About Dr. Athena du Pré, Ph.D.: Athena du Pré is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of West Florida, where she directs the master’s degree program in Strategic Communication & Leadership, the graduate-level Health Communication Leadership certificate, and the undergraduate Leadership program. Dr. du Pré is the author of Communicating About Health: Current Issues and Perspectives (5th ed.) and is co-author of the last editions of the books Understanding Human Communication and Essential Communication, as well as numerous other books, chapters, and articles about communicating effectively in modern relationships and organizations.
Dr. du Pré is a former journalist and hospital public relations director. She has worked as a consultant and leadership development coach in health care, finance, law enforcement, retail, aerospace and defense, and nonprofit sectors. She received a Ph.D. in Communication from the University of Oklahoma and a master’s and bachelor’s degree in communication from the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now the University of Louisiana). Since joining the UWF faculty, Dr. du Pré has twice been named Distinguished Teacher of the Year by the student body.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of the University of West Florida’s (UWF) Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership program, and how it is structured? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?
[Dr. Athena du Pré] We take the approach that strategic communication is mindful, goal-oriented, and ethical. It involves a clear-headed understanding of where we are and where we want to go, along with a well-devised plan for getting there. We focus on developing good listening skills, an open-minded approach, and attentiveness to both internal and external environments.
Our core classes establish a strong foundation in leadership and communication as well as discovery methods such as surveys, focus groups, interviews, and observation. We believe these are critical, not just for researchers, but also for all leaders and team members so they can understand others and make decisions that take a wide range of perspectives into account.
In addition to the core courses, which are valuable in nearly any career or industry, we believe students should have a knowledge of particular communication contexts and industries. Therefore, our curriculum also includes a range of full-credit and half-credit courses that focus on current topics in public relations, advertising, social media, journalism, health care, politics, and other contexts.
Throughout the program, students take part in projects with actual nonprofit organizations and businesses to apply what they are learning and to build portfolios that showcase their experience as strategic communicators and ethical, visionary leaders.
Example of those projects include:
- Analyzing communication within an organization and making recommendations to enhance information flow, teamwork, innovation, or visioning, to name just a few of the factors we consider.
- Conducting a needs assessment in an organization and offering relevant communication training, such as leadership development, social media use, branding, or community relations.
- Assisting organizations with visioning and strategic planning.
- Helping to research, conceptualize, and carry out new programs and initiatives.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of UWF’s MA in Strategic Communication & Leadership program develop professional portfolios and are also required to complete a capstone project. Could you please elaborate on these two program requirements? What are the elements for each, and what steps must students take to complete them?
[Dr. Athena du Pré] In their final two semesters in the program, students design and carry out individualized capstone projects. The goal is to create a bridge to the student’s future by working with people in their chosen career field. Faculty members help students identify organizations, civic groups, and business leaders who serve as clients for their projects.
A capstone advisor and other faculty members mentor students through the multi-stage process of identifying a need or opportunity, collecting data to assess it, designing a well-considered response, and evaluating its success. Capstone projects often involve creating strategic communication plans, developing and delivering communication training programs, and launching new initiatives. At completion, students present the results of their projects to the faculty and to their project hosts.
Here are a few examples of capstone projects:
- One student, who is now assistant men’s basketball coach at a university, studied resilience among collegiate athletes–specifically how members of soccer, softball, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and swimming teams respond to disappointments and how their ability to bounce back is affected by various coaching strategies.
- Another student, who is now a program coordinator for the county Supervisor of Elections, created and piloted a training program for poll workers that has subsequently been adopted statewide.
- Before he graduated, a student who is now a strategic communication director for the military, created a nonprofit organization to match talented public relations students with nonprofit organizations in need of assistance with branding and promotion.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in UWF’s MA in Strategic Communication & Leadership program, and how can students make the most of these mentorship opportunities and support systems? Additionally, what career development resources and academic services are available to students of this program?
[Dr. Athena du Pré] We are zealous about keeping a small student-to-faculty ratio (averaging 5:1) so that we may personally mentor students and help them succeed in the program and after graduation. Our classes are small (15 or fewer students each) and often involve strategy-building sessions with civic and business leaders, projects, site visits, and other hands-on opportunities.
Because we get to know every student well and we are continually integrating with local leaders, we have a great record of helping graduates find careers that interest them–mostly in marketing and public relations, health care, media, entrepreneurship, education, and nonprofit organizations.
To get the most out of our program, students are encouraged to take an active role in discussions and projects, use the plentiful networking opportunities made available to them, and let faculty members know their post-graduate aspirations so we can help tailor the experience to achieve them.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership program?
[Dr. Athena du Pré] We enjoy being an interdisciplinary program, so it’s not necessary to have a bachelor’s degree in communication to be considered. Our top priorities are evidence of academic or professional achievement and personal goals that would be well served by our curriculum. We put a premium on good writing skills and inquisitiveness. Because this is an action-oriented program, we favor applicants who are interested in getting involved and being part of a team.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes UWF’s MA in Strategic Communication & Leadership unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?
[Dr. Athena du Pré] One of the first things I tell people about our program is that it doesn’t involve a lot of sitting in rows listening to lectures. The curriculum is smart and cutting edge–with a strong foundation in theory and research. But we believe in putting those into practice. Our faculty are extraordinary for their commitment to helping students succeed in and out of the classroom. Students take part in doing the very things we learn about with actual clients and current, real-life situations.
We enjoy a nice mix (about 50-50) of established professionals and students who have recently completed bachelor’s degrees. The majority of our students will apply what they learn to careers in the corporate or nonprofit sector. About 15% go on to pursue doctorate degrees and become professors.
It’s common for graduates of our program to hire other graduates because they know how well prepared they are. Likewise, many employers call us first when they have relevant openings because they appreciate the strong foundation in ethical leadership, data-based decision making, servant leadership, and collaborative teamwork. We’re really proud of our program and our students!
For more information about our program, please visit our website.
Thank you, Dr. du Pré, for your excellent insight into the University of West Florida’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership program!