Community-Engaged Courses Give Students Hands-On Experience

Community-Engaged Courses Give Students Hands-On Experience


by Siân White


SUMMARY: In courses from several programs, including Communication Studies (SCOM), School of Media Arts & Design (SMAD), Political Science, and Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication, student groups work on problems for various organizations — including government agencies, local businesses, and community nonprofits — to connect their classroom learning to real-life outcomes.

“I had never been tasked with working for a real organization,” says Jacquelyn Hendricks (‘23), “The possibility of a video and ad [I created] actually being used [motivated me] to do the very best I could.” Hendricks is referring to her work in Media Arts and Design 201, one of several community-engaged, project-based courses offered in the college.

In courses from several programs, including Communication Studies (SCOM), School of Media Arts & Design (SMAD), Political Science and Writing, Rhetoric and Technical Communication, student groups work on problems for various organizations — including government agencies, local businesses, and community nonprofits — and appreciate the “real-world” stakes of their work.

Partnering with local nonprofit clients, students in Shana Meganck’s SCOM 461: Public Relations Campaigns class draw on theory and practical skills — research, planning, implementation and evaluation — to create public relations campaigns tailored to client’s needs. Previous clients include businesses, like Cat’s Cradle and Gift & Thrift, and community builders, like the Shenandoah Valley Migrant Education Program (SVMEP) and 50 by 25 Clean Energy for All.

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Students field questions about their final campaign proposal from their client 50 by 25.

“Community partners praise the students for the quality and quantity of work,” Meganck says. “They are excited about the new energy and ideas.” Student groups prepare a detailed campaign proposal book that includes a strength-and-weakness analysis and suggestions for bolstering public perception of the client’s work through social media campaigns, giveaways, website updates and weekly newsletters.

After presenting their findings and recommendations to their clients, students field questions and comments, just as they would working in a public relations firm. “It gives them a taste of what it will truly be like when they walk into their first job,” says Meganck, but the benefits extend beyond the professional. “They [gain] a deeper understanding of course content, the community, and themselves.”

For Meganck, the final service-learning project brings the course content to life by connecting her teaching to real-life outcomes and giving her “a chance to interact with the students in a much more hands-on way.” Meganck has extended those interactions beyond the classroom; along with her colleague Isaac Woo, she serves as faculty advisor to Bluestone Communications, JMU’s student-run PR firm.

Some community organizations seek partnership with more than one JMU group. After hiring Bluestone Communications for its public relations needs, Harrisonburg’s Earth Day Every Day organization, dedicated to “reducing waste together,” sought visual design help from one of Adrienne Hooker’s community-engaged SMAD courses.

A graphic designer, associate professor of SMAD, and winner of the JMU Provost’s Award for Excellence in Outreach and Engagement in 2022, Hooker developed 200- and 300-level community-engaged courses to take on “wicked issues,” where students’ visual communication projects address the needs of community partners, like the Blue Ridge Area Food Bank, who confront specific regional problems.

This work takes a distinctly service-oriented approach. Students consider the politics of communications — what priorities and biases the organization conveys — when assessing their client’s goals and needs and orient their visual communications not toward a market but toward an awareness of the potential effects.

During semesters focusing on race relations, community partners included the Ole School Alumni Scholarship Group (OSASG), dedicated to the diversity and enrichment of the JMU student body, and the RISE Foundation, a nonprofit that believes social change begins with educating youth.

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RISE adopted a flyer designed by one student group to advertise its after-school program.

Ms. Chanda McGuffin (‘93), co-founder and CFO of RISE in Waynesboro, VA, has twice sought help from Hooker’s SMAD 201 Call-to-Action (CTA) Campaign course for RISE’s after-school program and All Black Library, the first and largest Black library in Virginia. McGuffin has adopted JMU students’ designs, including the video Jacquelyn Hendricks’ group produced: “the video for the after-school program was top quality and one that I use for grant writing to explain what we do.”

For RISE’s “Build Our Library” campaign, Michael Russo (‘24) and his group created their designs around supporting their client’s enterprise: “We wanted this to reach adults and teens in the Rockingham County area who could volunteer their time and/or donate books and money to support [the library].” Their tote bag bore All Black Library’s slogan “Readers make great leaders.”

As Colby Owens’s group considered the child’s perspective when creating their designs, Owens asked himself, “What would make kids want to enroll into a school program? The answer is simple, other kids!” RISE now uses his group’s flyer and social media graphics to advertise its after-school program.

Projects in courses like these situate students’ coursework in a wider context, where the ethic of supporting these community enterprises supersedes the satisfaction of earning a good grade in the class. Some students even continue working with their clients beyond the class, gaining even more valuable experience while maintaining a lasting, service-oriented connection to the community.

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Published: Monday, August 14, 2023

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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