Life at the Speed of Twitter

A biography by Chloe Alberta, University of Michigan 2018
December 12, 2015

Nikki and Andrew danced together at the Woodland Junior High sixth grade mixer. That’s where Andrew claims he fell in love with her, but she had things to do and parties to throw and no time to waste. She grew up, squeezing everything that she could out of a tiny town where the only break from corn fields was a bean field or two. “I always had sort of the classic country song girl thing, like get me the heck out of here as soon as humanly possible,” she says. Nikki Sunstrum always knew she was going to change the world.

Flash forward and 31-year-old Nikki, mother of 5 children and the director of social media for the University of Michigan, is perched on her desk chair, the queen of her white washed office. Her auburn hair falls in smooth curls that frame her face, and her hazel eyes are wide, like a doe’s. Clad in a black blazer and floral netted tights, she checks her Twitter, tapping on the screen of her iPad with clear-polished nails. “Twitter moves at the same pace I do, it never stands still,” she says. Two cans of Mountain Dew and an empty coffee mug sit on her desk, which is strewn with papers and memos marked up with comments scribbled in purple pen. A white board propped against the wall is decorated with a colorful, dry-erase reminder that her daughter Kyra has been there. The lights are always on, and her laptop, iPad, and phone (complete with a case that doubles as a wallet) are lined up, buzzing with texts and notifications every few minutes.

The position of director of social media, as Nikki likes to say, “didn’t exist five years ago and won’t exist five years from now.” She is responsible for writing policy and implementing the best social media strategy possible for all campus accounts, from Michigan’s different colleges and schools on Facebook to Michigan Dining’s twitter page, so that they can effectively communicate with students and all their other constituencies. “We’re a university, we educate people. And, you know, why not do it in 140 characters?”

Nikki consults with different organizations within the university and helps them either re-vamp existing accounts or start from scratch by creating new ones. “I go in and I sit down and I say ‘Okay, you’ve got 125 likes. That’s super. What are we doing with that?’” She helps the organizations figure out their target demographic and what they want to accomplish by being online, and then applies policies that she has instigated so the account can achieve its goals.

Nikki also presents at social media conferences around the country. On November 10th, she spoke at the University of Michigan about “Coming of Age Online” — the generational studies of social media and the importance of students being conscious of their social media habits now, as they are available for anyone, especially potential employers, to see. According to Christopher Billick, the director of digital media at Michigan and the man who recruited Nikki, she doesn’t like reading from PowerPoints and co-presenting with her is fun and spontaneous. “She is a really upbeat, positive force to be around,” he says.

When Billick found her, Nikki’s resume reflected the “fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants, carpe diem kind of girl” that she proclaims herself to be. After getting her undergraduate degree in two years from Grand Valley State University, Nikki went to graduate school at Aquinas College, got a degree in education, and then decided she didn’t want to teach. She began working as the Social Media Coordinator for the State of Michigan, where she wrote policy and worked to turn the State’s accounts into tools for connecting with as many of their constituencies as possible. “Going into state government most people thought I was young enough to be their granddaughter, and then when I started to take on leadership roles it wasn’t always easy, but it was something that I never backed down from,” Nikki says.

When she settled down in Portland, Michigan with Andrew, about fifteen miles from where she grew up, Nikki quickly got involved in the community. She was chosen to be a member of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church’s religious education team, and while she was there she helped the priest, a bald, very traditional man named Father Larry, strategize setting up his own Twitter. She also coordinated events for the Portland Main Street Program such as the Portland Block Party, a wine-tasting fundraiser, and a Holiday lights parade. Tom Dempsey, Portland’s former city manager, suggested that Nikki run for City Council, and despite all that she had done for the town, many people told her she didn’t have a chance because she was facing several born-and-raised Portlander candidates. Nikki faced her challengers with a fierce social media campaign to make up for her Lake Odessa roots. When she won, Dempsey said: “I guess there really is something to that social media stuff.” As a member of City Council, Nikki used her social expertise to make the government more accessible to its constituents. She posted Monday night highlights on Facebook to keep Portlanders informed, because “you know darn well no one’s sitting around watching public access television.”

Her extensive experience working with social media, her personable nature, and her innate ability to juggle a lot of things at once all made her “far and away the best candidate we found,” Billick says of hiring her. From the first day of the job, Nikki hit the ground running. Billick, who had been acting as the interim director of social media, got her up to speed on all of the brand research and data from the University’s social media sites, and then she took over. “I like to say that she wrangled all the social media primaries and got them to consent to be governed.”

At the Sunstrum household, Nikki must perform a similar feat. Balancing five children, her job and community involvement, and Andrew’s work as a warehouse manager is just part of the routine for a woman who stays up to speed with Twitter for a living. “My kids played meeting, they didn’t play house,” Nikki says. There’s a picture on her Twitter of her two dark-haired boys laying on the ground next to an iPad, captioned: ‘Some kids watch cartoons, some watch @Morning_Joe election analysis on @msnbc. #TeamSunstrum.’

Phoenix, Nikki’s “mini-me,” is featured there, too, grinning next to the sign that reads ‘Office of the Governor’ and points towards the grinning 12-year-old. Arion, who is ten, calls her mom out on Twitter for posting a selfie, which the youngest Sunstrums aren’t allowed to do. But @nikkisunstrum retorts in a comment –“But note: no ducklips, gang signs and PROPER CAPITALIZATION!!!”

Kyra is a mischievous eight-year-old, and “gonna be an ass-kicker,” according to Nikki. At three, Titan is a “total charmer,” and eight-month-old Xander is “sweet and always very smiley.” Together, co-captained by Nikki and Andrew, this is #TeamSunstrum.

“With having five kids, at some point, I don’t even remember when, I developed the hashtag ‘Team Sunstrum,’ — it’s been going strong for like four or five years now, it’s how people refer to my family,” Nikki says. “I swear we’re one step away from monogrammed sweaters.”

At 31, Nikki has seen more and done more than most of her peers. But despite her accelerated lifestyle, she has always remained true to her traditional family values. “I was raised to have it instilled in me that I could accomplish anything that I want…there are no limits to what we can do as long as we keep what’s important in perspective,” she says. That means Andrew, their parents and siblings, and five tiny people with names from Greek mythology. From their first dance back in the sixth grade to the years in college when Andrew racked up a few $500 cell phone bills talking to her at his lunch break or in his parents’ backyard at night, and through the hardest years of Andrew working nights and only seeing Nikki on the weekends, those values have been central to Andrew and Nikki. “We were that obnoxious couple that was so overly in love that we didn’t give a crap about what anyone else was doing,” Andrew says.

One Friday the 13th, 2002 every patron at Applebee’s cheered him on as Andrew, clad in his grubby work clothes and in front of Nikki’s parents, got down on one knee to propose to his high school sweetheart. “We were young,” Nikki says, “and this was before, clearly, Pinterest, and before most of our friends were going through these elaborate proposals, with the beach and the candles and the blah blah blah — and he was just so damn happy that he had paid off the ring, and he thought ‘I’ve gotta do it right now.’” They got married on Valentine’s Day when she was 19 and he 20, during Nikki’s second year at Grand Valley. The wedding was at the Catholic Church in Lake Odessa, and Andrew helped cater the reception himself. “It’s such a good thing that we lived in Hicksville, USA, because nobody at our wedding was old enough to drink,” Nikki jokes.

Today, the Sunstrum parents spend their days at work and their evenings helping with homework, driving around to competitive volleyball, dance, gymnastics, equestrian, and squeezing in some dinner until the kids (and sometimes the parents) go to sleep by nine.

When Nikki and her family moved to the Ann Arbor area to work at the University, Nikki didn’t even break her stride. On December 1st, only a few months after moving to Dexter, Michigan, Nikki tweeted “Time to update the bio.” announcing the start of her next role: vice president of the chamber of commerce. The director of social media claims that her job may not exist in five years, but Nikki Sunstrum isn’t worried. “I truly am a very roll with the punches sort of girl,” she says. And she has the support of her family in whatever adventure comes next. Before the Sunstrums moved, Nikki tweeted proof of this, provided by Arion.

“”Don’t worry Momma, if you can’t be on #CityCouncil when we move we’ll make a House Council & you can be President” #TeamSunstrum.”

Director of #SocialMedia for @UMich. Former orchestrator of @MIGov & City Councilwoman. #TeamSunstrum Co-Capt. I throw parades for fun. OAMO

Director of #SocialMedia for @UMich. Former orchestrator of @MIGov & City Councilwoman. #TeamSunstrum Co-Capt. I throw parades for fun. OAMO