Imagine walking into your first class of the fall semester and a new professor explains that you and your classmates will jump right into the work of creating a PR plan for a real nonprofit organization. That’s exactly what happened to David Deemer and Stefani Leeper when they walked into Pat Maxwell’s public relations principles class this year.
A new professor at Union, Maxwell teaches several communication and social media classes in which she endeavors to teach her students by giving them not just theoretical but practical knowledge. She has spent many years as a public relations professional, most recently as director of marketing and communication technologies for Catalina Island Conservancy in California.
As she prepared for her classes, she began making connections with nonprofit organizations around Lincoln over the summer, including Constru Casa, Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition, Domesti-PUPS, and many were open to allow students to help them develop a public relations plan.
Maxwell, herself, has worked and volunteered for a number of nonprofit organizations over the years, from Los Angeles to San Martin, Guatemala. “One thing always remains true– nonprofits generally do not have the resources to accomplish all they want and need to do,” Maxwell said. “Working with these organizations can be very rewarding.”
The professor set high goals for her students and had faith that her students could achieve them—including adding real value to a nonprofit’s communication program by producing final work that was of professional quality and met a real need for the nonprofit. “The students absolutely reached the goals I had envisioned,” Maxwell explained. “The PR principles class this fall gave three Lincoln-based organizations the added boost of talent and time to accomplish some key tasks leading to brand awareness and engagement with their audiences.”
Taking on the real world
Deemer, a senior biomedical science major, teamed up with Roxi Peterson, Michael Brautigan, and Kristi Tucker to work with Constru Casa, a nonprofit that builds homes for impoverished families in Guatemala. They set out to increase awareness among older audiences who may be interested in supporting their efforts. To build awareness, Deemer and his group published an article in Nebraska Magazine, featuring CEO Jim Pittenger and UNL graduate student Kye Kurkowski.
Even though this project was sprung on them the first day of class, Deemer admitted that the team determined the path of the project and it taught him that life is thrown our way every day and we can’t always prepare for it. “There’s a lot to be said about learning to make adjustments as you go,” he said. “I think this class taught us to do that and be comfortable in that environment.”
A project like this often proves to be very time-consuming. “This class is very involved, and in order to do well you must invest time and energy into your team and your project,” Deemer said. “Overall, it was a challenging and rewarding experience, and I’m glad I was able to take part in it.”
Leeper teamed up with Anthony Gann and Rachel Lozano to work with Domesti-PUPS, a nonprofit that organizes community services with service and therapy dogs. This team grew the organization’s Twitter audience and edited a promotional brochure. “I feel my team contributed by helping the owner of Domesti-PUPS realize that the business needs a larger social media outreach, which can be easily accomplished by simply hiring a business or communications student as an intern,” Leeper explained.
She believes her favorite part of the class included the final presentation, not because it signaled the end of the semester, but because they were to dress professionally and present themselves as business people as they presented the work they did throughout the semester.
The team met with the organization on a regular basis to discuss expectations and give updates along with regular email communication to keep the project on track. They also got to meet some of the puppies training to be service dogs. “This was probably the most fun meeting we had, as we were able to ‘forget’ about our job and focus on the purpose of it, the service dogs,” Leeper explained. “We were able to hold the puppies and pet them. Although the experience lasted for less than ten minutes, it was a nice, relaxing experience that we enjoyed as a team.”
Making an impact
According to Maxwell, each team made a lasting impact on the organization they served. “Every organization reported that the quality of work by Union College students in this class was excellent,” she said.
One of the other class teams worked with the Lincoln Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition. “Our committee would not have been able to reach any of the organizations and younger generations without their Facebook and website designers,” said Martha Gadbury, a member of the coalition. “The analytics were invaluable. Their need for information forced us to focus on our message and project. They taught us valuable lessons on the use of a variety of technologies in promoting our project.”
Chris Blake, chair of the coalition agreed. “Partnering with Union College communications students helped the Interfaith Peacemaking Coalition by envisioning, enlightening, and empowering,” he said. “We feel 30 years younger! The media technology accessibility and products they provided were a Godsend. I highly recommend working with Union College emerging media students.”
“The most immediate and obvious effect of the work by the Union College students was to get an article published in the University of Nebraska Alumni magazine that reached a wide audience. We are certainly hopeful that it will generate significant interest in Constru Casa,” said John Lothrop of Constru Casa.
Both students were thankful for the chance to go after a real public relations challenge.
“Patience and communication are the keys to life and success in this class,” said Leeper.
“This project may be difficult but if you persevere the outcomes are rewarding,” said Deemer. “You get out of this class what you put into it.”
By Megan Wehling