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Graduate Spotlight: Ericha Forest

By Betsy Hnath

Like many Old Dominion University graduate students, Ericha Forest attended classes after a full day's work. Unlike most of her peers, they were steps away from her office.

Forest will receive a master's in lifespan and digital communication on Saturday. She completed her degree while working full-time in Strategic Communication and Marketing. Forest has held three positions at the University: web communication specialist, University social media manager and now director of web & digital strategy.

Pursuing an advanced degree wasn't in the plans when Forest, who holds a bachelor's in interactive media and cultural communications from James Madison University, started working at ODU in 2012. But when she learned about the tuition assistance program for eligible employees, their dependents and spouses, she decided to try one class. She was unsure if she could handle the work/life balance. But it didn't take long for Forest to realize more classes were in her future.

"My first class was actually an elective, but I met another student who was in the digital lifespan program," she said. "It really sparked my interest in how social media can be studied academically and from different viewpoints."

Over the four years it has taken to finish her program, Forest has overseen multiple, high-level University projects, including a complete website redesign in collaboration with ITS.

"There are times when you have to work after normal business hours - so you really have to manage your time," she said.

Forest had another issue competing for her time and attention: her health.

In 2010 she was hospitalized with kidney failure, which eventually led to a diagnosis of the auto-immune disease lupus nephritis. Forest participates in fundraising efforts to raise awareness about the health impacts that can include fatigue, fevers, skin conditions and joint pain.

Forest said there were benefits to working and going to school at the same location.

"My professors were very helpful, and I definitely utilized their assistance and expertise more so than I did during my undergraduate degree," she said.

Her natural interest in social media and her daily work in the field also spurred her final thesis project, which looks into the use of Facebook as an ad-hoc archive and imagined community for an organization.

"It's a case study investigating how Facebook affords opportunities for archiving and community formation for universities and colleges," said Forest, who is approaching her seventh year working at the University. "Social media interests me on both a personal and professional level, so it was exciting incorporating social media and communication into my degree and at work."

Tom Socha, communication professor and graduate program director, said Forest has been a part of research teams whose studies have been presented internationally.

"Her project is asking new and significant questions about how higher education and society in general should optimally handle all of its saved digital materials for preservation and best future use," he said.

Forest hasn't ruled out teaching a class in the future. Socha thinks she has a lot to offer to prospective students.

"She is an incredibly bright, cutting-edge, lifespan communication graduate student," he said, "who is blazing new and exciting trails in digital communication and digital archiving."

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