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#UofTBackToSchool: Sabrina Cruz expresses 'nerdy and quirky' self on YouTube

U of T student Sabrina Cruz on being a YouTube star: 'It’s amazing that I’m not more narcissistic than I am.' (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

How Cruz makes it work as full-time student and part-time online star

On campus, Sabrina Cruz looks like any other undergraduate student. But online, she has a following of almost twice the number of students enrolled at the University of Toronto. 

More than 160,000 people subscribe to her YouTube channel, filled with videos of comedy, rants, personal reflections and “cool history” lessons. In her personal videos, she offers “honest” tips on how to study (“Step one: mental preparation ... or procrastination in disguise”), or describes how a house-warming party succeeded despite a late furniture delivery from Ikea. She also gives mini-lectures on economics and history, with clips from shows like Rick and Morty and South Park

Her path to YouTube stardom began in seventh grade. She has grown up with the website, publishing her first videos a few years after YouTube launched in 2005, and learning to balance her online personality with the demands of being a student.

“It’s amazing that I’m not more narcissistic than I am,” she says.

Cruz says there was a steep learning curve to mastering the platform. “My very first video was 11 minutes long and it’s me eating a cookie – one cookie, mind you,” she says. She believes all evidence of that embarrassing episode has been “deleted off the face of this Earth.”

She says she continued making videos in part because she found it easier to connect with people online than with kids at her own school. She calls her channel “Nerdy and Quirky,” adjectives she identifies with. Among her first videos were rants about Star Trek and a vocal-plus-ukelele tribute to BBC's Sherlock

“It takes a long time to be decent at the internet,” she says.

Sabrina Cruz smiling
Sabrina Cruz has been posting videos of herself on YouTube since Grade 7. “It takes a long time to be decent at the internet,” she says (photo by Geoffrey Vendeville)

She also had to learn to cope with the criticism she received from trolls ruling the toxic comments sections. “Starting out, (as a) low self-esteem small child, I was really bothered by it,” she says. “But growing up, you just reason that the user behind this is probably a 12 year old or someone with the mentality of a 12 year old, so how valid is their opinion?

“I’m also super liberal with the trash button.” 

Her big break came years ago, with a shout-out from one of her YouTube idols that helped her more than double the number of her subscribers, to more than 20,000.

Cruz says she found it challenging to maintain her audience and her grades last year, her first year at U of T. (Read about why Cruz chose Innis College as a Schulich Leader.) During the school year, she aims to publish two videos per week, each of which can take hours of research and editing. 

“It’s all about prioritization,” says the math major. “I still manage to have time to hang out with friends and do decent with my YouTube and decent with my GPA.”

Cruz's YouTube fame came as a surprise to her new friends at university. “In real life, she's funny but I never expected that she's insanely famous and gets flown to VidCon,” a conference for online video-makers in Southern California, says Keslen Murdock, an astrophysics major. The extent of Cruz's celebrity hit home when Murdock saw a teenage stranger recognize  her on the subway. 

But IRL, Cruz is basically the same person she is on screen, he says. 

Having a YouTube channel with a large audience comes with perks: a share of ad revenue, sponsorships and tickets to conferences. But Cruz says she sticks with it despite her busy schedule for the same reason she started in the first place: to make other nerdy and quirky people out there laugh and smile. 
 
“I want people to feel a little less alone.”