The U.S. State Department tasked a LeBow consulting class with developing a peer-led approach to combat extremism and online recruitment of college students by extremist groups. The interdisciplinary team, which placed fourth of 23 submissions from universities around the world, included students from the LeBow College of Business and the College of Engineering.
Just 11 Drexel students were recruited to take on the task advised by LeBow clinical professor Dana D’Angelo. Students ranged from sophomores to seniors with most having served as leaders in previous consulting courses.
“The problem statement was very wide open,” says Ethan Bresnahan, a sophomore marketing and entrepreneurship major. “We honed in on what identifies at-risk university students. Then we moved on to what appeals to college students. That’s when someone brought up that daily emails are coming back en vogue.”
The resulting product was a daily email targeted toward Drexel students called The Boost. The Boost highlights campus events and profiles students with carefully selected news to connect students to the University and each other and “boost” their day.
“It’s short and to the point,” says D’Angelo. “It is for students, by students, about students and things students need and care about. It gives them a two-minute look to boost their day and make them feel connected and engaged and know what is going on around campus.”
Daily email newsletters like The Boost and theSkimm have been growing in popularity over the past year specifically among Millennials and boast high engagement and open rates. Founded in 2012, theSkimm reached 500,000 subscribers in their second year and has a daily open rate of more than 45 percent.
Similarly, in the three weeks of their test, The Boost acquired over 1,000 readers across its various platforms, including over 600 email subscribers with an open rate of over 40 percent and engaged social media followers on Facebook, Twitter and SnapChat.
The resulting product may seem simple on the surface, but according to D’Angelo, it was anything but and was based on extensive research. Before the students created their end product, they had to answer the question, “What is extremism?” The class explored the concept from a global perspective as well as in a domestic context.
“There’s a lot of domestic extremism with random movie theater shootings and school shootings,” says D’Angelo. “It had a lot of context not just on an international and global level, but it also had some context even for a University in helping its own students.”
“We can go all the way to ISIS and recruitment and how to deter students from that path, but a lot of issues were also just on personal levels. The more we can do things for engagement, inclusion and self-esteem, that’s not only going to help people avoid going down a path of being recruited by terrorist extremists, but it could also help with personal issues to help a student stay in school, not drop out, not harm themselves. All those things kind of came into play,” she says.
To support their work, the class conducted interviews with experts in the field including Norman Balchunas of the Drexel Cybersecurity Institute and Austin Branch, director of the National Counter Terrorism Center. They also pored over 1,000 pages of research to distinguish the five identifiers of students considered at risk and met with staff from Student Affairs to learn more about student needs.
“Hidden within The Boost is this methodology of the five identifiers, but it is not necessarily in your face as countering extremism,” says Bresnahan. “That was never our goal. As college students we know that if you have this driving force, the way to get people on your side is to not be in your face about it. It is a big turn off for a lot of people.”
The purpose of the State Department program was to get students to connect with their peers worldwide to address extremist cyber recruitment. The Drexel team fully embraced this challenge, collaborating with a team of 12 students from the University of Montenegro for a true global classroom experience. The Drexel-Montenegro team was the highest-ranked global team in the program and the only global classroom team that placed in the top 10.
Bresnahan, who has previous global experience through the Drexel Study Abroad program, found the global classroom both challenging and educational. They had to navigate language and communication differences that accompany a team comprised of very diverse backgrounds and cultures.
“It’s not wrong; it’s just different,” was his motto throughout the project.
“The students all came together to do shared research, shared thought processes and a lot of communication,” says D’Angelo. “It was a whole other level of challenges that I am delighted we took on. I think our students gained so much being faced with that challenge of a global classroom. It significantly enhanced their understanding of the issues and what went on in the project.”
“It was interesting to see how starting from the same origin point and having the same driving factors created two completely different products because of being on two different campuses in two different countries,” says Bresnahan.
In the end, technical difficulties with the presentation may have played into the team’s final rankings. Bresnahan also felt their indirect approach may have lowered their ranking in the competition, while contributing to The Boost’s mass appeal at Drexel.
“I think the reason we didn’t end up in D.C. is the same reason we had success [on campus],” he says. “The Boost was more nuanced [than other submissions]. We were never going to be able to compete with something that was more in your face.”
“In the end, I think the best-case scenario worked out. It’s like being in the top five on American Idol. If you win, you end up bound to American Idol for a while. Whereas if you come in second or third, you’ve gotten exposure but have the freedom to go wherever you want. I think the best thing for The Boost is that we ended up with the ability to do what we are doing right now. That’s not something that would have happened if we were with the State Department.”
While the team was not selected to present their plan in Washington, D.C., the project was found to be successful both at Drexel and the University of Montenegro, and not just based on active followers and email subscribers. Their research was able to measure a positive change in students in the areas of the five identifiers following their engagement with The Boost.
Because of this impact, the Drexel team continued the project beyond the test phase for the competition and plan to continue it at Drexel in the fall by incorporating more students from a wider range of disciplines, adding to the diversity of the project.
“Not only does the product empower connectivity,” says Bresnahan. “But in the actual process of creating it, you interact more with people from different disciplines than you would if you had joined a strictly academic student organization. You are going to have a lot more different interactions around campus.”
Additionally, they hope to expand the concept to other college campuses.
“I thought to myself, if I truly believe in what we are doing, and I believe that we are making an impact on the people who read The Boost, then why would we stay on one campus when we could help more people,” says Bresnahan.
Bresnahan and his classmates are confidant The Boost could be successful outside Drexel based on the success of their test and the adaptation in Montenegro.
“They said a daily email wasn’t going to work [in Montenegro],” says Bresnahan. “We ended up kicking around the idea of a blog, and they ended up doing that instead of the emails. It has the same sort of driving force, but the form and content were different.”
Growing the user base was much easier for The Boost than Bresnahan had experienced in his previous consulting class. Additionally, the product was developed to intentionally focus on scalability, so he feels adapting it to other campus environments could be successful as evidenced in the different adaptations of The Boost in Philadelphia and Montenegro.