The Mountaineer network is strong. College of Media students belong to a dedicated family of alumni who mentor them from the moment they walk through the doors of Martin Hall to that triumphant walk across the graduation stage … and beyond.
When Chuck Harman (BSJ, 1981; MSJ, 1984) was an undergraduate student at the P.I. Reed School of Journalism, Professor Frank Kearns (BA, 1938), a former CBS news foreign correspondent, was that mentor.
“Professor Kearns recognized my potential and motivated me to think globally,” Harman said. “It impacted my entire life and my career.”
When Harman became an adjunct instructor for the College in 1999, he wanted to similarly inspire his students and make mentorship a key element of his courses. He had that opportunity when he started teaching the public relations and strategic communications capstone course 15 years ago.
“Mentors bring the real world into the classroom every day,” said Harman. “There really isn’t a text book that explains how to ‘pitch’ a client.” So Harman engaged other alumni to serve as professional advisors for the course. “These seasoned agency professionals have honed their skills at some of the largest agencies in the world and translate their knowledge to my students,” he said. “As a result, our graduates often have a distinct advantage over other entry level candidates.”
In the early 2000s, Harman engaged Mike Fulton (BSJ, 1979), who was executive vice president for GolinHarris at the time, as the first mentor for the capstone course. Fulton has been a mentor several times and is now at The Asher Agency in Washington, D.C.
“This was kind of a trial for a new way to teach the course,” said Harman. “I know I’m asking a lot of the mentors. The agency world is not a nine-to-five job, so for them to devote this much time to our students on top of working full time. It’s an incredible commitment on their part.”
While Harman typically has a single mentor for each class, he decided to invite three alumni to participate in the spring 2020 capstone. Chad Hyett (BSJ, 2001), executive vice president at MCS Healthcare Public Relations who has participated as a mentor since 2014; Brandon Thomas (BSJ, 2010), vice president and general manager at PAN Communications; and Maddie Ernst (BSJ, 2019), communications associate for Rick Miller Communications, all virtually returned to their alma mater to advise students in developing public relations campaigns for Customized Educational Programs Abroad (CEPA), an international nonprofit that offers study abroad opportunities to students in semester-long and short-term faculty-led courses.
“I would like to express our gratitude for the students’ and Chuck’s motivation and perseverance despite the challenges that prevented them traveling to visit us in person. We appreciated the variety of strategies that the students developed to help improve our organization and are excited to move forward.”
ULI LEIBRECHT, executive director and founder, CEPA
“Working with the capstone students was a rewarding and unforgettable experience. Their optimism, excitement and forward-oriented strategies have invigorated us with hope for the future.”
RENEE VAN AMBURGH, director of engagement, CEPA Foundation
“Mentorship has always been an important part of my own professional growth, and I’ve always wanted a piece of what I do on a daily basis to be focused on empowering, inspiring and supporting those after me,” said Thomas. “The course Chuck has created for WVU students is more than just a class; it’s a well thought-out, challenging and fun way to take on doing a senior capstone.”
Since 2011, Harman’s capstone students have worked with an international client and travel abroad to pitch their campaigns in person. In the past, classes have traveled to such places as Ireland, Italy, Brazil, Belgium and the United Kingdom. The most recent course met weekly in Morgantown throughout the spring semester and the students were preparing to travel to France and Germany during spring break. When the global COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of all WVU study abroad trips, everything became virtual.
“We were all disappointed we didn’t get to go abroad, but honestly, I don’t think I would change anything,” said student Peyton Azar. “We all came together and worked against the pandemic and it strengthened our campaigns and our relationships with each other. I’m incredibly grateful to have produced and presented such an important project, all remotely. Our ability to adapt to these circumstances will really push us ahead in the real world. I can’t express how appreciative I am for this unique and rewarding experience.”
The class is set up competition-style, with the students divided into three separate “agencies”: Cultural Crave, mentored by Hyett; Luene Blu, mentored by Ernst and Tru Relations, mentored by Thomas. Each team was tasked with creating a public relations campaign to market the European Study Center in Strasbourg, France, to WVU undergraduate students. They spent the semester doing client and campus research, identifying target audiences and creating measurable objectives to meet the goal of improving CEPA’s name recognition on campus and encouraging students to select them as a study abroad option. In the end, students gave virtual presentations to representatives from CEPA, who had the tough decision of choosing a winner. The Tru Relations campaign, “Navigate Your CEPA,” won with its messaging and realist resource allocations. The class then came together to present a final comprehensive campaign, highlighting the best ideas from each group.
“I think that was the thing that I'm really proud of – this whole experience had the opportunity to really go downhill after the trip was canceled and the exact opposite occurred,” said Harman. “The students kept themselves energized with the help of the mentors. They adopted the mindset that ‘we have a task to do, we have a client to serve and a good cause to work on.’”
“Mentorship has always been an important part of my own professional growth, and I’ve always wanted a piece of what I do on a daily basis to be focused on empowering, inspiring and supporting those after me.”
Not only did the students’ work benefit the client and their personal portfolios, it also supported the University and other units on campus. CEPA has a longstanding relationship with WVU Education Abroad and the Office of Global Affairs. Both were able to use research conducted by Harman’s class, including interviews with WVU students and advisors about their knowledge of and experience with study abroad, to better understand their marketing efforts.
Hyett, Thomas and Ernst were the perfect fit to mentor this year's class as they had all previously taken Harman's capstone course. Ernst learned under Harman in 2018 and created a campaign for a client in Leuven, Belgium. She credits the experience with helping her get her first job as a communications associate at Rick Miller Communications in her hometown of Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Professor Harman’s capstone is where I grew both personally and professionally the most within my college career,” said Ernst. “I feel so lucky to see the same thing happen to other WVU students and help guide them through such an awesome project. For the students, this capstone is the real deal — it’s as close to the real world as it gets.”
Overall, Harman’s three-mentor capstone experience paid off — all three are eager to participate again. Harman, who has worked for the National Alliance on Mental Illness for more than 25 years, recently accepted a new position with a neuroscience-focused biopharmaceutical company, but he plans to continue his adjunct role at the College.
“This past semester was one of the richest teaching experiences I've had in my 20-plus years as an instructor,” Harman said.