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Students use social media to assist soldiers

Social media might be useful for keeping track of friends and messaging the occasional celebrity, but a group of honors students is using the social media platform to help Afghan children and veterans of the Iraq War and Afghanistan conflict.

Social Media, Social Change: One Pencil Can Help Bring Peace, is an honors course in its second semester of existence. Taught by Liisa Temple, an Emmy Award-winning freelance journalist, the idea for the course grew from School Supplies for Afghan Children, a charity she started with her husband, retired U.S. Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Rex Temple, in 2009 after an encounter he had with a child in Afghanistan.

When I was handing out the candy, this particular child was fixated on my ballpoint pen, Rex said. And he kept saying the Dari word for pen.

Rex said he knew what the word meant but asked his interpreter why the child kept saying it. He learned that the child didnt want to be like his father and toil in the fields.

He knew the route out of poverty was through education, Rex said.

Rex called Liisa at home and asked her to ship all of the extra pens and pencils they had lying around their house, an effort that eventually grew into the school supplies program.

Students enrolled in the Honors College course follow in the footsteps of Rex, who delivered more than 700 boxes of school supplies during his last tour in Afghanistan, which ended April 2010. This semester, students have shipped 65 boxes to Afghan school children, Liisa said, with another 50 to 100 boxes ready to ship out this week. School Supplies for Afghan Children has grown to include participants in 17 states and resulted in more than 20,000 pounds of donated school supplies, such as notebooks, pens, pencils and loose-leaf paper.

Phoebe Chang, a junior majoring in biomedical sciences, is currently enrolled in the course, which teaches students to use social media effectively to promote and gain support for social change.

Weve been reaching out to celebrities and magazines to just bring us out of our comfort zone, she said. Just to see what methods would work and how you phrase it would affect how (effective) the result is.

Erin Potter, a senior majoring in general business, tweeted Miss America 2012 Laura Kaeppeler, asking her to retweet for a group of college students raising moneyfor #woundedvets. Potter included a link to the USF Honors for Wounded Veterans WordPress blog. Kaeppeler granted the request, extending the message to her 15,000-plus followers.

The connection the class has made with Afghan children through the school supplies project might not have been possible without U.S. military personnel, such as Lt. j.g. Greg Para. Para is currently stationed in northern Afghanistan, where he and his team receive the school supplies sent from USF and other schools across the country.

Para, who has served for 12 years in the U.S. Navy, said the school that the class is supporting has 1,800 students and, thanks to the donation, more than 700 of those students now have access to otherwise expensive school supplies.

No matter how small, each commitment, each student that decides to help is what I call a gentle whisper, Para said. Each student that decides to help, combined with all the other students they may or may not know, it becomes a wind of change for the students here that get to see the sheer generosity in gift giving, because the average Afghan family makes about $470 a year.

He said the support means a lot to the students because of their poor educational facilities.

(Looking at) the school, you can see how bad (in need) of repair it is, he said. They dont have pens and paper, they dont have indoor plumbing no water fountains (and) no bathroom indoors. They have holes in the walls and in the ceiling, so its quite stark and surprising.

Getting the supplies to Afghan students is not a simple endeavor. Para said military personnel do not typically interact with the students because insurgents of the Taliban are often anti-education.

For security reasons, we dont go out ourselves (to the school) very often, because it would bring attention to the school and then the school could be attacked, he said. So what we do is we have the locals take the supplies to the students.

Para said soldiers still must be cautious of roadside bombs and suicide bombers, even in the relatively safe northern region of Afghanistan, and they look for anything positive to take their minds off the reality of whats going on in the mission.

So anytime somebody back in the states decides to help in some way, what that does for the folks here, whether they receive a care package from someone they dont know or they receive supplies that they can go see a smile on an Afghan students face, it sort of makes the days go by quicker, he said.

The class has also raised awareness for American Veterans with Brain Injuries (AVBI) by partnering with the Bob Woodruff Foundation and writing blog entries about the severity and implications of a traumatic brain injury (TBI).

Through individual and group fundraising efforts, the class has raised $2,196.58 to purchase Lumosity, a brand of software used by AVBI to help TBI sufferers improve their cognitive abilities. The class has also tweeted back and forth with Woodruff, who suffered an intense TBI after being struck by a roadside bomb in Iraq while reporting for ABC News in 2006.

Shannon Buchanan, a senior majoring in art studio, said the experience she has gained from the class is something she will always hold onto.

Its a life-changing experience, she said. Even if somebody comes in and they hate the class and they never wants to touch another pencil again, they would be getting something out of it. It makes an impact. Its not something you can turn and forget about.