Bonny Quan, BC ’24, talks to her camera at 8 p.m. as she returns to her dorm from a run. She signs off with a rundown of things left to do: attend a computer science class and a club meeting. This video, posted on her YouTube channel, is her latest “day in the life” vlog, a 20-minute window into the life of a college student in New York City.
Like many others after their high school graduations, Quan had thought about starting a YouTube channel to mark the beginning of a new chapter in her life. Fourteen videos later, she is now part of a small fraction of students who remain committed to documenting their lives for YouTube. Quan has racked up 10,000 cumulative views since high school.
YouTube is one of the largest content creation platforms. It takes two clicks to watch videos and three more to post. But being a YouTuber is not easy, as other up-and-coming Columbia vloggers Skylar Quinn, BC ’24, and Gloria Lu, BC ’23, also know. Joined by Quan, they are the newest members of Columbia’s vlogging scene. All three nurtured their YouTube channels as a passion project, inspired by the YouTubers at Columbia who came before them.
Quinn started her YouTube channel, Madison and Sky, with the thought that, “This will be fun because we have online school and nothing else going on.” A prolific YouTuber, she posts casual vlogs about weekends in New York City and cooking with her roommates, aiming for originality and authenticity.
Lu originally created her channel to show university admissions offices a portfolio of her ballet and synchronized swimming videos. After her acceptance to Barnard, she set those videos to be private but maintained the channel as her creative outlet. A content creator on the Chinese video-sharing platform Bilibili, Lu decided to focus on YouTube in order to reach an international and bilingual audience.
With an unparalleled range of content, YouTube is one of the first places students go for entertainment and accessible information. Generally more informative than Instagram feeds and longer than TikTok videos, YouTube videos have a homemade quality that brings a rare sense of intimacy and relatability. Quan, Quinn, and Lu were all viewers of college lifestyle vlogs before they became creators.
“Once I got into Barnard, I was looking at every possible YouTube channel—everyone’s blogs and vlogs,” Quinn said. “Just to get more of an authentic feel for what day-to-day life is.”
Caroline Chen, CC ’22, is one of the first hits on YouTube under “Columbia University.” After starting her channel five years ago with a simple hair tutorial, she reached her thousandth subscriber milestone in February 2021.
“I really liked videotaping things, I really like recording memories … so over the summer after my first year, I was like, ‘I have all these memories, why not actually do something with them?’” Chen said.
Her content ranges from Columbia-specific Q&A’s to move-in vlogs. The comments section of her most popular vlog about being an orientation leader for Columbia’s 2019 New Student Orientation Program is peppered with the excitement of newly admitted students. In her latest two-part video series, she takes viewers on a virtual campus tour now that Days on Campus, a weekend-long event for new students, has been canceled. Inserting clips from her camera roll, she shows each stop more realistically than a website photo can and from the perspective of a current student. On her channel, Chen hopes to create content that will “help future students feel welcomed regardless of where they are.”
“It’s a really fun way to be creative in the midst of all the academics and the extracurriculars of college life,” Chen said. “Just being able to make something that I know will be long-lasting and will have a wide-reaching impact.”
Krystle DiCristofalo, CC ’22, is another campus YouTuber whose channel offers an insider’s look into the Ivy League. Her videos concentrate on application advice and time management and detail her academic journey to Columbia and how others can do the same.
When she started her channel in November 2018, she knew nothing about video editing or production. Now DiCristofalo has 2,600 subscribers and has transitioned from using iMovie to Adobe Premiere Pro.
The accessibility of YouTube is what most attracts DiCristofalo. She hopes that through her videos, she can help as many students as possible realize their academic potential and get into institutions like Columbia. One video, now nearing 109,000 views, recounts her experience attending Stanford University Online High School, a private school with cutthroat admissions.
“Because of the pandemic, people were flocking to [apply to the online high school], and I was able to help the people who [reached out to me through YouTube] get in at a way higher rate than everybody else,” DiCristofalo said. “So that’s why I’m so happy that [the] video got a lot of views, so people could have access to help.”
Being a college YouTuber also comes with a certain set of challenges, namely finding the balance between YouTube and schoolwork. Having an increased public profile on YouTube can significantly interfere with one’s priorities as a student.
“I think the biggest challenge pre-COVID was how often I was getting recognized on campus because campus is supposed to feel like home … a place that’s safe,” YouTuber Izzy Mollicone, BC ’22, said. “I was very stressed out with schoolwork, and [YouTube] was just like another thing on my plate.”
Mollicone started her current YouTube channel when she was 13. A lifestyle channel, Izzy Snapshots has amassed 90,800 subscribers, drawn by her candid videos about attending college in New York City. Describing her videos as a “time capsule,” Mollicone said her channel began as a way for her parents to stay updated on her life and for her to document her growth. With this in mind, she would film her videos like she was FaceTiming someone close. She also mentions that this is not her first experience with YouTube.
“When I was eight, I started a YouTube channel for my American Girl dolls,” Mollicone said. “If you look hard enough, there is a video of me fixing up an All-American Girl doll. I believe it has over 20 million views at this point.”
Mollicone is quick to say that she has “one of the most positive comment sections” she has seen on YouTube, but she also recalls multiple times last year when people would take photos of her working at coffee shops or eating in the dining halls. Once, she had gotten stressed out in chemistry, only to hear people behind her point out that, “Oh my gosh, Izzy Snapshots is crying.”
“I lost a sense of anonymity,” Mollicone said. “It’s cool when someone comes up to me and says, ‘Oh, I love your videos’ … But when someone’s taking a photo of you while you’re trying to cram for your chemistry test, and you just want to focus on your [test], that got a little bit frustrating for me.”
The challenge is not simply to juggle YouTube with college; it is also publicly putting out a version of yourself during a formative period in your life and being exposed to strangers’ judgment.
Kewen Kong, CC ’23, who is currently taking a gap year, describes how YouTubers often use their view count to measure success, but must constantly wrestle with the YouTube algorithm in order for their videos to be recommended to more people. The algorithm is dependent on factors beyond their control, including watch time, click-through rate, and audience retention rate.
Though his channel now has 3,900 subscribers, Kong remembers how his first videos flopped, never having more than 800 views, until he uploaded his “A Day in My Life at Columbia University” vlog in December 2018. On Jan. 4, the video suddenly gained over 4,000 views in a day. He hypothesized that this was due to the YouTube algorithm.
Kong also addressed getting hate comments. Under his videos, he has been called “worthless” or that he had “disappointed” viewers for not being “self-taught” in English. During one vlog, when he had not finished eating his omelet, people commented that they “got triggered when he left a little piece of egg.”
Mollicone, who has also learned how to ignore the more spiteful comments, agreed with him.
“Anytime someone comments something that affirms an insecurity of mine, it can be a little bit unsettling,” she said. “But the compliments outweigh the hate comments.”
Mollicone mentions a subscriber old enough to be her grandmother who never fails to leave a positive comment on her videos. Despite the stray negative comment, she says that the way strangers interact with her over YouTube is a constant reminder of how nice people are.
YouTube has become more than just a creative outlet for these seven students. It has been integrated into their lives and has accompanied their coming-of-age stories.
Both Chen and Quinn cited YouTube as something that has given them more confidence. Quinn recalled a time when she entered her Spanish class over Zoom and vlogged for 45 seconds, unmuted, so that the entire class heard her. She then came out of that experience less anxious and more sure of herself.
For Kong, he realized over his gap year that many of the skills he learned from editing videos were directly transferable to the workplace, given the move in marketing trends toward audiovisual production.
Quan and Lu bonded while filming a YouTube collaboration and will be rooming together next fall.
Mollicone added that vlogging was a way for her to assess her work-life balance and keep herself accountable.
“Vlogging has made me a lot more self-aware because it gives me the opportunity to pretty much relive my experience while I’m editing the video. It’s a form of self-reflection,” Mollicone said. “[If] all my clips are just me hanging out with my friends, doing dumb things, I’d be like, ‘All right, you need to get back in the library.’”
YouTube is also a living record of their memories and of the important people in their lives, for which DiCristofalo says she is so grateful.
“I was able to send videos of my friend [who had recently passed] to their mom, and I wouldn’t have had those videos if not for YouTube,” DiCristofalo said.
Many Columbia students have considered starting a YouTube channel before, and many still do. Mollicone left one piece of advice for those aspiring to become campus YouTubers.
“Don’t focus on numbers,” Mollicone said. “Do it because [going to] Columbia or Barnard is such a special experience, and you only get four-ish years. So enjoy it, and make videos … to look back on.”
Editor’s note: Caroline Chen and Izzy Mollicone are former members of Spectator. They had no role in the writing or editing of this article.