About Laura Rivera: Laura Rivera is a Communication Professional with over 10 years of experience in the field. She currently works as Director of Communications and Marketing for Fort Worth Academy, a non-profit independent school in Texas. Over the course of her career, Ms. Rivera has held a wide range of positions in marketing and content management, including Marketing Specialist at Ennis, Inc., Social Media Manager for the International Association of Business Communicators Dallas Chapter, and over 12 years with Mary Kay. She is also the mother of two sons, an avid reader, and a two-time State Fair of Texas Creative Arts Winner (in the photography category).
Ms. Rivera holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Rutgers University, and graduate certificates from Rutgers and Ithaca College in Social Media Marketing and Strategic Communications Management, respectively. In 2016, she completed her master’s degree through Gonzaga University’s Master of Arts in Communication and Leadership Studies program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Laura Rivera] I began my career as a magazine editor—a job I had dreamed of having ever since I was nine years old. I loved it! After 10 years in publishing, I switched to communication when I was hired by a consumer brand that needed help with their sales force magazine. Since then (2004), I have held several marketing and communication positions in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I also served on the board of the Dallas chapter of the International Business Communicators (as the social media director), and I currently work at a small non-profit in the education sector as the Director of Marketing and Communication. I completed my MA studies with Gonzaga in 2016.
When I graduated from Rutgers University with a B.A. in English, the common wisdom was that an advanced degree wasn’t much of an advantage in the publishing industry. Once I moved into the corporate world, however, I quickly realized that a graduate degree would make me more competitive, and since I found my work in communication so fulfilling, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in communication instead of a more general M.B.A.
Before beginning the Gonzaga program, I had earned graduate certificates from Ithaca College and the Rutgers Business School. Right now, I focus on keeping up to date with professional certifications—like those for Hootsuite and Google Analytics—because the nuances of digital communication change so quickly!
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose the online Master of Arts in Communication and Leadership Studies program at Gonzaga University?
[Laura Rivera] When I decided to find a master’s program in communication, I was searching for one that would provide a solid foundation in the essentials of communication theory. I knew there were gaps in my understanding and practice of communication—I just didn’t know what those gaps were. Also on my mind was the fact that I had experienced disappointment with other online communication classes I had taken which were too focused on specific technologies and, therefore, out of date just months after their completion. I didn’t want that again.
My hope was that after graduation I’d be a better and more well-rounded communicator; I didn’t have specific career goals, I only wanted to find a way to improve how I worked. I was also newly divorced, and the time was right for me to do something for myself. (Some people buy sports cars or expensive jewelry… I went back to school). Thinking realistically, I was a working, single mom and I knew I needed to find an online program in order to make it all work.
Gonzaga’s program offered a foundation in communication theory and an added bonus: leadership studies. During the application process, I didn’t fully understand how communication and leadership worked together, but I knew just enough to be intrigued. Another bonus: Gonzaga assigned an admissions counselor to me who took the entire application process from chaotic to easy. From the beginning I was convinced that everyone at the school wanted to see me, personally, succeed, and as I progressed through the program I only became more and more convinced of that. Between the compelling program and the culture of caring shown by the staff and administration, Gonzaga made themselves the obvious choice for my studies.
[MastersinCommunications.com] How is Gonzaga’s Communication and Leadership Studies program structured, and what concepts did the program emphasize? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Laura Rivera] In my opinion, Gonzaga’s program requires a nice balance of core courses while leaving you enough room in your class schedule to pursue your own interests and passions. The online program has at least one required class that includes a visit to campus—which might sound like a chore until you get there. That class was one of my best experiences in the program! I learned a lot and had a lot of fun, too.
My master’s program at Gonzaga began with an introduction to communication theory, a great foundational class that set you up for success in the program. Because the degree is also in leadership studies, there are a few additional required classes to take (like leadership theory and ethics) in organizational studies. The combination of the communication and leadership classes works well.
Again, any requirement or suggested course of study is given in order to aid you in your success. For example: Once I realized that I wanted to study change communication in greater depth—and even write my thesis on it—I knew I needed to take the class offered in interpersonal communication. I planned to take it the next time the class was offered, but at the last minute the course offerings for that semester were changed and the class was no longer available. When I asked my advisor for help, he suggested an independent study. This was another great experience. I found a professor willing (and eager!) to help me with it. I researched different readings that I would complete for the class. Together we developed course assignments and a final project for me to complete. I learned so much, got great insight from my advisor, and when I suddenly needed surgery, we worked together to adapt the class timeline so that I could still complete the final project. (My instructor didn’t waive requirements, nor did I want that. But she and I worked together to ensure that I could complete the class with no gap in my learning and no stress to my health. Like I said before, I always felt that the educators and administrators at Gonzaga had a personal interest in seeing my success. They genuinely wanted the best for me.)
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on your experience with Gonzaga’s online platform? Were courses asynchronous (prerecorded), synchronous (live), or a combination of both? Did the school’s online platform enable you to interact with faculty members and classmates? If so, how?
[Laura Rivera] Gonzaga’s online platform might seem important—it is, after all, the way in which off-campus students experience the program—but prospective students shouldn’t make it into a bigger deal than it needs to be. I have completed different online programs that used different platforms, and have found that what makes the difference is the people behind the software, not the software itself.
That said, here are some details that might matter to those considering the program:
- I cannot recall ever being expected by an instructor to be at my computer or on the phone at a certain time for instruction. There were pre-recorded lectures and reading materials posted that you worked through at your own pace. Assignments had deadlines of course, and assignments were usually “handed in” via the online platform.
- Instructors were always happy to take a phone call or answer an email if you needed advice or assistance. You COULD communicate through the online platform, but that wasn’t your only option.
- It was the same for fellow students! You decided together what worked best for all of you and that was the communication method used; it might be Gonzaga’s platform, it might not.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your thesis? What was your primary research inquiry, and how did you decide upon it? Could you describe the process you undertook to research your topic and form your final conclusions? What advice do you have for students in terms of completing their thesis (i.e. determining a research topic of appropriate scope, conducting thorough research and analysis, and crafting a strong presentation, etc.)?
[Laura Rivera] I began my experience at Gonzaga intimidated by the idea that I’d need to write a thesis (you can complete a project as an alternative, but that idea was pretty scary too). Everyone on the faculty told me not to worry. I ignored them. But I shouldn’t have! Completing my thesis was a lot of work, but it was an empowering experience.
My thesis instructor and thesis advisor were there every step of the way to answer questions, offer help, suggest methods and readings, and provide encouragement on the phone, through email, and in the special thesis class. They helped with everything from research methods to my literature review. The patience and knowledge they provided were amazing!
I completed qualitative research (a survey) that assessed the effectiveness of organizational change communication strategies, comparing the results of interpersonal communication to mediated methods. I completed this survey as part of a work project—then used the survey results and findings to inform my research and my thesis. Because I had been interested in change management communications for so long, I practically had my literature review for my thesis already written. I was lucky.
I have a few pieces of advice for anyone about to embark on thesis writing:
- Make sure the topic/question is one you are passionate about. You will be spending a lot of time with it—you don’t want to get bored.
- Set small goals and deadlines for yourself. A 100-page research paper sounds impossible. But five 20-page papers seems do-able. Set yourself small deadlines every two weeks, and in a few months you’ll have it done.
- Buy a lot of Post-its. Carry them everywhere. When you get an idea or insight or question, it won’t always be when you are at your computer. Scribble it down on a Post-it, when you are at your desk stick that note in your larger notebook, then go through them when you are ready to write.
- Use your thesis to give a voice to those that aren’t being heard. This is your chance to begin to make a difference with your education.
- Ask for help when you need it. No one expects you to have it all figured out.
I orally defended my thesis once I had completed writing it. This was another wonderful experience, as I did the defense with several other students who were also finishing. It wasn’t a “defense,” as much as it was a conversation with a group of very smart professors and students about what we had learned in our research and how it was going to propel us forward in our work.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from the Communication and Leadership Studies program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Laura Rivera] There were several concepts emphasized throughout the program that I have found to be invaluable: Ignatian pedagogy, Jesuit values, and servant leadership. This is not to say that core principles of communication or leadership studies were made secondary or are unimportant to me today. There is an expectation at Gonzaga that the reason you are learning theory and practice is not only for your own benefit; rather, it is assumed that you can and will use that knowledge you have gained to make the world a better place.
Working with other students on projects was a great way to put communication and leadership skills to the test. Creating a finished presentation with others who are in different locations and different time zones is a challenge—but great practice for the way so many of us work now. Although these projects are sometimes difficult and awkward, the skills I learned (like how to establish trust quickly with a new team and how to use a mission/vision to unify the efforts of a group) are ones I continue to use in my career and at work every day.
Another skill I learned during my time at Gonzaga that I use every day is how to examine questions critically. It is an incredible skill to be able to look at a problem, compassionately reduce it to its essentials, and formulate an unbiased plan to resolve it. Trust me when I say that the world needs more people who can do this!
In addition, Gonzaga prepared me for the ever-changing landscape of communication technologies by grounding me in solid communication theory and teaching critical thinking skills. The paper I wrote on texting communications two years ago is hopelessly out of date, but I still have the skills and understandings that propelled me through that research. Communication technologies will always change; the need for careful and critical thinking won’t.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Gonzaga University’s online Master of Arts in Communication and Leadership Studies program? More broadly, what advice would you give students who are either considering or starting a master’s in communication program, whether it be at Gonzaga or another university?
[Laura Rivera] A master’s degree program should be an experience that helps you decide what kind of thinker and what kind of leader you want to be. I would tell graduate student hopefuls that the experience should transform your mind and not to settle for anything less. The best kind of program is both humbling and empowering. It is based on fundamentals and practical theory, not dated skills.
Students also need to recognize that they will have to take more initiative than ever before in an educational setting. Don’t be afraid to ask for help, but don’t be afraid to take charge or speak up either. It’s as much work as you are afraid it will be, but the experience has more benefits than you can imagine. It is worth all the late nights! Finally, make sure you really, really love the topic of your thesis or capstone project—you’ll be working with it for a long time!
Thank you, Ms. Rivera, for your excellent insights on Gonzaga University’s Master of Arts in Communication and Leadership Studies program!