her my videos on WeChat, she’s like, ‘Oh, Allison is making an impact. People are watching this,’” she shares. “I don’t think any of them are concerned anymore.”

Xu focuses on helping influencers and businesses enhance their social media presence.

Katie Xu, Senior
St. Louis, MO
TikTok followers (@katiexsocials): 100.3k
Instagram followers (@katiexsocials): 5.5k

“I think the hardest part about being at Duke is having a quiet space for me to film,” Katie Xu remarks. As an entrepreneurship-focused digital creator focused on helping influencers and businesses grow their social media presence, Xu regularly gets asked to make sponsorship videos. When a deadline for one of these brand deals was on the line, she found herself hopping between library study rooms trying to film in peace.

“They’re always booked, so I was literally going into one and trying to film, but then getting kicked out by someone that booked it 10 minutes later.”

Space may be a challenge as she balances being a social media entrepreneur and college student, but Xu has expertly managed her time and priorities for years. Her TikTok videos support her larger goal of growing her content creation consulting and advising business, which she started while pursuing a summer internship at a startup in San Francisco. The internship blossomed into a full-time job, which she pursued while taking a gap year from Duke. In the meantime, she produced more TikTok videos. One video addressing content creation myths went viral with more than 1.5 million views, motivating Xu to keep pushing forward.

Xu regularly covers hot topics for creators, making videos with attention-grabbing taglines such as “How to Make Your Life Interesting for the Camera” and “Become Your Audience’s Best Friend.” While she needs a quiet space to record her audio, she keeps things simple when it comes to her film setting, often just superimposing a greenscreen cutout of her talking over a screenshot of an outline she’s jotted down in her Notes app. The simplicity of this formula supports what she calls her thesis of content creation: “Center yourself in the content and make your brand around you.”

While Xu is an expert in the business of TikTok and Instagram, she’s not limiting herself to social media when it comes to her future. She is considering starting a podcast or newsletter, but also isn’t discounting a more traditional post-Duke path.

“I’m interested in continuing to work in this media realm, but also potentially through the lens of technology and computer science, since that’s what I’m studying.”

She credits her social media success with helping her find her own voice: “I feel like it has really helped me, even for skills like giving presentations. It’s definitely changed my life.”

Hauser posts bilingual content about how she navigates the Venezuelan-American experience.

Natalia Hauser ’24
Hollywood, FL
TikTok followers (@natisstyle): 247.5k
Instagram followers (@natisstyle): 18.8k
YouTube subscribers (@natisstyle): 7.3k

As spring trees blossomed on Duke’s campus, it wasn’t unusual to see people pulling out their phones to capture photos of the season’s most beautiful colors. Senior Natalia Hauser was among those onlookers filming, but for a different reason than most. “I filmed a pretty cherry blossom that could be used in one of my videos in the future, after graduating, saying I miss Duke,” she shares. “I always have this producer mindset. I’m always looking at things like, ‘This could work down the line. This could work right now. This could work yesterday.’ My brain never shuts off.”

Compared to other college-aged content creators, Hauser is a veteran. She began a successful Instagram account in 2017 focused on style: “I had a love for fashion. I just wanted to share pictures of my outfits, and help people find [outfits] when they had an event.” She added TikTok to her digital portfolio in 2019, and enjoyed quick success with her videos there, but the pandemic forced her to rethink her approach.

“There were really only so many outfits I could put together to go nowhere,” she laughs. “It was a perfect time to segue into making my online image a lot more personality-based.”

Luckily for Hauser, her acceptance into Duke coincided serendipitously with her decision to shift her content. After a video of her acceptance went viral, she had the idea to lift the veil on student life at Duke – in two languages. “A lot of my content is about how I navigate the Venezuelan-American experience. I’ve even coined a lot of Spanglish content where I speak in both languages.” Her bilingual content has increased her reach on TikTok, and has even led to her signing with a digital talent agency.

While she’s enjoying enough financial success from her social media career to afford a move to New York City this summer, she has her sights set on a career in marketing, hoping to land somewhere she can work alongside others. “Social media is a very isolating job,” she admits. “You’re making content about yourself; it can become a bit selfish. I realized that doing social media full time was not going to fulfill me enough.” However, she’s keen to keep her personal social media presence as active as she can no matter where her post-graduation journey takes her. And she will continue to fill her camera roll with potential inspiration.

Cole began creating online content after publishing a book about athletic nutrition.

Emily Cole ’24
Houston, TX
TikTok followers (@eemilycolee): 320.8k
Instagram followers (@emilycole): 197k
YouTube subscribers (@eemilycolee): 4.49k

“Here’s what your travel day would be like if you were a D-1 athlete on the Duke cross country team,” Emily Cole says in a cheerful voiceover as she details her morning workout and travel adventures with her team in a TikTok video that has garnered thousands of views. An accomplished runner, Cole chronicles all aspects of her life as a student-athlete, walking her thousands of followers through favorite recipes and asking for input on what running shoes she should buy.

Cole, who has published a book about athletic nutrition called “The Players’ Plate,” began her content-creation career with videos based around her book and her experiences at Duke. However, one of her early successes was a video she made somewhat as a joke, asking if any of her followers were available to take her to a formal. “This guy who plays lacrosse at Ohio actually responded, and made an application to be my formal date,” she laughs. “It blew up and got millions of views.” The date did actually happen, and Cole negotiated her first big sponsorship under Name Image Likeness rules for a restaurant to host their post-formal meal – all recorded for social media, of course.

Something Cole is particularly proud of is how social media has contributed to the popularity of women’s athletics. “I think the biggest difficulty with supporting women's sports was that people just didn't know their stories. People would watch men's sports on national television and then they get told these guys entire life stories. You feel like you know them,” she says. “Social media has helped female athletes be able to share their stories. It has exponentially grown the viewership for women's sports because people know who we are and they want to see how we're doing.”

With graduation looming ahead, Cole is focused and hopeful to continue to balance her identity as both an athlete and a social media celebrity.

“I make a great living off of it,” she says, “and I love it. Video creation and editing is actually so fun for me, so the process doesn't even really feel like work.” And while she doesn’t have an immediate need for her computer science degree, she’s proud that she’s earned it: “Having my degree will help me so much in my journey, because I’ve proven that I can do hard things. I’m willing to see things through to the end.”