Students in Tuscaloosa, Alabama are gaining real world professional experiences at a first-class student-run agency and equally impressive online magazine. During my annual visit this month to the University of Alabama for the Plank Center board meeting, I was struck by the deep bench of ready-for-prime-time talent engaged in the The Capstone Agency and Platform Magazine.
Over the years, we’ve discussed creating similar experiences at DePaul but opted against doing so thanks to the abundance of agencies and other hands-on opportunities and internships available in the nation’s second largest public relations market. However, when the nearest major city is hundreds of miles away, a growing number of college PR programs are creating or ramping up student-run firms.
Launched nearly 10 years ago under the watch of professor Karla Gower, who was PRSSA faculty advisor at the time, UA’s Capstone Agency and PRSSA have been overseen since 2008 by Teri Henley, instructor in the Advertising and Public Relations (APR) program. A firm believer in experiential learning, Teri says, “Capstone students see challenges, constraints and opportunities in ways they can’t in a traditional classroom environment.”
The 85-student agency works with actual paying clients and one pro-bono client, The Alabama Association of Nonprofits. After growing from nine students in 2008, the agency now gets far more student applications than it can “hire”—just like the real world. Students at the agency must have at least a 3.0 GPA.
Asked to cite what the agency accomplishes each year, Teri said: “Students do fully integrated communication research, planning, implementation and evaluation for clients that make a difference in our state, region and nation. They have addressed such issues as the national problem of college-age binge drinking and the importance of higher education to the state of Alabama. They have worked on projects targeting millennials for NASCAR and Alabama Power. And they have collaborated with partners on our campus to communicate the importance of experiential learning for our reaccreditation as well and communication for an eco-friendly car that our engineering school is building for a national competition with the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors.” Plus students win dozens of local, regional and national awards.
“It isn’t all fun and planning,” Teri is quick to add. “It involves some long nights and weekends in ‘The Tank’ (our work space).” But by the end of their experience, she says 98% of the agency students confirm PR as their definite career goal.
Senior Taylor Shelnutt, a PR and Spanish dual major from Douglasville, Georgia, is among that 98%.
“I got involved with Capstone Agency because I knew I needed the experience of hands-on learning in order to be prepared for a career in PR,” Taylor said. “It’s helped me understand the basics of how an agency operates and how to manage a client team.”
Instructor Tracy Sims oversees the student-run magazine course that was commissioned and supported by a Plank Center grant intended to engage students in the booming area of digital communication. Since it was launched in 2007, Platform Magazine now draws more than 52,000 unique visitors.
Explaining what the dozen or so students gain from the Platform experience, Tracy says: “They hone their writing, editing, market research, and promotion skills; make connections with experts in the field (from practitioners to educators) whose perspectives they incorporate into their articles; and manage the publication as a team.”
According to Tracy, the class provides an opportunity where students develop their own voices as writers, and it can help them determine the career paths they want to take upon graduation.
One of those gaining her voice is senior Jacquie McMahon from Pawleys Island, South Carolina. In addition to serving as UA’s PRSSA President, Jacquie is involved with both the Capstone Agency and Platform Magazine.
“Through my involvement with Platform Magazine and Capstone Agency, I’ve learned about the industry from prominent leaders, pitched to national news outlets and worked with my peers to create fresh campaigns that delight clients like The Plank Center,” Jacquie said. She also noted that Platform allows students to interview top industry leaders, an experience that initially seemed intimidating, but wasn’t. An important insight.
Connor Fox, a senior from Birmingham, sums up the value of his experience: “Platform Magazine promised to be a fulfilling experience in understanding how the power of words can connect ideas and people — educators, professionals and the next generation of our industry. The opportunity has empowered me to engage in the evolving world of PR, all while learning to effectively communicate through insightful collaborations both inside and outside of the classroom.”