By Jason Archer, director of the MSU StratCom program
When a dream becomes reality, it’s a really cool thing. Especially when your dream is to build a grad program that is transformative for people.
Four years ago, Dr. Prabu David, Dean of the College of Communication Arts & Sciences, brought together both faculty and industry leaders to ask the question, “If Michigan State University could be the professional development arm of the best and brightest companies in the world, what would we need to do?”
This set off a chain of events which lead to a year of meeting with faculty and extensive market analysis and research, culminating with a listening tour of alumni leadership in Fortune 500 companies. From this season of listening, the Strategic Communication M.A. program started in January of 2017.
A Winning Team
The program is now about 120 students from all over the World and from many different disciplines. Current students work at NASA, the White House, Lansing State Capitol, Herman Miller, Whirlpool, Amazon, network TV and more. We’ve got bloggers, startup owners, consultants, stay-at-home moms, rock star guitarists and students wanting to pivot from their current career. They are all desiring one thing: transformation.
People ask regularly what’s the secret to the initial success of the program. I think it’s two things: heart and vulnerability.
It’s All About Heart
We’ve been intentional to build relationships with students outside the classroom and provide mechanisms for them to do the same with classmates. We provide both online and face-to-face events, meet-ups and gatherings where students can connect. We built communities in Facebook, Slack and our online learning platform to foster connection. We’ve even flown to the cities they live to tell their story and connect. We offer our email and mobile phone numbers and say, “contact us whenever you need us.” And we mean it.
Leave Your Arrogance At The Door
We also began the program actively listening, and we continue to keep that DNA through the lens of vulnerability. We knew when the program started it wasn’t the best right out of the gate. And if we stop listening, both to our top-tier faculty or students, we won’t be around very long. To this end, we decided before our first day that we would invite our students to join our faculty and leadership to become co-authors of the program. We opened up feedback loops, did catered lunches, events and used our communities to continually say, “We are doing our best. But if we have any blind spots, we need you to help us make the program better.” This has led to many changes in the program, curriculum, design and DNA. It truly is a partnership. And its birthplace is vulnerability.
Connection Is Key
I could go on for pages and scrolls about stories, conversations and connection. There have been tears shed for loss, celebrations shouted for folks on the mountaintop and lots and lots of “hang in there, you can do it.”
We’ve had students lose loved ones, have babies, relocate to other countries, get married, get divorced, receive promotions and raises, get their first job and start their first company.
Throughout it all, the best part is when I hear someone say, “I never thought I’d be a close as I am to my classmates in an online program.” Or, “Last week when we all got on our regular Google Hangout…” (and they weren’t even connecting for class).
Hearing these stories make my eyes get wet. It tells me that the program is working. Beyond the nuts and bolts of teaching and learning is a heart and connection – a place to know and be known.
We’ve been known to use the term “family” from time-to-time. We’re finding out that sense of belonging is critical for learning, and the success of the program.
Early on I had a one of those “ah-ha” moments in a conversation with a student I had flown out to interview in Washington, D.C. I was asking open-ended questions like, “How are you doing?” “How’s the move to D.C.?” “How are you and your wife adjusting?” Then we switched to, “How’s the program going?” “Is it making a difference?” “Is there anything we can be doing to encourage/help you in the journey?” His response was confirmation of what we had begun to build. He said, “I’m becoming convinced that just as important as the academic content is the connection I have to my fellow classmates.”
Bam. That moment was pure gold.
Swinging For The Fences
I think we have the best faculty on the planet. We are one of the top colleges in one of the top universities in the world. We’re the first college of communication in the U.S. The story of this “Little Program That Could” is yet to be finished. But the first chapter sure has started strong. So, to Norene, Tamara, Cassie, ShaDonna, Elizabeth, Danielle, Eric, Amanda, Danielle, Penny, Hillary, Kyle, Megan, Julia, Valerie, Kelli, Katie, Jennifer, Joshua, Gregory and trailblazers Julia and Lisa, here are a few thoughts:
- Be Fearless. You’re equipped. Honestly, you probably were before we met. But you are definitely ready for what’s next. Go after it. No rearview mirror needed. Just send us a postcard when you get there. We’ll be cheering you on in East Lansing.
- Remember, we’re in the communication business. And at the heart of communication is connection – a place to belong. Go create places for people to belong. It’s part of the DNA of Michigan State University. MSU has been advancing the common good with uncommon will for more than 160 years. We were founded on the idea that no matter what, there’s a place for everyone. That’s how as a Spartan, you make your contribution to the world.
- Thank You. Thanks for your time, grace, laughter, honesty, kindness, grit, hustle and contribution. I hope you feel like you’re better because of this program. Know the program is definitely better because of you. I’m better. You’ve made me better.
From her book “Daring Greatly,” author and speaker Brene' Brown wrote: “What we know matters but who we are matters more.”
You’ve got the knowledge. You’ve acquired the skills. But never forget everything starts at the heart. Thanks for making my dream come true to be a part of building this program.
Enough sappiness and sentiment. Gimme a call after Christmas and let’s meet up at Crunchy’s for a burger and tots. My treat. Go Green!