About Kelly Bruhn, Ph.D.: Kelly Bruhn is the Associate Dean for the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Drake University. As Associate Dean, she oversees program development within the School, including the online Master of Arts in Communication program. She also advises students, supports faculty, and oversees curriculum evaluations and updates. In addition, as an Associate Professor of Public Relations, Dr. Bruhn teaches numerous undergraduate and graduate classes in public relations campaigns and research, collateral materials, communication leadership strategies, and applied communication theory and research. Her research concerns both national and international public relations, and client-agency relationships.

In addition to her work in academia, Dr. Bruhn recently served as the President of the Central Iowa Chapter of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA). She earned her Bachelor of Arts in Communication from Valparaiso University, her Master of Arts in Public Relations from Ball State University, and her Ph.D. from Michigan State University.

Interview Questions

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of Drake University’s online Master of Arts in Communication program? What topics are covered in the core curriculum, and what are the key learning outcomes students can expect from this program?

[Dr. Bruhn] Our program is 100% online, and we really thought about the working professional when designing this program. There are a few key features that make it different from a traditional graduate program. First of all, the classes are in six-week terms, which means that students have a lot of flexibility and a greater variety of courses to choose from in a given year. This is also advantageous for students with professional schedules and personal demands, as they can move their courses around their schedule.

Another thing that makes our program unique is that students can complete the program in one year, if they wish to. Traditionally, students complete the program in two years because they are working professionals who are enrolled part-time, but it is possible to accelerate one’s progression through the program and complete it within one calendar year. This is important for students who are seeking a promotion or want to enter a different career path. So the flexibility of their time of completion of the program is helpful for students who want to position themselves strategically in the market.

We offer three different tracks in the program:

  • Brand Communication teaches students how to identify and reach their target audiences using digital media and marketing strategies
  • Communication Leadership equips students with skills in organizational leadership, multimedia communication, digital strategy, and media innovation.
  • Public Affairs & Advocacy prepares students to navigate and optimize different forms of political communication, from political advocacy and campaigning to public policy and legislation.

In terms of the curriculum itself, all students take our core courses, Social Responsibility in Communication, Applied Communication Theory and Research, and the Capstone Course. Apart from these core classes, students in each track take different required courses and electives.

The Brand Communication track requires Innovation and Change in Contemporary Communication, Digital Media Strategies, Advanced Writing and Message Design, and Visual Communication. Students then choose three Digital Storytelling Electives (or 9 credits), and one class of their choosing.

The Communication Leadership track includes the courses Communication Leadership Strategies, Financial Literacy for Communication Leaders, Innovation and Change in Contemporary Communication, Digital Media Strategies, and three Business Electives, and one elective of their choosing.

The Public Affairs and Advocacy track requires students to take Advanced Writing and Strategic Message Design, Public Affairs and Advocacy, Persuasive Speechwriting, Navigating the Legislative Process, three Policy electives, and one additional elective of the students’ choosing.

One of the strengths of Drake University’s program is that students have access to classes from some of our other stellar online graduate programs. Drake University offers an online Master of Business Administration, Master of Data Analytics Leadership, Master of Public Administration, and Master of Science in Education, and students of the Master of Arts in Communication program can take electives from these programs.

Students are really able to use our electives as a way to customize their curriculum, and we have found that students have loved the flexibility and interdisciplinary training that our program provides. Our program is ideal for students whose interests straddle the line between communication and another intersecting discipline. For example, the Communication Leadership track is often for students who are working in a corporate setting and know they need a business management background, but who want to work more on the communication side of business development. For them, an MBA or MPA is not the right choice. But with our program, they are able to get those really great business courses as part of their Master of Arts in Communication program, without going for the full MBA.

Meanwhile, the digital storytelling electives give students a chance to try out new skills and projects that they haven’t really encountered before. For example, we have a class in emerging media where students are able to test out different tools and evaluate their effectiveness in building and/or executing strategies for their businesses, corporations, or organizations. Through these classes, students can flex new skills and learn new methodologies.

The public affairs and advocacy track is for people working in non-profit organizations or other organizations where they have to lobby or work with legislatures to pass important measures, and they want a stronger background in these areas. Our program offers a good opportunity for them to learn about that process and how to do it more effectively.

While we do require students to choose a particular track, we work with each student to customize their course of study as necessary. We ask them to select a track so that we as a faculty team can ensure they meet certain target learning outcomes. But within their track of study there is a lot of flexibility to customize. For example, if a student chooses communication leadership, but they want to take a couple of digital storytelling electives, and maybe a public affairs and advocacy class as well, we’ve been able to make that work for them, as long as they hit their target learning outcomes for their chosen track.

[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you elaborate on how Drake University uses communication technologies in the online Master of Arts in Communication program to facilitate student engagement with faculty and peers?

[Dr. Bruhn] Drake is a small private school, and so our faculty here are completely devoted to mentoring students. We don’t have teaching assistants or graduate assistants. It is the faculty who are teaching the courses, and we have endeavored to mirror the great interpersonal relationships we have on campus in the online environment. Our classes are asynchronous so that students can balance all of their obligations and also attend classes from anywhere in the world. That said, the classes are generally capped at 20 people so that students can really get to know their classmates and especially their instructor through online discussion boards and group learning activities. To support them outside of classes, all of our faculty hold virtual office hours, and professors have done Facetime meetings and phone calls, and also used Zoom to engage with students. Faculty talk through projects with students and help them face challenges that they are working through in their careers.

[MastersinCommunications.com] For their final graduation requirement, students of Drake University’s online Master of Arts in Communication program must complete a Capstone course, during which they complete a professional project. Could you elaborate on this requirement, and what it entails?

[Dr. Bruhn] For the Capstone project/class, as with all other courses in the program, our faculty are very hands-on and supportive. While students do have an academic advisor, who makes sure they check all of the boxes required to get to graduation, our faculty really take on a mentorship role, both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.

The Capstone experience is a six-week course, just like all the other classes. Within the class, students have the opportunity to choose between two options: 1) to work on a communication project at a place of their choosing–typically their place of employment, or a group for which they volunteer, or an organization they feel they can help professionally through a communication strategy or product, or 2) to work on a project for a non-profit client that I have selected. The first option is great for students who want to create a product that is directly relevant to their current or desired career—for example, it is a great option for someone who wants to be competitive for a promotion or a raise, as well as for that person who wants to help a non-profit organization and in doing so transition to a different career by building their portfolio. However, this option needs to receive approval from me as I need to first ascertain whether their project will actually help them solidify their target learning outcomes and advance their career.

The second option is good for students who are not currently working or who are in between positions, or whose company cannot offer a project that would be appropriate for the capstone. The non-profit client that I choose has national reach, and students are able to work on an actual project for them; however, they can customize their project according to their local market, so that whether they are in Montana, or Florida, or California, they can develop a project that is valuable to their competitiveness for jobs in their area.

As you might expect, the projects are quite diverse for this course. For the Brand Communication track, projects tend to either be or involve a comprehensive, strategic campaign that advances the organization in question or engages its target audience or customers in a different way. In the case of the Public Affairs and Advocacy track, their projects are typically campaigns for a social cause and outline clear strategies that help their organization advance their mission. As the course is asynchronous, students can work on their projects at their own pace, but they certainly receive a lot of support from me as the faculty instructor for the course—in terms of connecting them to good resources, or helping them outline and organize their tasks.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What role does faculty mentorship play in Drake University’s online Master of Arts in Communication 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. Bruhn] At the start of every online class, our instructors ask students to introduce themselves with an introductory post that can include photos, videos, or text about their background, what they care about, their work, and their goals. While this might seem to just be an ice-breaker exercise, we as a faculty team look very closely at these introductions so that we can customize our work with each student to match their goals.
So whether they want to enter a specific industry or they’re really interested in a particular market, or they really care about a certain volunteer organization, I try to customize the examples that I pull and the feedback that I provide in ways that would be helpful for them thinking about those interests.

In terms of just pure mentorship, because we are so focused on the student and the student experience, our students don’t think twice about calling us and sharing their challenges, bouncing ideas off of us, and celebrating successes too. Our students form a really close relationship with their faculty advisor–we become much more than just their instructor. We become personal cheerleaders, and sounding boards as they move through their career, not just in class, but beyond.

In addition to faculty mentorship, we have a career counseling center here on campus that serves all students, which is staffed by supportive staff and certified career coaches. There are excellent opportunities for students to connect if they are still shopping around and trying to find their fit in the world. And we also host numerous networking events as well. We just held one in August here in Des Moines, but we’re planning to also roll them out in different markets in regions across the nation, because we know our students are craving those connections and the opportunities to build their networks. And so we’re working at the university to make sure that we have those kinds of on-ground experiences for them too to build those connections.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice do you have for prospective students in terms of submitting a competitive application for Drake University’s online Master of Arts in Communication program?

[Dr. Bruhn] When we launched the online program in January, our graduate committee really thought long and hard about what requirements are important to us, and which would really help us indicate that a student can be successful in graduate work. We had a lot of students coming to us over the course of the last ten years who had been in undergrad ten to fifteen years prior, and maybe didn’t have the best GPA. They were involved in lots of different activities or they were working, or other extenuating circumstances prevented them from performing their best in college. Since graduating, they have succeeded in the work force and shown a strong track record of initiative and interest in the field of communication. But graduate school wasn’t an option for them, because they didn’t have a GPA that reflected the good work that they do now as professionals.

So in crafting our admissions requirements, we tried to think about it from that perspective: if I were a working professional, what types of things would I need to demonstrate to show that I’m committed to my graduate degree, that it’s important to me, and that I really want to add value to the conversation of my classmates and to this program?

And so the key element that we actually look for is a really good essay that explains students’ motivations. We have several prompts that they can select from, but all of them ask students to talk about their experience with leadership and communication and how they feel graduate work will contribute to their short and long-term goals. How will earning a master’s degree impact their short and long-term goals in their career? Putting some concerted thought into the substance of that essay is the most important thing an applicant can do. It not only helps us evaluate your writing skills, but also allows us to really see the critical thinking that has led to your commitment to pursuing a graduate degree. It’s a commitment of time, and resources, and energy, and it’s a serious endeavor. And so an eloquent essay helps us to decipher the student’s readiness for that endeavor.

We do not require the GRE (if they have a GPA of 2.5 or higher) or letters of recommendation, though we do require students to provide the contact information of two references.

[MastersinCommunications.com] What makes Drake University’s online Master of Arts in Communication program unique, and a particularly strong graduate degree option for students?

[Dr. Bruhn] We are highly student-focused, which allows students to get a customized education in the area of communication that can best empower them to meet their goals. Within each class, we encourage and support students in working smart, in combining their graduate coursework and their professional obligations so that they work together rather than detract from one another. For example, one of my students in the graduate research class I teach works at an agency, and she integrated her assignments for her class into innovative work she completed for her company. Another aspect that I love about our program is the fact that a lot of our students are civically minded: they care about their community, are connected with their community, and we as a faculty team do our best to help them integrate this civic engagement into their program work. Some of our students have volunteer obligations or board commitments all over the country, and we support students trying to integrate their work in these areas into their coursework.

On a similar note, all of the assignments in the program are practical in nature, focused on propelling students into the next stage in their careers. One of my students, for example, worked for an ad agency, and she was able to use her projects as deliverables to sell to her clients. I provided feedback to refine her work and she was able to then parlay that into more revenue for her agency. Another example of professionally focused assignments is the emerging technology class that I discussed earlier. One of the projects in this class asks the students to prepare a memo for their boss or supervisor and evaluate the effectiveness of a new technology. The assignment requires them to assess how this technology might engage customers or viewers in new and different ways. Everything that students do in class is important and it has a learning outcome that is directly applicable to industry. On top of that, we also try to assign deliverables that students can take back to their workplaces. We love to say, “From the classroom to the boardroom the next day.”

[MastersinCommunications.com] Students of master’s in communication programs often must balance work/internships, coursework, and intensive projects. What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully navigating their graduate school experience, and making the most of the opportunities presented to them?

[Dr. Bruhn] Effective time management and planning is everything, especially in graduate school. My first piece of advice to students is to kind of sit back and think about your schedule, your professional and personal obligations, and what might need to shift a little bit in order to make time to truly invest in the graduate program. Graduate school can be life changing, but you have to put in the effort to reap the rewards.

Another piece of advice I have is something we actively encourage in the program, which is to integrate. Incorporate some of your really great activities, like volunteerism, into some of your course work. Look for those opportunities to connect your class work to real needs in your community. You might not be able to spend as much time volunteering for an organization, but you can leverage one of your class projects to maybe provide some value for an organization or a cause you really care about. I think you can do it all; you just have to re-think how it all gets done.

Thank you, Dr. Bruhn, for your excellent insight into Drake University’s Master of Arts in Communication program!