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The Undergraduate Experience

By Ami Berger

The SJMC is making its undergraduate curriculum one of the most dynamic and forward-thinking in the country. The result? Alumni who know how to make a difference in the real world.

When you’re talking about undergraduate studies at a large research university, there are a few common images that come to mind. Huge lecture courses in vast auditoriums. Professors who only know students as numbers, not names. Cookie-cutter curricula designed to get undergrads in and out, while graduate students get all the attention.

the Jungle Theater in Minneapolis That’s not the case in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. The SJMC’s undergraduate curriculum has changed dramatically over the last ten years, incorporating small classes, unique professional opportunities, critical student-support mechanisms, and exposure to cutting-edge ideas and the people who create them. By combining that student-centered philosophy with the vast resources of the University of Minnesota, the SJMC is working towards making its undergraduate curriculum a model for schools of journalism nationwide.

A vibrant curriculum

The most important ingredient for a successful undergraduate experience is a student’s coursework.

Majors in the SJMC, particularly juniors and seniors, have the opportunity to take innovative courses that blend classroom learning with practical experience—a blend which provides students with practical and professional experiences not available elsewhere.

For students interested in print journalism, for example, JOUR5155: Advanced Reporting Methods, is a step outside Murphy Hall and into the real world of the newsroom. The class, also known as the “Pioneer Press class," is taught entirely in the newsroom of the St. Paul paper by Gayle Golden, a professional journalist who has written for the New York Times, the Dallas Morning News, the Los Angeles Times, and Texas Monthly. Students spend approximately 14 hours in the newsroom per week, working with a specific desk and editor on a wide variety of reporting and writing assignments. According to Golden, it’s a challenging, but necessary, part of their academic careers: “By the time they get to my class, students need real-world experience in order to go forward," Golden says. “They need time in a lecture hall less than they need clips and references. That’s what this course gives them."

Lee Ann Schutz and Joni Berg, instructors of JOUR4193: Community Journalism, agree. In 4193, students learn advanced reporting, page design, and information graphics from working journalists at community newspapers around the Twin Cities. Like students in Golden’s class, Community Journalism students work on-site in newsrooms, shadowing reporters and working on stories for publication. There’s less tangible learning going on in 4193 as well. “Students learn how to mix into a group that is not easy to mix into in order to get stories," Berg points out. “They learn how to deal with rejection if sources don’t come forth with answers to questions, or if they’re treated with suspicion. That’s tough to feel when you’re a writer," she adds, “and especially hard when you’re young. Students need to think and feel outside the box of their own youth, and that’s not easy."

Experiential courses like 5155 and 4193 demand a lot from students, and they’re also resource-intensive for the School. Developing an effective practice-based course, recruiting the highest-quality professional instructors, and providing students with the ways and means to get off-campus takes time and money. Fortunately, the SJMC has the financial support of several endowed funds, including the Brovald-Sim Fund and the David and Vicki Cox Innovation Fund, which are specifically earmarked for the support of innovative courses in the School.

The Brovald-Sim Fund, established in honor of SJMC Professors Walter H. Brovald and John “Cam" Sim by their families and friends in 1991, provides financial support for students in the Community Journalism class to travel to their newsrooms, some of which are in outlying areas of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The David and Vicki Cox Innovation Fund was established in 1999 by David Cox, the CEO of the Cowles Media Co., and his wife Vicki, to encourage students and faculty in the School to think creatively about new and powerful learning opportunities for students.

Cathy Wurzer and Kerri Miller  lend Emmy-winning expertise to students in the “Emmys classThe Cox Fund supports undergraduate courses like JOUR4990, the “Emmys class"—a professional, field-based series of master classes presented by Emmy-award-winning broadcasters from the Upper Midwest Chapter of the National Television Academy (NTA). Over the course of the semester, students meet with top-level professionals from the local TV news industry and are required to put information learned to practical use in a series of assignments.

This past spring, the Emmys class was taught by Kerri Miller, host of Minnesota Public Radio’s “MidMorning" program and a former award-winning reporter for KARE-11 television, and Cathy Wurzer, the host of “Morning Edition" on MPR and a three-time Emmy winner. Although both Wurzer and Miller have extremely busy professional schedules, both were willing to make the time to teach the Emmys course. “The students are all so bright and talented," Wurzer says, “much more so than I remember being when I was in school!"

SJMC Director Al Tims notes that without the support of endowments like the Brovald-Sim and Cox Innovation Funds, developing courses and recruiting instructors like these would be much more difficult for the School. “We are incredibly fortunate to have donors and friends who understand the importance of innovative programming for our undergraduates," Tims says.

The SJMC’s Digital Information Resource Center/Eric Sevareid LibraryDonors and friends also support another valuable SJMC resource: the Digital Information Resources Center/Eric Sevareid Library. The SJMC’s departmental library has always been supported entirely by alumni gifts, which make it possible for the School to purchase subscriptions to journal titles that are not available anywhere else on campus—especially trade publications that are important for professional track students. The library also provides study space, teaming rooms where students can work on group projects, audiovisual material that they would otherwise have to trek across campus to get, and the most recent books and reference materials that are relevant for their class papers and projects.

“The generosity of donors in writing checks to help purchase books and subscribe to journals is a testament to the importance of this resource to students while they are in the program," says professor Kathleen Hansen, the faculty director of the Library. “The fact that the collection is small and tailored to journalism and mass communication subject areas makes it less intimidating to undergraduates than Wilson Library, which houses more than 5 million items," she points out. “The library is one more way that the SJMC attempts to create a community of scholarship and common interests for our students."

Making the Connection: Advising and Mentoring

The classroom experience is an important part of the undergraduate experience, but it’s not the only part. The SJMC puts an enormous amount of time and energy into providing undergraduates with academic and professional support outside the classroom, particularly when it comes to faculty advising.

SJMC’s approach to advising is unique in the College of Liberal Arts. Every journalism major has an adviser on the School’s faculty, whereas in most CLA departments, a staff member serves as adviser to majors. “Having a faculty adviser creates a number of benefits for students," says Dan Wackman. “They have a contact on the faculty who knows something about them as a person, their interests and aspirations and aspects of their life that shape their program of study. Since faculty have a solid understanding of SJMC's curriculum," he says, “they can be very helpful in guiding students toward courses that will fit well in their plan."

The knowledge and guidance of faculty is supplemented by another important resource in Murphy Hall: instructors from the SJMC’s world-class graduate program. “Our graduate students are among the best in the world," says SJMC Director Al Tims, “and part of the SJMC’s mission is to prepare them to be leading faculty members at top journalism schools around the world." Tims notes that by the time SJMC graduate students reach the point where they teach undergraduates—after passing their preliminary oral exams—they are at a point where their ideas and research can have a profound impact on undergraduates.

Students in the SJMC are also encouraged to find mentors outside Murphy Hall, with the help of an extensive alumni mentoring program created and administered by the School’s Alumni Society Board. One of the first student/alumni mentoring programs to be established at the University of Minnesota, SJMC’s alumni mentoring program has matched thousands of SJMC undergraduates with professionals in the industry. Paula Engelking (B.A.’88), a member of the SJMC Alumni Board and a producer at WCCO, is the coordinator of the program. “When you’re in school, you’re not really sure what the work world will be like," Engelking says. “That’s when a mentor can be invaluable. Mentors tell students what it’s really like in the work world: how to network and find a job, the pay, the hours, the challenges you’ll encounter every day. This knowledge can help students decide if they truly want to enter the field," she says.

Engelking has been involved in every facet of the alumni mentoring program: as a student, she signed up for an alumni mentor, and the good experience she had encouraged her to become a mentor. Eventually, she took charge of making mentor/protégé matches for the Alumni Board. “It’s been almost twenty years since I was a senior in the J-School," she says, “and I still remember how excited I was to learn that Trish Van Pilsum, a reporter at WCCO-TV, would be my mentor." Engelking says that Van Pilsum showed her what the “real world" of TV news was like. “I remember tagging along on a pretty meaty story—teenage boys accused of murder," she recalls, “and Trish and the photographer let me do a standup. I was so excited!" Now, Engelking is trying to pass that experience along to current SJMC students: “Some of these students will work alongside me one day," she points out, “and it’s in my best interest to make sure that they’ve got the passion, perseverance and skills to get the job done right."

Rewarding the Best and Brightest

Even with these resources, there are many challenges to attending the University of Minnesota, not the least of which is cost. That’s why the SJMC is committed to finding ways to provide financial support for undergraduates in the form of donor-funded scholarships. For 2005-06, 70 undergraduates will receive more than $250,000 in scholarship money. The competition for scholarships is intense, and SJMC Director Al Tims is constantly working to increase the number of scholarships and dollars available to undergraduates. “Scholarship money is critical," Tims says. “It means our students can focus on their coursework, or do an internship, participate in a club or competition—do the things that are important to their futures."

Conrad Wilson, a professional journalism student who will be a junior in the fall of 2005, agrees. Wilson is the recipient of two scholarships—the Kaufman-Skyway News Scholarship and the Pioneer Press Scholarship—and is grateful for the academic and personal support those scholarships represent. “These scholarships mean so much to me financially and academically," Wilson says. “They’ll definitely help ease the cost of tuition, but they also recognize the hard work I’m doing in my classes. The feeling that someone other than yourself believes in your ability to do what you love is the best encouragement I could have."

Wilson, like many scholarship winners, is also a participant in the SJMC Honors Program, which has undergone a number of changes recently. Although almost 40% of SJMC majors are eligible to participate in the CLA honors program, many students chose not to because of the perceived administrative “hassle" and the view that honors courses would just mean more work with few benefits. But Professor Kathleen Hansen, who coordinates the SJMC Honors Program, points out that the School is working hard to change that view.

“We've revised the honors program so that students take the honors thesis credits as one of their four context courses, and the second honors requirement in the major is met with Jour 4731H, which is a discussion section exclusively for honors students who are enrolled in their capstone skills course," Hansen says. Honors students from all the capstone courses meet together in a small group discussion section once a week to talk about the issues and concerns they face as future media professionals and industry leaders. In the future, Hansen says, honors students will be offered special opportunities to meet with visitors or speakers who are on campus, and to attend events and workshops designed specifically for them as honors students. “All of this is designed to make the honors program a truly unique opportunity for our high-achieving students," Hansen adds.

Outside the Classroom

For many SJMC undergraduates, some of the most important learning experiences take place in one of the School’s student organizations. The School’s Ad Club, student chapters of Public Relations Student Society of America and the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC) team, and PRISM all provide ways for students with different professional interests to meet and learn from each other.

Howard Liszt, Senior Fellow in the SJMC and retired CEO of Campbell Mithun Esty, is the adviser of the School’s NSAC team, which competes in the American Advertising Federation’s annual student competition. Every year, the NSAC team prepares a complete advertising campaign for the competition’s “client," and takes that campaign to the regional competition. In the four years Liszt has been adviser, the team has placed either first or second in regional competition. “The NSAC competition is the closest students can get to the experience of preparing a professional ad campaign," Liszt says. “The creative process is real, the deadlines are real, the competition is real, and the anxiety is real. The entire experience is another way that the SJMC helps prepare students who want strategic communication careers," Liszt adds.

Sherrie Mazingo is the SJMC’s Cowles Media Fellow and the co-adviser of PRISM, the School’s multicultural organization. According to Mazingo, PRISM’s goal is to promote multicultural understanding within the SJMC and within the media industry as a whole. “Students who become involved in PRISM get the benefit and the advantage of interacting with students from many different backgrounds," Mazingo says. “This interaction is vital, because these students will be entering multicultural workforces and will need to have an understanding and appreciation for those who are different from themselves."

This past year, PRISM was instrumental in leading the discussion regarding diversity at the Minnesota Daily, with the support and participation of Daily editor Jake Weyer (see story, page x). As a result of a collaboration between Weyer and PRISM, the paper held two campus-wide diversity forums, which were “highly productive and successful," according to Mazingo, who sees efforts like the diversity forums as part of the “learning framework" that PRISM provides. “There is no other organization like PRISM in any other journalism school in the country," she points out, “so our majors have a unique opportunity to become culturally knowledgeable and take that knowledge with them into the workplace."

The Wider View: Journalism and the Liberal Arts

Undergraduates in the SJMC aren’t just students of journalism: they are also students of the liberal arts. “We have always emphasized that the core of a journalist's training was a solid liberal arts education," says Director of Undergraduate Studies Dan Wackman, who notes that the SJMC was established as a department within the College of Liberal Arts from its inception, rather than as a separate school or college of communications, as is true at many other research universities. “One benefit of this arrangement is that faculty in other departments have closer, more collegial relationships with SJMC faculty," Wackman notes, “and SJMC faculty feel that their efforts are part of a much larger picture: the overall education of our students in the liberal arts."

For students, being part of the CLA as well as the SJMC provides a similar sense of cohesion; students know that their journalism or strategic communication program is only a part of the broader education they are receiving. More than a third of SJMC students have a second major or minor outside SJMC, so they often have the experience of gaining depth in a second CLA discipline.

“While journalism is definitely my first love, I have always had a real interest in Spanish," says Leah Yetka, a strategic communications major who will be a SJMC senior in the fall of 2005. Yetka is very involved in the School—she’s a scholarship winner and a leader of the School’s NSAC team—but she has also found time to double-major in Spanish and has traveled widely. “Through my experiences traveling in Spain and South America, I have found that the language plays a crucial role in understanding and appreciating another culture," she says.

Yetka sees her two majors as complements to one another: “As a strategic communicator, having a diverse set of tools and experiences—like an understanding of the Spanish language and culture—strengthens my overall ability to express myself," she says. “Particularly in the advertising industry, keeping a pulse on many different cultures and peoples only adds to these tools. And examining the American media through the lens of Spanish culture has broadened my perspective on the true power of these messages to shape our own culture," she notes.

According to SJMC director Albert Tims, this is precisely the undergraduate experience the School aims to foster with its curriculum and programs. “The SJMC is vested in a strong liberal arts education, and our undergraduates reap the benefits of that" he says. “We want to send them out into their careers with more than just an understanding of how to write a news story or how to put an advertising campaign together. We want them to have an understanding of the larger world, and how they can use their talents to shape that world."