How a Campaign About Today’s College Students Became Something More

5 min read

A spread of what the different Lumina advertisements look like.

Lumina Foundation is a private, independent foundation that aims to make opportunities after high school accessible for all. From magazines to podcasts to blogs to reports, the communications and engagement team at Lumina is always looking for different ways to raise the profile of educational opportunity. When they had the chance to partner with documentary photographer Rachel Bujalski, they were excited to bring a new medium into the mix.

In 2020, Rachel profiled five college students in a series of photo essays. The original stories are moving glimpses into the lives of people working to achieve a degree amidst the twists and turns of their lives. They showcase the reality that today’s college students are often older than the “typical college students” people imagine; often they are Black and brown, immigrants, parents, and full- or part-time employees.

But, as with many things in 2020, this project did not get quite the attention it deserved. It ran in The Guardian and lives today on a landing page on Lumina’s website. So, in 2021 we worked with the Lumina team on a new challenge: To create a campaign that brings attention back to this photojournalism project, including a documentary, with the goal of educating policymakers and the broader public on the changing nature of today’s students. The documentary showcased Rachel’s process and showed how photography can be a conduit for stories that humanize overwhelming issues, like an education system not built for a huge percentage of students. It set the theme for other aspects of the campaign.

Building the Campaign

To reach Lumina’s very specific target audience, we created a two-pronged campaign—one digital and one geographically based. Digital ads, social media buys, and online media placed stories and videos on web pages that targeted congressional staffers, policy wonks, and thought leaders in higher ed. Our ad campaign challenged the assumptions and generalizations we make about college students, making their personal stories windows into the experience of thousands. The digital campaign led the audience to the landing page where we housed the documentary, the five student photo essays, and information about today’s college students.

A digital mock-up of the different Lumina students.

Knowing the policymakers we wanted to reach were in Washington, D.C., we set up a local outdoor campaign as well. We set up a billboard at 7th and I Streets in D.C. with a geo-targeting campaign that encouraged people close by to learn more. We set up outdoor media on bus shelters and bike rental stands to increase our reach in and around where our policymakers live and work.

A picture of what the Lumina billboards would look like inside a subway station.

The Today’s Student Photo Gallery

The culmination of this campaign was an in-person event: the opening of a gallery devoted to showing these student photo essays on a community college campus. We invited congressmen and congresswomen, senators, their staffs, officials from the U.S. and Virginia Departments of Education, as well as the governor of Virginia and administration officials to join us for an opening reception to hear the stories of today’s college students on the Northern Virginia Community College campus. The invitation allowed us to email staffers and policymakers personally, while affording us multiple opportunities to invite them to learn more before and after the event, continuing on a personal level what they’d likely be seeing online.

Rachel Bujalski’s photographs were striking in the gallery space of the Fine Arts Building at NOVA’s Alexandria campus. Each student occupied a wall, with framed prints of varying sizes, from 16”x10.5” to 60”x40”. The portraits sang in the natural light of the huge windows, against their white backdrop. Students wandered in between classes, marveling at not only the skill shown, but that students like them—who work between classes, who have kids, who support families of their own—would be featured for their success despite the challenges they encounter while navigating a system not built for them. What really got the students excited, however, was the interactive word cloud, where they got the chance to add their experience to a snapshot of all that college students today are—their successes and challenges alike. They stood in line to put their mark on the campaign, and the word cloud they helped create lives on the landing page still.

A shot of visitors looking at the Lumina art exhibit.

The program began with remarks from Northern Virginia Community College’s president, Dr. Anne Kress, who stressed the importance of supporting students’ entire lives. Jamie Merisotis, the CEO and president of Lumina Foundation, emphasized that this is not a conversation on the margins: two in five college students attend community colleges. We hosted a student panel featuring three NOVA students and facilitated by Lumina’s Today’s Student Tomorrow’s Talent podcast host, Dakota Pawlicki, which launched a moving conversation about the importance of flexibility, compassion, and understanding when supporting students. Finally, we screened the documentary and invited Rachel Bujalski on stage to talk with Karen Meza, one of her original student subjects, about how important it is to see yourself reflected in stories.

This campaign wasn’t our usual awareness-building campaign. But educating through storytelling is something we do often. Getting the chance to translate that into a physical space, with art, students, and the opportunity to educate in a totally different way wasn’t just a great opportunity for a great cause but a stretch of our understanding of what campaigns can be. Lumina Foundation continues to be an innovative and cutting-edge partner when it comes to pushing education forward.