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Recent SJMC grads reflect on their undergraduate experience

Combining a student-centered philosophy with the resources of a major research university, the SJMC is working hard to give students opportunities not found elsewhere.

by Jen Keavy

sjmcGrads.jpgOver the past decade, the SJMC has strived to improve the undergraduate student experience. From a forward-thinking, dynamic curriculum that utilizes local media professionals, to a commitment to student advising and mentoring, the SJMC prepares its undergraduates to leave Murphy Hall armed and ready for their professional lives. Combining a student-centered philosophy with the resources of a major research university, the SJMC is working hard to give students opportunities not found elsewhere. In this story, three recent SJMC graduates discuss their experiences in Murphy Hall and how those opportunities have helped to shape their careers.

Ask any student and you will hear that the most important element for a positive undergraduate experience is the course work. In the SJMC, innovative courses that blend classroom learning with practical experience give students opportunities not found elsewhere.

Anna Weggel, B.A. '07, shares that sentiment. Weggel, an assistant producer for Minnesota Public Radio's Public Insight Journalism program, says her experience in Jour 4992, Capstone: Field Based Practicum, set the stage for her success. During her senior year, she took the course and was part of the Pioneer Press Web team. Weggel says she opted for the Web experience over the more traditional reporting role in an effort to diversify her skills and experience. As a member of the Web team, she attended daily news meetings, rewrote headlines, repurposed content for the Web and archived news photographs for the site. "Working for twincities.com and being able to see the inner workings of a daily news Web site was invaluable," Weggel says. Weggel also raves about her classes with associate professor Chris Ison. "He has all this great experience as an investigative reporter, and he's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist." She adds that being taught by him was not like being taught by a teacher: "It was like being taught by a journalist, who talked to us like fellow journalists, sharing secrets and tips of the trade."

Although he didn't follow Weggel's professional journalism track, fellow 2007 graduate Matthew Nyquist had a similar, positive experience. Nyquist, who led the National Student Advertising Competition (NSAC) team to its first place finish in 2007, is now an assistant account executive for OLSON.

"The SJMC does an outstanding job of teaching you those basic communications principles--they are ingrained in you by the time you leave," Nyquist says. "The ability to take the theoretical, 10,000- foot-level thinking of communications, in the purest sense, and apply it to whatever media emerge is fundamental." Nyquist credits his course work with professor Daniel Wackman, professor Ron Faber and adjunct instructor John Rash--specifically Jour 4274W, Advertising in Society; Jour 5251, Psychology of Advertising; and Jour 3745, Mass Media and Popular Culture--as leaving the biggest impression on him as a student.

"As you think about and discuss emerging media, the combination of those classes--the principles from advertising classes combined with the mass media course--gives you solid ground to think about how to use new media to promote the messages you want to get across," he says. "There's a tandem of conceptual and practical thinking that results from having taken those courses that gives you an edge over other candidates in the job market."

These alumni, like many SJMC undergraduates, found some of their most meaningful learning opportunities outside of the classroom by participating in the School's student organizations. These organizations offer students the chance to meet and discuss professional interests with other students, faculty and members of the professional community. The School's Ad Club, the local chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America and the student chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the National Student Advertising Competition, and the SJMC's multicultural student organization PRISM all sponsor activities such as workshops, guest speakers and field trips.

Meghan Norris, B.A. '07, says that her experience on the award-winning NSAC team prepared her for agency life far more than any other experience as a student. Today, Norris is an account executive with McCann Erickson in New York.

"A lot of team work went into the NSAC project--and it wasn't always rosy and happy," she says. "We had to work together very closely, day and night, and learn how to communicate effectively."

Mastering the art of argument and learning how to think critically and strategically have been key to her success in the ad world--and she credits Howard Liszt, senior fellow in the SJMC and adviser to the NSAC team, and her peers for teaching her how to do that. "I learned that it is OK to disagree and argue your point. You just have to know how to support your case."

Norris, whose days are now spent managing the Staples and Dentyne accounts at McCann Erickson, says that being a part of the NSAC team taught her to be highly aware of her surroundings and her industry--a characteristic that she admits she doesn't always see in her colleagues. "I don't think many young professionals get the experience that I did through NSAC," she says. "You have to be totally immersed in what you are doing, not just what is happening with your account or your client, but also with the industry and your competition. NSAC taught me the importance of that."

To be sure, classroom and extracurricular activities are not the sum of the student experience. Faculty advising is central to the success of a student's academic career. Unlike any other unit in the College of Liberal Arts (CLA), the SJMC assigns a faculty adviser to every journalism major. Other CLA departments have a staff member who serves as an adviser. Having the connection with a faculty member is unique and gives students a sense of belonging.

"The J-school doesn't hold your hand, but it is always there to support you," says Norris. "Having an adviser like professor Wackman was critical. The guidance and encouragement he gave me were invaluable."

Nyquist adds, "Being able to get to know professors one-on-one, especially in a program the size of the SJMC, is really important. There's a sense of family, and I really feel that my professors got to know me and understand my goals and objectives."

These alumni, like so many students, took advantage of the resources and opportunities provided by the SJMC. Students can find inspiration in a variety of ways--through dynamic classroom opportunities in local newsrooms, meaningful connections with faculty and participation in student organizations.

Fostering lifelong connections and creating experiences that go beyond the classroom are the foundation of the SJMC's educational mission. This distinctive undergraduate experience prepares our students to be leaders in the fields of professional journalism, professional strategic communication and mass communication, as evidenced by these alums.