Emily Velasco sits perched behind a desk cluttered with paper, an oversized mint-green owl coffee mug and jars of peanut butter, honey and hot sauce. She stares at a duo of computer screens, clicking through the Facebook pages she follows.
A green-and-white nameplate resting at the ledge of her desk announces what’s she’s best known for – at least anonymously – since she started working in the Office of Public Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona in 2012.
“Emily Velasco. Social Media Goddess.”
“I have always enjoyed doing social media for the university,” says Velasco, who received the nameplate from an alumnus who admired her informative and entertaining personality on social media.
“It was supposed to be a side duty, but it has grown so much since 2012. Followers, especially students, have come to expect things from our social media. People look at it as a source of information, and they look at it as a source of pride.”
The Cal Poly Pomona alumna (’10, communication) has certainly left her mark on the university through her outside-the-box postings on social media, whether it was transforming the CLA building into a pepperoni pizza or making a video, complete with quirky animal sounds, to provide vital information about how to get into the campus’ newest parking structure.
Several of her posts have gone viral, generating hundreds of shares. One popular tweet featured an image of the Tollett brothers, Perry and Coachella Music Festival founder Paul, who were both students at the university in the 1980s, with the message that no matter the field of study, success can be attained by following one’s passion.
“People really took to that,” she says. “That was the first tweet I did here that was retweeted over 100 times.”
Velasco says a former boss told her not to post anything on social media if it doesn’t advance the university’s mission, something she says she keeps in mind when looking for items to highlight.
“I think about that and then I go looking for things people can be proud of because everyone wants to be proud of their alma mater,” she says. “I also try to keep up with what’s popular on the internet and then look for a way to translate that into something that relates to campus.”
She also looks to a couple of meme-obsessed friends who fill up her Facebook feed with posts that keep her in tune with what’s popular at the moment.
“When something fun goes viral, it makes me happy,” she says. “I like to know I’m giving people something they can enjoy.”
When posts go viral because the subject is controversial, that’s more stressful because it requires spending the day responding to people who are upset, she says.
Whether it’s dealing with controversial topics or searching for that sometimes-elusive inspiration, Velasco thrives on the challenge.
After all, she has faced tougher tests in life than coming up with clever ways to amuse and inform her followers and keeping up with the changing landscape of social media.
When Velasco graduated and accepted a job at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, she did so as Justin, not Emily. She had not yet come out as transgender to her work colleagues. That would come more than three years later, after she left the paper.
In 2012, a temporary job opened up in Public Affairs at Cal Poly Pomona, and Velasco, tired of the layoffs, low pay and furlough days that had become common in the newspaper industry, took a chance on the campus department where she once worked as an intern. She became a fixture on campus and in 2014 decided to open up to her coworkers and colleagues about being transgender.
“I was afraid of coming out sooner because I was a temp,” she says. “I had been out to my family and friends already. It was weird to go by two names. Everyone at home would call me Emily, and at work I was Justin.”
Velasco first approached Uyen Mai (’99, communication), then director of public affairs. A week later, Mai, who is now at Mt. San Antonio College, called a staff meeting and gave Velasco the floor to share her news and answer questions. Follow-up emails went out, and at Fall Conference, Velasco showed up as Emily in a black dress and gray blazer.
Her coming out turned out to be timely.
“Shortly after that was kind of when the whole ball started rolling,” she says. “Actress LaVerne Cox became big and Caitlyn Jenner came out. Suddenly, being transgender was a thing.”
Velasco’s 6-foot-4 height draws attention everywhere she goes, but it is her stature as the campus’ social media expert that made her a standout. It’s a void the campus will feel as Velasco takes a new post as a science writer at Caltech.
“It’s exciting,” she says. “It’s something new and Caltech is a great institution.”
Whoever replaces Velasco has big shoes to fill.
Esther Chou Tanaka, director of Public Affairs, attributes Velasco’s success in social media and other duties to her creativity, wide-ranging knowledge and drive to learn new skills.
Tanaka recalls a rankings post about Cal Poly Pomona’s acreage compared to the other CSU campuses. Velasco created an infographic that showed the campus the size of two Central Parks, 1,000 football fields or 13 Vatican cities.
“Now, infographics and video on social media are so much a part of our daily lives. But when she first did create those visuals, we were impressed because it was so visually interesting,” Tanaka says. “It’s something where you say to yourself ‘Why didn’t I think of this?’”
Velasco also is adept at responding to internet posters, some of whom can be disagreeable.
“Emily has a very good attitude about it,” Tanaka says. “Her responses are disarming. It’s a wonderful balance of humor, truth and levity, but there’s no mean spirit behind it.”
Velasco says the key is to remember that she is speaking as the university, so she never lets her replies get personal.
“I have to channel the university’s values,” she says. “It’s not usually about keeping myself calm. It’s about keeping them calm.”
Tim Lynch, associate vice president for strategic communication and marketing, describes Velasco as “super smart and witty” and says he values her candor most.
“My running joke has been that she had to remain with Public Affairs at least until the day after I retired,” Lynch says. “The sign on her desk says it all: She’s a goddess.”