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Learning Outside the Classroom: SJMC's Student Organizations

By Ami Berger

SJMC’s award-winning student organizations are classrooms of their own, giving students a chance to learn from industry professionals and from each other.

It’s 5 p.m. on a Tuesday afternoon, and classes are over for the day in Murphy Hall. Most regular faculty and staff have left the building; even the copy room is locked.

But surprisingly, the halls are still noisy with the sound of several dozen SJMC students crowding the hallway, laughing and joking with each other. Even more surprisingly, the group is waiting to get into—not run out of—one of the classrooms on the first floor.

The group of students is the 2006 National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC) team, and they’re waiting for the meeting of PRISM, the SJMC’s multicultural organization, to finish up. Earlier in the afternoon, the PRISM members had to wait for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) members to clear out—a bit late, since SPJ is sponsoring a panel presentation in a few weeks featuring professional journalists who covered last year’s school shooting at Red Lake, so the group is in a mild state of frenzy. And the same scene will be played out again tomorrow afternoon, since Wednesdays are the regular meeting days for the School’s Ad Club, who need to be out in time for the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) group that has their meeting right afterwards.

The day’s classes may be over, but for the members of these student organizations, some of the most productive work they’ll do today has just begun.

SPJ: Building bridges between journalists

The 2006 chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists has had a busy year, hosting half a dozen guest speakers, attending SPJ’s national convention in Las Vegas, and planning “The Source Course," a workshop on ethics for student journalists, and “Red Lake Revisited," the panel of journalists who covered the school shootings. This year’s SPJ also boasted a record number of members, perhaps due in part to the fact that SPJ president Sarah Bauer ’06 likes to have pizza at every meeting.

But the success of the group is not solely pizza-based. “SPJ is important because it goes beyond what students learn in SJMC classrooms," says Bauer. “The School has amazing faculty with tons of real-world experience, but there’s nothing like meeting working professionals."

Working with those professionals can be a lesson unto itself. While planning “The Source Course," which attracted almost 100 students from the U and other institutions in February 2006, the group worked to recruit local journalists from the Pioneer Press, TPT-TV, WCCO-TV, and Minnesota Public Radio to present at the workshop—and were immensely relieved when all the presenters actually made it to the event. “Journalists are always on deadline, and their work can change at a moment’s notice," Bauer says, “so you have to be ready to change your plans at a moment’s notice as well."

Such projects are essential for developing students’ understanding of the profession, says Professor Kathleen Hansen, SPJ’s faculty advisor. “SPJ is a partner in the School’s ongoing mission to connect students with the professional community," Hansen says. “SPJ models the kind of professional engagement and continuing education which we hope students puruse when they become working journalists," she says.

Connecting like-minded students is one of the primary reasons the SJMC sponsors its student organizations, says director Albert Tims. “We want to provide our students with as much opportunity for learning outside the classroom as we do in the School’s curriculum," Tims says. “Our student organizations allow students to create their own learning experiences and problem-solve in collaboration with each other. Those are essential skills for suceeding in whatever profession they may eventually choose."

Sarah Bauer knows that her year as president was an important part of getting ready for her life after graduation: “SPJ gave me the opportunity to develop real leadership skills," Bauer says. “That’s important because journalists have to be leaders—especially editors, news directors, producers. You may learn basic skills in the classroom," she says, “but outside the classroom is where you learn to be a leader."

PRSSA: Preparing for the real world of public relations

“As a freshman, I wasn’t sure exactly what PR was all about," says Meghan Stafford ’07, the president of PRSSA. When a member of the group came to talk to her JOUR 1001 class, Stafford was inspired to attend a meeting—and knew instantly she had found her niche. “Two speakers from Padilla Speer Beardsley [a Twin Cities PR firm] came and talked about their jobs," she says. “I was hooked. I didn’t miss a meeting for the remainder of the year."

Over the past year, Stafford has led a group of more than 80 members who attend weekly meetings, host guest speakers from the industry, take agency tours in the Twin Cities and Chicago, and sponsor special events. This year, the group was one of only 11 chapters (out of more than 800 nationwide) selected to host a PRSSA regional activity. The result was an event-planning workshop entitled “Let Us Entertain U," which attracted almost 100 student attendees from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Iowa, and the Dakotas. Planning the event meant applying lessons learned in class to a real-life situation: “Your classes are where you learn to write a press release and talk about how to plan an event," says Stafford. “PRSSA is where you actually write press releases and plan real events for real people."

Students also get real-world experience through Gopher Impressions, PRSSA’s public relations firm. Directed this past year by Patrick Tierney ’06, Gopher Impressions was granted “National Affiliation" in 2006, a distinction earned by meeting criteria set by the PRSSA national committee. The firm’s clients include the Minnesota Alcohol and Traffic Safety Commission (MATSA), the Top Dog Foundation, and the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis.

“Working with the PRSSA kids has been just great," says Kelli Hallas, director of fundraising for Top Dog, a non-profit organization that works to find permanent homes for hard-to-place dogs. Gopher Impressions helped Top Dog with its media relations and strategic planning by writing press releases, creating media kits, assisting in grantwriting, and planning a benefit. “We threw a lot at them," says Hallas, who was a PRSSA member herself as a public relations major at Indiana State University. “We told them we weren’t going to do a lot of handholding. It was their responsibility to use their education, their instincts, and their creativity to get the job done. And they did."

The boost that PRSSA members give to external clients, though, is nothing compared to the boost that PRSSA gives to the members themselves. “I could never list all the things I have gained from PRSSA," Meghan Stafford says. “It has helped me understand the industry from dozens of perspective, and it has taught me about communication, teamwork, and leadership."

PRISM: Exploring diversity and explaining the need for change

Founded in 1998, the mission of PRISM is to provide members of all races and ethnic backgrounds with a greater sense of community within the SJMC and to work to encourage diversity in the field of journalism. Those are lofty goals, and they are also unique ones: PRISM is literally the only student organization of its kind.

“The SJMC has the only multicultural student association of journalists in the country," says Sherrie Mazingo, Fellow in the SJMC and PRISM’s faculty co-advisor, along with Professor Jisu Huh. Mazingo stresses the fact that PRISM is not an organization for “students of color": it’s a place where students of all races and backgrounds can and do get involved. This past year, the group’s executive board included black, white, Latino, Hmong, Somali, and Filipino students .

PRISM’s president, Ahlam Hassan ‘07, was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, and grew up in Germany, Italy and France. A double-major in journalism and German, Hassan got involved with PRISM as a freshman. PRISM has a reputation for fun, offbeat events—the group has had bowling parties, trivia contests, and car washes in the past few years—but “diversity" and “multiculturalism" are serious and often controversial ideas. With the help of Mazingo, the group has initiated some tough discussions about diversity, with the goal of improving students’ understanding of the effects of racism and bigotry in the media, on the U campus, and in society at large.

One result of those efforts is an ongoing collaboration with The Minnesota Daily aimed at diversifying the paper’s coverage and staff. The effort began in March 2005, when a Daily column entitled “Celebrating diversity is a recipe for disaster" sparked a firestorm of protest. PRISM worked with Daily editor-in-chief Jake Weyer to co-sponsor several campus-wide forums about the issue, and was instrumental in creating a Daily “diversity council." Britt Johnsen,August 29, 2006comprised of students who provide feedback to editors about coverage and recruitment. Members of PRISM are now members of that council. “It’s a testament to the leadership of the two organizations in really listening to each other," Mazingo says. “Professional newsrooms struggle with issues of racial and ethnic diversity, and I’m very proud of the progress that both groups have made in fostering dialogue."

PRISM poster
In addition to an ongoing partnership with the Daily, PRISM sponsored a campus-wide hip hop conference and concert in December of 2005, designed to bring music and media experts together for a discussion of the impact of the hip hop genre. The conference featured talks by academic and cultural experts during the day and a hip hop concert co-sponsored by PRISM and the U’s Hip Hop Club that night.August 21, 2006 including Golden, Live Wire, Guardians of Balance, and Unknown Prophets. The event was a huge success, attracting almost 40 people to the daytime conference and more than 100 to the concert that night, and the group was pleased that its effort to put hip hop front-and-center on campus was met with such enthusiasm. “We wanted to create an outlet on campus for students and faculty to disucss the role and significance of hip hop," says Hassan, “and of course, we also wanted to everyone to be able to enjoy the music!"

“The PRISM experience complements the classroom experience by helping students develop leadership and organizational skills," Mazingo says, “but it also helps students become culturally knowledgable. Given the changing demographics of this country," she adds, “chances are good that our students will work with people of many different cultures. Exposure to those different cultures while in the SJMC is a very important experience for our students to have."

AdClub: Building relationships and industry expertise

When AdClub vice-president Carolyn Ahlstrom ‘06 organized an “internship day" at Risdall Advertising in Minneapolis in the winter of 2006, she figured it would be a good way for members of the club to get insight into the day-to-day workings of an advertising agency. Ahlstrom worked with senior executives at Risdall to plan a full day of job-shadowing; AdClub members spent the day talking with employees, brainstorming with different teams, and attending meetings. “Organizing the internship day was a ton of work," Ahlstrom says, “but it definitely paid off in the end." That’s certainly true for Ahlstrom herself: she ended up with an internship at Risdall which turned into a full-time job offer for after graduation.

That kind of success story is why AdClub attracts so many members looking for an entry point into the advertising industry. “Ever since I joined AdClub, I’ve used it as a resource to answer every question I could possibly have about advertising," says Jeff Tomczek ’06, this year’s AdClub president. “The club exposed me to job descriptions, case study examples, direct interaction with industry professionals, and a preview of the inner workings of the ad world. This knowledge was just as influential as my coursework," he says.

AdClub helps its members gain that knowledge through a wide variety of activities. This year, the club hosted guest speakers from Campbell Mithun, Carmichael Lynch, Space 150, the Miami Ad School, the Minnesota Timberwolves, the Ronald McDonald House, Niemer Fieger, and Olson + Company, just to name a few. Members also toured Twin Cities ad agencies, including Olson, Space150, Carmichael Lynch, and Fallon.

A new activity this year was the introduction of year-long “interactive" projects, in which AdClub members created advertising campaigns for several real-life clients, including the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Minneapolis restaurant Pracna. “This was great experience for our members," Tomczek says, “particularly those who don’t participate in the National Student Advertising Competition—the campaigns were sort of a condensed version of what NSAC tries to accomplish."

Not all of this year’s activities were as successful, but according to Tomczek, even the disappointments were valuable learning experiences. “One of my favorite memories of this year was a tour we took of a downtown agency that shall remain unnamed," says Tomczek. Prior to the tour, many AdClub members thought that “Agency X" would be an “incredible" place to work. That turned out not to be the case: “After the tour, the majority of our group was really turned off by the agency’s environment," he says. “The chance to step into a professional environment, feel it out on our own, and shape our own opinions, rather than rely on rumors, is what makes AdClub such an incredible resource."

NSAC: Creating a campaign and lifelong connections

Unlike the SJMC’s other student organiztions, the NSAC group has the “luxury" of focusing on a single project all year. From September through April, the group develops an advertising campaign for a client selected by the American Advertising Federation. That campaign is perfected, polished, and then presented in April, when the 150 to 175 NSAC teams from schools across the nation compete in ten regional competitions for the chance to go on to the national NSAC competition in June.

But that single project is hardly a luxury. For seven months, NSAC members spend countless hours (including their entire spring break) brainstorming, creating, writing, editing, and revising their campaign book. “The hours these kids put in, it’s really amazing," says Howard Liszt, Senior Fellow at the SJMC and the faculty advisor for NSAC. Liszt, who retired in 2000 as the CEO of advertising agency Campbell Mithun, has led the School’s NSAC team to the national competition four out of the last five years—an admirable feat, particularly since the SJMC, unlike many other schools, offers NSAC as an extracurricular activity and not as a for-credit class.

But the students are happy to put in the time. “I can’t put into words how much I’ve grown as a student and a person through my involvement with NSAC," says Shannon Brown ’06. Brown is one of the four team leaders for this year’s NSAC team, along with Nicole Brubaker ’06, Kathryn Dudkiewicz ’06, and Heidi Keel ’06. As team leaders, the four are responsible for coordinating the entire project—managing meetings, delegating work, assigning responsibilities, and editing the results. “I’ve learned never to settle for mediocre and never strive to just be good," Brown says. “The lessons I’ve learned from NSAC will continue to be a part of who I am long after I leave this school."

According to Howard Liszt, that continued connection is one of NSAC’s most valuable benefits. “NSAC students end up working together, sharing apartments, inviting each other to their weddings," Liszt says. NSAC alumni often come to cheer on the current team at the regional competition, and can also be relied on to lend a hand in other ways: one night during this past spring break, as the 2006 team was holed up in Heidi Keel’s apartment working feverishly on their presentation, there was a knock on the door. It was the 2005 team, bringing pizza, pop, and encouragement.

It must have worked: the 2006 NSAC team took first place in the district 8 regional competition, and as the Murphy Reporter goes to press, was preparing for nationals in June. It’s what they worked for all year, but not, as Shannon Brown points out, the most important thing: “Most people would think that winning is the best part of NSAC, and in some ways it is," she says. “But the best memories I have are the long days and sleepless nights of spring break. The teamwork and perseverance towards a common goal is something that can’t be replicated in any classroom."