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Student cultivates online brand, focuses on authentic college experience

Third-year business economics student Meili Zhang aims to express her creativity and offer advice to incoming students through her social media platforms. Posting TikToks ranging from comedic trends to Trader Joe’s snack ratings, she said she hopes to model the importance of a balanced life. (Anya Yakimenko/Daily Bruin)

By Alexis Shenkiryk

Feb. 11, 2022 5:08 p.m.

Meili Zhang is bringing UCLA to the “For You” page.

The third-year business economics student said she began experimenting with posting short-form content on TikTok while in quarantine and has since garnered 100,000 followers on the platform while posting content regularly. Prior to her venture on TikTok, Zhang said she began making content when she was 16 years old, producing lifestyle YouTube videos on her iPhone to document the memories of her formative high school years. She added that she enjoys diversifying her repertoire, from comedic trends to college advice videos.

“I’m getting to express my creativity and exercise that part of my brain, especially as a business economics major,” Zhang said. “(Economics) is very numbers focused – very point A to point B – whereas content creation is whatever you make of it.”

Though she wants to prioritize both these interests, Zhang said there was a learning curve to engaging in them simultaneously. She said she occasionally gets creative sparks as she goes about her day but makes sure to stick to a routine in her planner and complete her schoolwork, regardless of the draw of content creation. A life of balance and enjoyment, she said, is something she personally values and aims to spread through the content of her social media.

[Related: UCLA alumnus aims to demystify medical school application process through YouTube]

The growth of Zhang’s following also came with the chance to partner with brands such as Victoria’s Secret Pink and Kendra Scott under their respective college ambassador programs, she said. To reflect her partnership, Zhang said she creates content for the brands and promotes various initiatives, including one this month for Black History Month.

Of her collaborations, Zhang’s partnership with Victoria Secret Pink has the most positive impact, third-year psychobiology student and close friend Emily Stenzler said. Zhang has hosted both on-campus and Zoom wellness events with boards of influential female speakers to promote mental health awareness, along with skills such as time management and self-care, Stenzler added. Although Stenzler pegs herself as someone who is not up to date with TikTok trends, she said she appreciates Zhang’s commitment to utilizing her platform for a bigger cause than self-promotion.

“Social media has just, in general, become such a major part of how we socialize with one another, especially in college,” Stenzler said. “(Zhang) definitely uses it to promote her leadership in an online way and, … she’s been able to spread her reach even more by using social media.”

Beyond the TikTok realm, Zhang’s pre-pandemic YouTube videos such as dorm tours and dining hall reviews have comforted students who weren’t able to visit campus before committing to UCLA, she said. When Zhang returned to campus, she said it was meaningful to have underclassmen reach out to her, either in person or through a message on Instagram, and thank her for the helpful videos about UCLA. She continues to utilize her platforms to impart advice tailored to what her followers want to know about UCLA and said it is rewarding to know her content has resonated with her viewers.

[Related: Bruin Creators helps aspiring content creators begin their YouTube careers]

Another content creator, fourth-year communication student and close friend Kelsey Dempsey said she recognizes social media for its ability to connect and inform people about the world around them. Dempsey, who runs UCLA Housing’s TikTok account, said Zhang has not based her brand on deceiving her audience of the perfect, aesthetic college life but rather embracing authenticity and keeping her feed in tune with reality. For instance, she said Zhang’s TikToks that chronicle her recurring trips to Westwood’s local Trader Joe’s can enlighten viewers that time spent by oneself is enjoyable and necessary.

“Not everybody has that perfect college experience,” Dempsey said. “Throughout (Zhang’s) TikTok and also her Instagram content, … a big takeaway that could help a lot of UCLA students (is) reassuring that they’re not alone in their experiences.”

In the future, Zhang said she plans to pursue a job that incorporates her interests in business and fashion. She said she also envisions herself continuing to post on social media but evolving from her usual college content to post-graduate lifestyle vlogs. The shift will be an interesting endeavor, Zhang said, especially considering it is the type of content she consumes now for advice as she looks toward her post-college life.

“I want everyone to know … I am always on everyone’s side,” Zhang said. “I’m only a junior, but I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times and if an experience I’ve had can save someone from making that same mistake, I will gladly give that advice.”

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Alexis Shenkiryk
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