Helen L. Piltner ’25 is known as a Harvard influencer.
As of February 2023, Piltner has amassed more than 38,000 subscribers on Youtube — her main social media platform — as well as 6,500 followers on Instagram and 1,000 on TikTok.
Piltner isn’t the first student to post college lifestyle content. In the past decade, this trend has swept across the University, with students taking to various social media platforms to document their lives on campus. At Harvard, the University name draws intrigue to viewers seeking a more intimate look into what goes on behind the Ivy League gates.
Most of Piltner’s videos rack up tens of thousands of views, but by far the most successful remains her college decision reaction video, which has been watched more than one million times.
“I think a lot of high school students, they’re really looking forward to moving on to a new chapter of their life — going on to the college experience,” she says. “A lot of people turn to YouTube. That’s what I did.”
Piltner’s content allows her to capture her life in college and has been met with support from inspired high school students. But it has also faced skepticism from those on and off campus. As college life presents its own challenges, Piltner is still figuring out her place as a student with a public platform.
Capturing College Life
For Piltner, the decision to become a campus influencer stemmed from her high school self’s fascination with college lifestyle videos, particularly at Ivy League schools. The inside perspective provided by college Youtubers served as a source of motivation and inspiration for Piltner in high school, and now she hopes to continue that cycle.
“I kind of wanted to take on that role if I got that amazing opportunity to go to a really good college,” she says. “Now that I have the opportunity, I just want to use this platform as a way to continue motivating high schoolers.”
Occasionally, Piltner will meet younger students on campus who watched her videos in high school and then experienced the joys of being accepted for themselves.
“I’ve had freshmen at this school come up to me and say, ‘Well, you’re the reason why I chose Harvard,’ and it’s very heartwarming to hear,” she says.“That motivates me to continue doing what I do.”
Though Piltner makes an effort to be genuine with her content, the mission to provide a window into life at Harvard is an inherently difficult one. After all, social media is a highlight reel, and Piltner’s Youtube channel is often no different.
“Obviously I want to be really nice and presentable, but I’m gonna show the reality of what it’s like to go here,” she says.
She adds, however, “If I’m going through a really hard day — going through high stress or if I’m having a breakdown — I’m not going to pull out my camera.”
“I try not to let it take over my normal day-to-day activities,” she says. “I don’t pull out my camera 24/7 trying to film a video because at the end of the day, I’m here for an education and my relationships with my friends here are important.”
Life as an influencer — both online and on campus — isn’t always easy. Online, Piltner faces the scrutiny of faceless audiences behind keyboards.
For Piltner, it comes in the form of “random trolls making weird assumptions about you,” she says. After Piltner shared her acceptance to Harvard and other top universities online, a torrent of theories came flooding in.
“People can’t believe someone from rural South Georgia made it here,” she says. “People have assumed that the only reason why I got into Harvard is because I come from a rich family or I went to a private school. Neither are true.”
In a video Piltner made in 2021 about her high school grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities, some viewers took to the comments to question Piltner’s motives.
“This is just an excuse for an overachiever to let the world know how ‘great’ they are. I find that all these people who actually upload their stats etc on YouTube are just looking for recognition now that they go to a university where they are no longer special,” one wrote.
Countless students at Harvard have made similar videos, revealing their high school GPAs and accomplishments in an effort to guide prospective students through the college application process — though ultimately the admission decisions process is still shrouded in mystery.
Even within the Harvard bubble, Piltner says, many students have disdain for the work social media influencers do, accusing them of using the Harvard brand to gain money and fame.
“I know that a lot of upperclassmen have said negative things about the influencers on campus because they view them as clout chasers in a way, using the Harvard name,” she says.
Still, to Piltner, the difference between “clout chasing” and simply making honest content comes from the affiliation to Harvard. While outside Youtubers might come specifically to campus to capitalize off of the intrigue around so-called elite schools and their students, influencers who attend the University necessarily make content associated with it.
“I think it’s pretty well known that having a name like Harvard — or some elite school — will attract views,” Piltner says. “So it’s no secret.”
“At the end of the day, I don’t care about the haters,” she adds.
Despite the hate, being an online influencer certainly comes with benefits. On average, Piltner earns a few hundred dollars from each YouTube video she creates and posts. But she says it’s not the revenue that inspires her work.
“For me, it’s not just about making the money,” she says. “It’s really seeing the impact it has made on other people — that’s just really inspiring for me.”
At first, Piltner navigated the influencer world on her own, including everything from video production to sponsorships. Now, she works with the agency Station Entertainment, which helps manage her brand deals.
As she continued profiting from ads and brand deals, Piltner thought about how she would share her success. At the beginning of this year, she settled on a plan: Buy each of her teammates on the Harvard Crimson Dance Team a matching pair of Nike Jordan sneakers.
Piltner says she had been considering the possibility of gifting her teammates new merch for a while, but the idea solidified in her mind during the team’s recent trip to Florida for nationals.
“We see all these other college dance teams competing with their amazing gear, costumes, and their warm-up suits, and then I see so many people with matching Jordans and Dunks,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Wow, like, that looks amazing! Wouldn’t that be so good if the Harvard dance team had them?’”
Still, the decision was not made lightly. The Jordan 1s that Piltner wanted cost over one hundred dollars each, and buying 10 pairs would tack another zero onto the price tag. Ultimately, Piltner says she decided to buy the shoes to show her appreciation for the friendships she has made on the dance team.
“I really wanted to surprise my teammates. They’ve done a lot for me,” she says.
One morning, she asked her teammates to get to practice early, keeping the details intentionally vague so as to not spoil the surprise. When her teammates walked into the gym, the shoes — red and black to match Harvard colors — were met with delight.
The Harvard Crimson Dance Team’s Instagram account posted a short clip of the team’s reaction on its story, which Piltner then also reposted on her own personal account.
Piltner says she didn’t buy the sneakers solely for the purpose of making content, but she still plans to post a video on Youtube capturing the team’s reaction to the shoes.
In navigating the social media realm, Piltner has found solidarity among other influencers on campus, talking about the experience of creating content, being recognized, and even being hated.
“It’s really nice to just have other people to relate to on campus,” she says. “There are not that many content creators.”
In the coming year, Piltner hopes to move away from the classic “day-in-the-life” videos that are staples of college Youtubers.
“I also want to put a new twist on my channel and come up with new ideas, like maybe film something that no one has ever filmed before,” she says. “For example, filming a dorm tour of all the Harvard freshman dorms.”
After college, Piltner sees social media remaining an important piece of her life.
Hoping to go into the biotechnology industry, Piltner is proud of her work on Youtube and anticipates making daily vlogs of her life as a young professional.
“I wouldn’t want to give it up,” she says.
— Magazine writer Claire Yuan can be reached at email@example.com.