About Elizabeth Robertson Hornsby, Ph.D.: Elizabeth Robertson Hornsby is the Graduate Coordinator for the Department of Communication and Media Studies at Southeastern Louisiana University. As Graduate Coordinator, Dr. Hornsby oversees graduate student recruitment and admissions, and is also in charge of coordinating curriculum development, scheduling, and advising for the Department’s graduate programs, including the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication.
For students of the M.A. in Strategic Communication program, Dr. Hornsby is their first point of contact from start to finish in the program, serving as their first line of support, advising them, and meeting with each student to get them scheduled for courses. She also provides professional development and career mentoring for students in preparation for their capstone, a course that she also teaches in the program. Finally, as students approach graduation, Dr. Hornsby serves as the point of contact for post-graduation plans and professional development or preparation that students need to be the most employable candidate on the market once they receive their degree.
Dr. Hornsby holds a Bachelor’s in General Studies and a Minor in Latin from Southeastern Louisiana University. She also received her Master of Arts in Organizational Communication from Southeastern Louisiana University. She completed her Ph.D. in Communication Studies at Regent University.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, its curriculum structure, and how it prepares students for diverse careers in strategic communication, including social media strategy, media planning and management, marketing campaign development and analysis, corporate communication optimization, and public relations, among other areas?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] Our program is a 36-hour degree program. It is intentionally industry agnostic, so our courses are very elastic and flexible to allow students to follow their interests or apply skills that they learn to their current work or industry in order to be successful in their career goals. The two pillars of our program are content creation – written and digital – and content strategy.
We have five required courses in the program, with the fifth and “final” course being a strategic communication capstone. The four required courses provide the foundation for what our Department of Communication and Media Studies conceptualizes strategic communication to be, which is the purposeful and tactical use of communication by an organization to achieve long-term objectives and goals. We understand that there are a lot of ways to do strategic communication, so we try to structure our curriculum to provide students with a broad set of tools to have in their toolbox in order to be able to go into any industry and be successful in that strategic communication space.
We have five required courses to develop students’ strategic communication skills and capabilities. The first required course is a Campaigns class. The second one is a Digital Communication class, which provides the students with a landscape of what the field is since we have a lot of students who are coming into the program without a communication background. This course is foundational in norming them to the language that we use, such as the terms and concepts, and helping them understand what will be built upon throughout the program.
Our third required course is Content Creation for Strategic Communication, and the fourth required course is Quantitative Measurement for Strategic Communication. The quantitative course is really important because our students need to understand how numbers and data drive strategic decision making, and how to effectively communicate that data to multiple stakeholders. The final, fifth class is the Strategic Communication Capstone, which is a way for the students to find an organization – either in an industry that they want to be in or an industry that they’re currently in – to apply their skillset and demonstrate their capabilities as an emerging strategic communication professional.
Beyond these five required courses, we have elective courses that allow students to customize their learning path in a way that best supports them. For the students who are more interested in the integrated marketing communication and social media side of strategic communication, we have courses in that area such as Digital Audience Research and Behavior. We also have courses in law and ethics as well as organizational culture and leadership for folks who are more interested in the leadership and culture side of strategic communication.
We have courses in entrepreneurship because a lot of our students end up doing pro-bono work or side hustle work consulting for small businesses. Some students even become a brand themselves. So, it is important to teach students how to brand themselves or how to help another organization brand themselves using strategic communication principles. We also have a class on strategic communication for non-profits as this is a space where we see a lot of students ending up in – either in internships, externships, or community service. So, our program can give students the skills specific to the non-profit sector.
We also have classes that deal specifically with design and how to do data visualization and graphic design. In the data visualization class, students learn how to collect and analyze data. We need to teach students how to visualize data and effectively present it to people who might not care about or be familiar with how to interpret numbers, such as in stakeholder meetings or when asking for campaign donations. We are also expanding our strategic communication coursework related to the sports industry for the students who are interested in branding and strategic communication for the sports industry. While the electives are more specific, our program tries to be very broad because we want students to advance in an industry they are already in or to break into a new industry.
When I talk to the students about the capstone, the first thing I say is, “These are very broad guidelines, but that’s intentional, because we aren’t going to know the ins and outs of the organization that you are going to work for. It’s like building the airplane while we’re flying it – which is a lot of what strategic communication work is – but if you have all the tools in your toolbox to build it while you’re flying it, then you will have a successful campaign and project.”
[MastersinCommunications.com] How diverse would you say is the student body when they come in in terms of their professional backgrounds and professional goals?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] I started this position in spring 2020. When I first came to the program, it was mainly students matriculating up from our undergraduate program. A lot of folks on campus took advantage of our university policy where they will pay for six hours of credit towards your degree if you are employed on campus. Fast forward to spring 2022, we still have a fair amount of full-time campus employees, but they’re across the spectrum in terms of their jobs. For example, the Director of Financial Aid graduated from our program. We have people from human resources, career services, admissions, and student engagement in our program. So, just from our campus employee population, it has grown.
We also started seeing people from all sorts of industries enroll. Currently, we have people who are in health care enrolled in the program. We also have people who are in restaurant marketing since the hospitality industry is very strong in Louisiana. We’ve got a strong hospitality and tourism market, and so we’re seeing a lot of students come in who want to be more skilled and strategic in communicating Louisiana culture.
We also have a lot of people who are in transitional careers who have been out of school for a while. We have a fair number of students who are working a 9-to-5 job, but due to the way our program is structured being online and asynchronous, they are able to keep their “day job” and be in our program in hopes of finding an aspect of the strategic communication industry that fascinates them and break into it.
I’ll give you an example. We had a woman who graduated last semester in the fall of 2021 who had started a family and been in and out of the workforce. Once the kids were older, she really wanted to get back into the industry. So, she enrolled in our program, and last semester, she did a strategic communication plan for a local school that did not have the money or resources to hire a strategist. She really helped them do an internal communications plan and an external public relations plan. She presented her work, and they ended up offering her a job. Now she’s the strategic communication director for that school, and that was never on her radar as a possible job before our program. She just knew that she wanted to be back in a full-time profession – not just a job, but in a profession – and through her time in the program, she realized, “I really like to do this type of work.” So, then, we crafted a capstone project that allowed her to get some experience with an actual organization.
We have another student who came straight out of undergrad. She worked for a Fortune 500 company’s ambassadorship program that’s connected to our campus, and she started seeing some communication challenges in the corporate program that she was the ambassador for. She went to that company and said, “I’d like to do my capstone project. Can I do it in this area?” And she just told me yesterday that they are bringing her on as an intern in the summer with the probability that she will be hired full time.
Another category of folks we have are small business owners and employees who work on branding and advertising on digital and social media. We are seeing more and more entrepreneurs, small business owners, and people in the non-profit sector expressing interest in our program because I think they can see its tangible value and the transferrable skills. They’re seeing a return on investment as people in their company are going through the program and doing projects about their organization.
We also have student athletes or people who work in the athletic department in our program. We’re starting to see more students who are K-12 educators because a lot of teachers say, “I just want to know more about technology and how I can be more strategic in my use of technology in my classroom. So, I’m not really looking, necessarily, to change out of K-12 education. I’m just trying to be more knowledgeable in this digital space.” We can map strategic communication skills to the online learning instructional design space – whether you’re K-12 or post-secondary.
In our 36-hours of course work, there’s usually something that speaks to each of our students, regardless of their professional and academic background. Students who are in an industry where they want to advance and students who are unsure about what they want to do can both test things out in class. By the time they get to the capstone, they can use the project to display their competency and efficiency as a communication professional in a way that is extremely marketable.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Since this online program replaced the campus-based Master of Arts in Organizational Communication, could you provide some insight into the process of transitioning the M.A. in Communication program into this fully online program, and what the inspiration was for this transition? How the courses might have changed, and how maybe the demographics shifted once the program was online?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] We realized, as we were teaching our Organizational Communication class, that technology is the disruptor that we all assume that it is. And so, we found that our conceptualization of strategic communication allowed students to critically reflect and connect what is happening internally in terms of the internal culture and the internal communication with the effect that it has on external perceptions and the external messaging. These aren’t two separate functions. What we were finding is that folks were expected to understand both.
I always give the example of the summer of 2020 when we were at the height of conversations around social justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion. We had all these companies ramping up their external messaging around inclusivity and belongingness, saying that “We’re companies that care” while at the same time employees of those same companies spoke up about how the culture internally was not reflective of the external branding. For example, Google had a massive exodus of high level workers of color even as Google’s messaging was, “We care about these underrepresented and underserved communities.” What does that mean when the internal culture is at odds or is not aligned with the external culture? And how do you fix that?
You would have to go back to the role, scope, and mission, and that’s what strategic communication does. It frames internal and external communications as, “What is the goal of the organization? And are we fulfilling that in both arms?” We realized that you can’t hide behind the physicality of the organization anymore due to the democratizing effect of technology and the fact that anyone can get on Twitter and expose what’s happening in a certain space. You can no longer lean on and depend on the public relation specialists and the marketers to market their way out of some of internal communication and cultural issues. I always do this exercise where I go and see what a company’s official account on Instagram or Meta is saying compared to what employees’ social media accounts are saying. This is a very interesting indicator of whether there is a misalignment in the internal and external communication.
Knowing this context and that technology is even going to be more disruptive to people’s buy-in of internal and external communication, how can we provide students with a skill set that understands both spaces under the umbrella of strategic communication? This is why we made the switch. We first did the name change. Then we examined our courses and asked “How many of our courses are predominantly focused on internal organizational structure? How many of our courses are really focused on external communications, public relations, integrated marketing communication, advertising and branding? And how can we realign the focus of those courses so that there’s a healthy balance of both?” Thus, we switched away from heavily focusing on internal communication – leadership and culture – to focusing on both spaces.
In terms of our old program, we offered predominantly on campus night courses — three-hour night courses — like a lot of traditional master’s degree programs. There were people who were kind of stagnant in their professions that needed a graduate degree to advance but could not afford to quit completely and solely focus on school.
Since we knew that there was a need for graduate programs that allowed for the flexibility of life, we decided in pre-spring 2020 when the campus went remote that, “We need to offer a program that is 100 percent online asynchronous.” And that, for me, was really important because I’ve always been a non-traditional student. I’ve always had caregiver responsibilities from undergrad all the way through. My degree at Regent University was an online degree with a summer residency. If I was required to attend in-person classes, I would not have been able to get a doctorate. At the time, it was one of the very few accredited, online, doctoral programs in communications. And had I not had that opportunity, I always say, “I wouldn’t be sitting here today.”
Being able to offer potential students the opportunities to advance in their career with a graduate degree and not be blocked because of their life circumstances is really important to me personally. We’ve seen a return on investment in our classroom because we have such a diverse set of voices. We have people who are coming from all walks of life because it is online and they’re able to continue in whatever they’re doing while also working towards a degree.
Thus, flexibility was imperative to me when they asked me to be involved in this. I said, “We can be online, but it needs to be asynchronous. It needs to be structured in a way that allows people to – within their scope of time management – complete the work at their own pace with a set of deadlines.” Because that was the flexibility that I personally needed to be able to advance in my degree, and I know how important that is for other people who are in similar situations.
Online asynchronous courses are not easy. It takes a lot of time management, but online asynchronous programs build soft skill sets of time management, adaptability, resilience, innovation, and creative and critical problem solving. You have to develop those skills or refine those skills to be successful in a space where you’re not structured by physicality and having to show up somewhere. It’s like, “Okay. Here are the deadlines. Here’s the work. Here’s the supports you might need. It’s really on you to map out a plan to get from A to B.”
Now, I’m here as a resource as the Graduate Coordinator. The professors obviously are there as a resource. However, the heavy lift is on the students, so it really makes you very proactive in those soft skills of time management, resilience, innovation, and adaptability. You have to develop those skills in order to be successful in an asynchronous space or you just get overwhelmed.
This type of program is not for everyone, but what I found is for people whom this is probably their most viable option and path for an advanced degree, they are very grateful and willing to do the work to figure out how to make it work with their life. And that then transfers over professionally because they’re able to be dropped into any type of situation, make sense of it, make a plan, and get the work done. That’s exciting to see as well.
I just don’t think people think about how much of productivity is tied to structure and the danger of that being the driver of productivity. Because what we saw at the beginning of 2020 is when you take the structure of physicality away, it leaves a lot of people bewildered. They don’t know what to do. But if, from the onset, you have to take some initiative and responsibility in creating the structure that works best for you, then regardless of the situation, you know how to manage yourself, your time, and the work. I would put my online asynchronous students up against a traditional student in terms of productivity any day because I think they figured out how to be successful despite life’s unpredictability, while students who are dependent on the physicality of structure haven’t had to learn to adapt to unpredictability as much.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication is offered fully online, through 100% asynchronous instruction. What online technologies does this program use to foster a rich learning environment for its students? How do students interact with course faculty and peers?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] One of our foundational classes is on digital communication. We utilize several tools and software programs that are built to foster collaboration, communication, and community. For example, many of the professors are using Slack because Slack is something that the students will see in industry, especially with the “post” pandemic environment where everyone was scrambling on how to stay connected remotely. I think we, as a program, learned a lot of lessons from that in terms of what technologies worked best and how can we set up our systems to leverage technology in a way that meets community and collaboration goals. For instance, we have peer review and project management software tools that are industry recognized because we do a lot of peer review and brainstorming.
Our professors use Google Drive, Microsoft Teams, Zoom, and Google Meet to meet with students even though they’re not physically coming to campus. Having a variety of platforms, to me, has been probably the most important thing. We are not only industry agnostic but we’re also tool agnostic because tools change when you work in a strategic communication space. Five years ago, we weren’t thinking about TikTok as a viable tool, but now, it is not only driving the transmission of information but is also a tool that is heavily used in marketing and advertising. There are economic implications of TikTok that we never would have imagined a few years ago.
If there is a tool, software, or platform that allows for engagement, collaboration, and community, and it seems like it might be sustainable in the professional and industry space, then we want to at least introduce our students to that software so that they’re knowledgeable. We showcase a lot of those tools. As students go through the program, they’re introduced to different types of tools within that – under that category of communication, collaboration, and engagement. We’re not hardcore about specific ones – outside of Zoom and Google Meet, which are used fairly consistently across the board.
Some of the positive feedback we received is that the students enjoy being introduced to a variety of communication technology tools. They may go into a work situation where that organization doesn’t use anything that they’ve been introduced to. As a communication professional, it takes you by surprise because you want to always be on the cutting edge of communication technology tools as you were strategizing for an organization’s use of those tools to achieve their missions and goals. So, we are always trying to be innovative and at the forefront of introducing students to those tools, and I think, inherent in that, is the outcome of community, collaboration, and engagement, regardless of the tools that we’re specifically using.
[MastersinCommunications.com] For their culminating experience, students of Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication complete a Strategic Communication Capstone. Could you elaborate on the key deliverables for the Capstone, the steps that students take to complete their project, and the support they receive from faculty during their work?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] The capstone is intentionally broad and vague. Originally, I came in with a lot of very prescriptive guidelines – 10 of this, page numbers – and quickly realized that when you ask a student to work in an organization, your guidelines don’t always match with what the organization needs as a deliverable. So, I pulled back from the prescriptive guidelines, and the capstone is now the opportunity for a student to choose an organization/company/department/unit of their choice, go in as an emerging strategic communication professional, identify and diagnose a communication challenge or need, and then develop a strategic communication plan that addresses the organization’s need.
A student’s capstone includes a tangible deliverable, which ends up being a lot of different things. So, I gave the example earlier of the student who worked with the local school that her children attended. We live in Louisiana where there are hurricanes in the fall. We had Hurricane Ida last fall, which blitzed through my area, and she kept mentioning she was in a communication desert. The school didn’t have a crisis strategy in place, both internally and externally. She said, “They are struggling and we–parents and students and teachers–all need information. Putting on my professional hat, I see a need.”
So, she went to the school and said, “I have noticed that you were having these challenges. I would like to work with you.” Her deliverable – we did not know what it would be until she had a round of initial meetings with the organization- ended up being an internal communication strategy and an external communication strategy that she developed for them and presented. Thus, the deliverable is dependent on the outcome of a student’s diagnosis or audit of the organization’s strategic communication issues at the beginning of the semester.
There are three pieces of the capstone: a deliverable and the written report of that deliverable, a presentation with live Q&A, and a professional portfolio.
The capstone has to display a competency or understanding of content creation. This can be video production, digital and social media content creation, or the actual creation of the report. There’s a lot of ways to create content, but it needs to be strategic. For example, I can write a report that no one reads, or I can write a report that accomplishes the goal of that report. There has to be some sort of research and data collection and analysis, which is the quantitative measurement part. So, a lot of students do an initial survey of the organization in their audit.
Students also do a required assessment plan for their proposed solution to the identified communication need, challenge, or problem. How are you assessing that your plan is going to do what you said it’s going to do? Since this involves quantitative measurement, we talk a lot about analytics so students can leverage data in a predictive and a prescriptive way. For instance, how can you take the data and predict some outcomes? How can you also use data to make some recommendations and develop your strategy?
We are looking at the student’s ability to go into an organization and do some sort of analysis – whether it’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis, or ghost analysis. There are a lot of analysis frameworks, but students need to be able to go into an organization, audit that organization, and come out of that experience with an idea of the organization’s needs, and how to address the organization’s needs.
A digital communication capstone project should use the best and most innovative digital tools to get the work done. I always ask, “Are you still using PowerPoint?” There are so many presentation software programs and presentation tools available besides PowerPoint. There’s nothing wrong with PowerPoint, but it might not be the best presentation software for that organization. Are you sufficiently knowledgeable of the digital communication landscape to be able to make viable recommendations within that organization’s budget, and to make sure that they’re using the best and most effective tools? These are examples of the broad parameters for the capstone.
The writing sample that we require upon admission to the program is not so much for us to determine fit in the program; it’s more to determine potential tracks you might focus on for your capstone. We ask students to give us their conceptualization of strategic communication. Once they are admitted into the program, I use the writing sample as the foundation for our discussions. In the initial advising session, I say, “At the end of your time in this program, you’re going to have a capstone. As you are working in your classwork, I want you to think about what type of organization you might want to work with and what type of work you might want to do, so that by the time you get to the end, you’re not trying to create something in that final semester.” So at every advising session, I reiterate and have a brief conversation about the capstone. In their classes, they are reminded – especially in the core classes – about the capstone.
Once we get to the semester before they take the capstone, the advising session is really a brainstorming session. I advise all the students who are heading into the capstone because I currently teach that class. During that session, I ask, “What are you thinking? What do you think you might want to do? What’s the organization? And do you have some idea of what that need and challenge is? If you don’t, that’s fine.”
By the time they leave that advising session, they’re deputized to reach out to those organizations and start those conversations because organizations don’t work on the same timeline as an academic program. So, they have to make sure that they’ve built in enough time to do the work that they want to do. And I always say, “Once we have that advising session, that is the start of the capstone, even though you’re half a semester away.” So we set the groundwork of the capstone very early on.
In terms of faculty support, I am the main faculty support, but I am also a connector. For example, I’ll connect students with the professor on our faculty who used to work in the public relations industry if the students are doing projects that are more geared towards that aspect of strategic communication. I have built up a network of professors outside of our discipline and professors on different campuses. They have all been really great about helping the students by providing information – not doing the heavy lift of mentoring or guiding them but definitely giving them some more insight into the industries the students are interested in. So, I feel like a conductor, or air traffic control — coordinating connections and sending students where they need to go to get the best possible support and mentorship.
At the start of the capstone course, I require students to schedule a series of check-in meetings with me using Google Meet or Zoom that range from 5 minutes to 50 minutes. There’s flexibility. Meetings can change since life happens, but I’m using the check-ins to make sure that they are progressing towards the deadline, getting more information about the organization, and deciding on the deliverable that they’re going to produce. Some of the deliverables are manuals and handbooks while some are virtual trainings and presentations. It runs the gamut of what the deliverables are.
We also talk about presenting the deliverable. This semester, we’re piloting a virtual capstone showcase because the students wanted to do it live. We set aside an evening where they’re going to present. We’re going to invite the members of the organizations that they did their projects for to attend. The students will present, and I’ll moderate a panel with them that includes Q&A in order to give them the experience of talking about their work as a professional to a professional audience.
At multiple points in the program, the students are required to get industry certifications so that they finish the program with a series of industry-recognized certifications layered on top of very applied, experiential projects. We’re a project-based program, so the portfolio at the end of the capstone aggregates all of their certifications and project materials in a professional manner. This can be a website that they build, such as a digital portfolio in Adobe Behance or Adobe Creative Cloud Express.
I think we’re moving towards all of them aggregating everything on a professional website so that they can effectively articulate the value of their degree to folks who are outside of higher education. On the website, students write a short bio with a head shot and a philosophy statement about their conceptualization of strategic communication and how they are branding themselves as a professional. They also list their transferrable skills. They list all their certificates and badges as well as samples of their work. They will include a CV and a resume, and we’re probably going to make them do a video resume because those are becoming more and more popular now.
This compilation is to position them with the language and the aggregation of their work to be successful after graduating so that they’re not scrambling once they graduate to try to figure out how to promote themselves to potential employers.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is faculty mentorship integrated into Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program, and what advice do you have for students in terms of making the most of the mentorship opportunities and support systems available to them?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] Right now, we are a small but mighty faculty base. For us, it is important to maintain support networks in a way that’s not overwhelming for anyone but ensures that the students feel supported from start to finish.
I told a student the other day who was stressed about his capstone, “You have to stop thinking about failing. If my goal is to optimize this class for success, I want you to expect to be successful, because we will provide you with the necessary support to get there. If you have any stress, it’s just finishing the work. I don’t want you to be stressed about ‘I’m going to fail.’ Take that off the table.”
And that is my mentality – failure is not really an option you think about because the faculty and I will do whatever we can to provide the support that you need. It’s really focusing on doing good work. That is where we want you to focus your energy. The students who have been able to set aside this fear of failure and really focus on delivering a great project and doing great work report higher levels of satisfaction than the ones who were constantly concerned about failing.
We are expanding our faculty base because our program is growing. We’re trying to be intentional in our expansion to have diversity of experience so that we have faculty who have experience in various facets of strategic communication, industries, and professional experiences. Being industry agnostic is really helpful in designing our program. The more people you have of varied experiences, the more likely a student can connect with what their interests are. And so, the mentorship structure and advising sessions are intentional about learning about the student and their goals and needs.
Our program is a very personalized experience, and I want it to be as frictionless as possible. I do a lot of connecting and facilitating those connections. In the era of contactless delivery and apps for everything, trying to reduce the number of blocks or challenges of getting from point A to point B is another thing I do behind the scenes. If I’m going to connect a student with someone – another faculty member or someone outside of our department or someone in industry – then I really want to create a seamless connection so that there’s not a lot of missed communications as that can create delays in getting students the resources they need.
In order to develop an individualized learning path for each student and to connect them to faculty and other contacts, I need to learn about the student. Once I connect a student and faculty member, I do a lot of follow up with both to make sure that the connection is viable and that it’s working and being maintained. I stay on top, as much as possible, of the status of those connections to make sure that they are still clicking in the way that I imagined them to be.
The students also know that if there’s a communication breakdown or an issue, I’m already in the loop. In a very non-intrusive way, I’m in the loop so that they feel comfortable talking to me and then, I can try, as best as possible, to facilitate or to address whatever the issue or concern is. This is very intentional because I’m dealing with people who don’t have a lot of time to run around and figure things out. As much as possible, I mitigate those unnecessary time wasters because I imagine students, faculty, and the other industry professionals that I’m connecting with have lots of things to do.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Are there also remote career development services and tutoring services for students of the M.A. in Strategic Communication program?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] In terms of library resources, we have a librarian for our college, with whom I have a great relationship. I can connect students to remote library resources and explain how to access them. I have also had conversations with our accessibility offices to make sure that students who were coming in with various physical ability challenges and disability challenges have the resources that they need.
I chair our Diversity Inclusion Advisory Council, which functions in a chief diversity officer role. And because I’m in that role, I have contacts all over campus. So, I’ve met with the Director of Counseling Services, and I’ve had conversations with the Counseling Department concerning topics such as, “What resources can you offer students who will never come to campus? Are they able to participate in the peer support groups virtually? Are they able to schedule counseling services virtually?”
As we know, graduate school is an inordinate amount of work. Layer on top of that any life challenges you might have, and it can be overwhelming. I have had conversations with information technology and computing services to make sure that I know the exact contacts for after-hour technology support and troubleshooting since a lot of our students are accessing the resources after hours. I always say, “My most productive time is between midnight and 6:00 AM.” It’s been that way my whole graduate career, just because it’s the only time it’s quiet.
Most people are not at the IT desk in the library or at these other places during that time frame, so if you’re trying to get your work done and you’re working after standard 9-5 hours, what resources do we have? I’ve been an advocate for expanding this set of resources (counseling services, technical support, library services) for distance/remote/online students, because they are often working outside of standard working hours, which is why they’re in the program.
In terms of tutoring, we’ve started being very intentional about our graduate assistants who are in our department and selecting students who can function as peer mentors. We really encourage GroupMe and other cloud-based messaging platforms — outside of the classroom peer-to-peer communication — and our students naturally latch on to it. I always tell them, “Nominate a representative in the group to be the one that communicates with the teacher.” Usually, there’s one person who’s in those GroupMe or WhatsApp groups who brings the concerns of the group to the faculty member, and they address it.
Because I’m also really cognizant of honoring that space, I don’t think faculty should be in that space. I think that peer to peer – especially for adults – is really important. We find a lot of support comes out of that. We say, “Don’t try to figure out everything for yourself. Everybody’s asking the same question. Have somebody reach out. Let the teacher or the professor answer that question, bring that back to the group.”
I get really creative about finding tools and software that are available to remote students and educators for free. An opportunity that presented itself at the start of the pandemic was a lot of these companies whose software was very expensive started offering it either for free or at a discounted rate because everybody was remote. A lot of them have continued those policies.
For example, Canada for Education has a program where if you’re in higher education, you can set up a classroom so that your students can use all the professional tools. Facebook/Meta has one that allows you to access their suite of tools and software that normally needs to be paid for. If you’re using it for educational purposes, they allow you to use it in your classrooms because the idea is that when these people go into the workforce, they will use those tools. So, Facebook/Meta will get their money back eventually. So, I am aggressive about finding these opportunities for our students.
My students have participated in two Facebook pilots for their certification programs where they were able to get early access to tools and software for creatives and for strategists before they rolled it out to the public. My students were able to participate in the pilots and get credentialed in the process. I try to, as much as possible, sit on advisory boards or participate in town halls in order to offer these kinds of educational opportunities.
I also try to connect students to financial aid, scholarships, fellowships, and internship/externships, which are still remote. Again, this is about doing my research and making sure I’m aware of these opportunities and then having a consistent communication strategy with the students to inform them of these remote opportunities.
HubSpot has a remote micro internship opportunity that will pay the students per project. While students may not have 3 to 5 years of industry experience, they could have 10 to 15 of these micro projects that they were paid to do that have been vetted by HubSpot, which is an industry recognized name. This gives them a foot in the door. I was someone who was in this situation myself for my doctorate. I understand the need for “a symphony of support.” It is important to make sure myriad support systems are available at all times to students by keeping them up to date and maintaining relationships with campus-based and external resources.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How can students who are interested in Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program put forth a competitive application?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] We streamlined our application process as most people did during the pandemic. We no longer require the GRE. Research shows it is not necessarily an indicator of success in a program once you get in. It’s an indicator of how well you take tests. We also don’t require an interview because that can get clunky in scheduling.
Our application process includes submitting your application, transcripts, immunization records, and two brief writing samples. The first writing sample is a biographical sketch – where you are and what you’re doing – and the second one briefly describes what you conceptualize strategic communication to be. These are only 700 words long each. The writing samples are not meant to necessarily be the determinants of admission. They help us understand how you perceive this program and what you have done. I believe in equity in education. I believe in providing access to advanced degree experiences to people who want them and are excited about them. Why should we create more barriers to that? Why should we pre-determine how successful someone’s going to be?
We have a provisional admission status. If your GPA is below a 2.5, you can be admitted provisionally. You just have to maintain a certain GPA as you matriculate in the program. For instance, we have an older, non-traditional student who had been out of school for 30 years and had a GPA under 2.5, and he was trying to move up in his career path but that promotion required a master’s degree. In both the biographical sketch and the conceptual strategic communication prompt, he wrote that he was not very technologically savvy, but he was willing to learn and that he would just go all in. And that has proven to be true. The student who had issues logging on to the learning management system has now built a website for a small pharmacy in his neighborhood and is now basically functioning as the digital media strategist for this pharmacy. He can create content and run a social media campaign but had zero of those skills coming in.
What that person had was a desire to learn and a willingness to work. And that was clearly communicated in both his biographical sketch and strategic communication brief essays. I would say that your GPA and previous academic history is not a complete obstacle to admission into the program. If you know that those could potentially be challenges, then be honest about that. The admissions committee is very impressed with people who are very forthright and upfront about where their skill sets are currently and what their academic history is, and are very clear on how this program can help them overcome those challenges and that they’re willing to do the work.
My overall advice is to be honest. If you’re honest about your academic history and past experiences, then as a program, we can start to think about the symphony of support that you might need for you to be successful. Because I believe that for every person whom we admit, failure is not an option. I believe we will retain every person in our program, and they are going to be successful in their coursework and in their career. I believe that, unless you prove me otherwise. Don’t think of yourself as in the deficit. Think of this as an opportunity and clearly spell out that opportunity in all the ways that it applies to you.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program an excellent graduate degree option for students? How does this program prepare students particularly well for advanced strategic communication roles across diverse industry settings?
[Dr. Robertson Hornsby] I think most people in communications say that a degree in communications has an inherent value because communication occurs everywhere you go. I think what our degree offers students is personalization, flexibility, and opportunity. Given all the projections about the future of work and what’s happening in society, we’re moving out of specialized areas and we’re moving into a space where you have to be adaptable to a diverse environment. Even if you think you know all the ins and outs of a situation, there are always contingencies and unexpected things that occur.
Both in the structure and content of our program, the skills that are developed allow students to be successful in those uncertainties. As human beings, we do not like uncertainty. We do a lot to avoid and reduce uncertainty. For our students, we lean into that, and we understand that you’re not going to know everything. So, first and foremost, you need to learn how to learn. If you don’t know how to do something, how do you find out how to do it?
You remove the specific circumstances and focus on the broad things that then allow you to apply them to the specific things. It is an integration of universal concepts and strategic communication to very specific experiences. It is an integration of universal concepts about what work is, what industry is, what life is, what school is, what a graduate program is to what is very specific to that person’s situation. I think that our program really takes that into account and understands that communications graduate students are not a monolith – that you have experiences and circumstances and situations that all work to make you who you are.
Instead of trying to fashion you into an androgynous communication professional, we want you to lean into those things that make you unique, and we will provide you with the skills to showcase those things that make you not only a viable candidate in the job market, but a productive force in society. The ethical responsibility of the academy is to help students be critical thinkers, to question – but also respect – humanity, to embrace the dichotomy that is life in a way that is productive for not only yourself, but for others.
Thank you, Dr. Robertson Hornsby, for your excellent insight into Southeastern Louisiana University’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program!