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Settling in, letting the world watch Online project shares local freshman's experiences

Every freshman struggles to adjust to college, but not many have the whole world watching her while she does.

Ricza Lopez, a Buffalo State College freshman, is one of 15 young women chosen by Seventeen magazine and MySpace to share their first year of college with a vast potential audience.

The Bronx native is adapting to life in Buffalo, learning her way around campus, keeping up with her classes -- and recording all of it in blog entries and online videos.

"I really hope I can be an example for someone. That's one thing I would like to get out of this project," Lopez said in an interview as she showed off her fairly neat dorm room.

Seventeen and MySpace picked a cross section of young women from across the nation for this project, a mix of reality TV and College 101.

It's an attempt to use technology to reach young women in high school and to better prepare them to succeed in college.

"This seems to be a very positive use of interactive technology, Internet-based technology, to model behavior," said Michael Stefanone, an assistant professor of communication at the University at Buffalo, who studies the social implications of blogs and other online entities.

The Freshman 15 promise to share "juicy" stories and debunk common myths on their blogs while revealing what college is really like.

"It's a great marketing tool, and they have the right person doing it," said Joe Marren, an assistant professor of communication at Buffalo State. "She likes Buffalo, and she's bright and witty and personable."

Lopez, known as Ricki to friends, seems ready for her close-up.

"I love her. She's a trip," said Anna Bundschuh, a psychology major from Williamsville and one of Lopez's roommates. "She's a really well-rounded person."

Lopez saw an ad for the project while she was online one day earlier this year and decided to apply without any expectation that she'd be selected.

She got a call in June that she made the final cut from the 1,000 who applied.

She said she feels a sense of responsibility because she is the first person in her immediate family to go to college, and she wants to be a role model for others of Honduran heritage.

"I feel like I'm pioneering, both for the people in my neighborhood and for the people from my country," Lopez said.

>Sharing stories from settling in

She is a fashion-design major at Buffalo State, which she candidly admits was not her first choice of school. She had never been to Western New York before taking a bus here for freshman orientation.

She is getting used to Buffalo, where things are spread out more than in New York City, and she also is learning the language of the region.

"I say soda, they say pop. I say Buffalo wings, they say chicken wings. I say lollipops, they say suckers," said Lopez, who has enjoyed Anderson's custard and the Walden Galleria.

Lopez is sharing this learning curve with visitors to MySpace and readers of Seventeen, and Freshman 15 organizers say that's the point.

"That's the way these girls really learn best, is from their peers," said Elizabeth Dye, special projects editor for Seventeen.

College is a time when young men and women leave the support system of home and learn to adjust to their enhanced freedom and responsibility, said Jill E. Conlon, associate vice president for enrollment management at Canisius College.

About 13 percent of college students drop out or transfer by the end of freshman year, and that figure rises to 26 percent by the end of sophomore year, according to federal Education Department data.

"It's a huge life transition, and it goes more smoothly for some than for others," Conlon said.

The majority of students who do transfer or drop out aren't failing academically, but they are concerned about how they "fit" at the school, she said.

" 'Fit' probably means more things to a young woman," Conlon said.

Seventeen and MySpace hope teens will be able to relate to the members of the Freshman 15 and will learn something as they watch the group navigate their first year of college.

"It's where we thought we could make it come to life and help them see college from a bird's-eye view," Dye said.

Lopez and the other young women signed contracts that require them to write daily blog entries, produce weekly videos and contribute to Seventeen.

The project is using blogging and online video, in particular, to reach young women. This is the realm in which young people live and communicate, Buffalo State's Marren said.

There's not a lot of research into whether online communities can replace off-line, interpersonal relationships.

But young people use social-networking Web sites to make and keep friends, particularly when they are linked by a common bond, UB's Stefanone said.

Lopez, for example, got to know both her roommates through the Facebook and MySpace Web sites before the trio arrived on campus and met in person.

The work with the Freshman 15 project is keeping Lopez busy.

She has posted three videos so far, shot in a "Real World" confessional style, and is doing a pretty good job keeping up with blogging and posting photos on her Freshman 15 MySpace page.

"I started finding out that college is indeed a soap opera man, too much gossip, too many nosy people, [sometimes] I feel like I'm being targeted for some reason, maybe I'm buggin['] but it[']s whatever," Lopez wrote in an Oct. 20 blog entry.

The first video introduced Lopez, who is a member of the Caribbean Students Organization, the Pan-African Students Organization and the Emerging Student Leaders Program.

In the third video, "My firsts," Lopez takes viewers around campus on her first day of classes.

"You see this?" Lopez said in the video, pointing to the studio of WBNY, the campus radio station. "This is going to be the door to my future."

She shoots about 30 or 45 minutes of footage for each video and sends it in to Seventeen, where editors trim it down.

>Guiding future college students

The young women are asked to be candid in describing social pressures and the school grind. But they can't say anything that is obscene or that seems to promote undesirable behavior.

Lopez earns about $100 per month for her participation, and she is glad to have the experience and the resume boost.

But she's more excited about the MySpace message she got from a high-school student who saw her blog and wanted to talk to her about the application process for Buffalo State.

"I was like, 'Oh, this is great.' I can help them out. I felt really good about that," Lopez said.


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