Instagram-famous: IU junior takes over 290-million-follower account during NCAA Final Four

Rachel Gillam, a junior in Indiana University's Kelley School of Business, spent most of her weekends during her freshman year at IU Athletics events. Whether she was attending a football game, watching a soccer match or cheering on IU basketball teams at Assembly Hall, she found her home on campus with other Hoosier fans.

Rachel Gillam and other students at NCAA Final FourView print quality image
IU junior Rachel Gillam poses with Instagram employees at the NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis. Photo courtesy of Rachel Gillam

So when the Lafayette, Indiana, native saw a posting for a social media internship with IU Athletics' Mark Cuban Center for Sports Media and Technology at the beginning of her sophomore year, she knew it'd be the perfect way to combine her interest in media marketing, her new passion for athletics and her eagerness to learn more about social media.

Gillam started out working with IU Athletics' Snapchat accounts, creating GIFs for platforms and executing various social media campaigns across IU's 24 sports. Her role has since evolved into working on a broader social media strategy for IU Athletics and focusing specifically on Instagram.

This shift to focus on Instagram led Gillam to an opportunity of a lifetime last month: taking over Instagram's 290-million-follower account during the NCAA Final Four basketball tournament in Minneapolis.

Gillam has been part of Instagram's Student Section program since the fall. The program trains students, who are selected by universities, and gives them access to university Instagram accounts to share first-person, game-day content via Instagram Stories. Her consistent use of IU branding and her ability to harness new Instagram tools to engage followers caught the Instagram team's eye and landed her a spot on the Final Four team.

Rachel Gillam celebrates at the Final FourView print quality image
Gillam has been part of Instagram's Student Section program since the fall. She caught the Instagram team's eye and landed a spot on the Final Four team. Photo courtesy of Rachel Gillam

Gillam was flown to U.S. Bank Stadium the morning before the tournament to meet with the Instagram team and other students selected to cover the event, and to scout the stadium for the following day's festivities. On game day, Gillam handled pregame coverage of the teams and embedded herself in student sections during the games. She said that documenting the moment when fans realized their team would be going to the championship game was something she'll never forget.

"At the end of these games, everyone's crying, because either your team won or your team lost," Gillam said. "The experience helped me understand how much these teams mean to their fans, and being there to capture it was very humbling."

After the Final Four games, Gillam went on to cover the championship game for the March Madness Instagram account. She said the experience from her internship and the NCAA tournament have given her skills that will be instrumental in her future career. Jumping into social media with little experience at the start of her IU Athletics internship taught her to put herself outside of her comfort zone, and the Instagram takeover gave her a chance to tackle a tough project with a team of people she'd just met.

Gillam said these experiences have also steered her toward pursuing full-time opportunities in sports media and sports social media after graduation.

"The people I got to work with and environment I got to be with during the NCAA tournament really has me considering a career in sports media," Gillam said. "When fans are so passionate and hopeful for their team that they're literally bouncing with excitement, it makes getting good social media content a very easy job."