About Jen McKeown: Jen McKeown has worked for Avera Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota for over eight years, starting as Director of Special Events, before becoming Director of Education Events, and now, Director of Marketing Communications. She previously served as Director of Corporate and Media Relations for the American Heart Association. Before that, Ms. McKeown was an award-winning news anchor and reporter for KDLT-TV in Sioux Falls, and KCAU-TV in Sioux City, Iowa.
Ms. McKeown holds a Bachelor of Arts in Mass Communication from the University of South Dakota. She competed her master’s in 2018, through The University of Iowa’s (UI) online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Jen McKeown] I work for Avera Health as Director of Marketing Communications in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, overseeing internal communications for physicians, the insurance division, telehealth, and home health, as well as patient education. I hail from Carson, Iowa, and graduated summa cum laude from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication and obtained my Master of Arts in Strategic Communications from the University of Iowa.
Previously, I worked in Sioux City, I.A. and Sioux Falls, S.D. as an award-winning television news anchor and reporter before directing communications for the American Heart Association. At Avera, I directed events and continuing education before returning to communications.
[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 Strategic Communication program at The University of Iowa?
[Jen McKeown] My passion lies in communications and public relations, so I wanted to develop those skills further rather than focus on an MBA or Master’s in Healthcare Administration. To that end, the landscape in communications and marketing changed dramatically from the world that existed when I earned my undergraduate degree. Digital communications add a new layer and require new skills, and the field of internal communications – in which I primarily work – has developed as well.
I began to search for a master’s degree program that would offer me further specialization in communications, public relations, and similar skills. Part of my requirements included curriculum offered online, because I have a family and did not want to spend time driving to class. I also wanted to be sure I could take courses in digital communication, social media, internal communications, and public relations. I narrowed my search to three reputable programs which offered online strategic communications degrees. I chose University of Iowa because of its impeccable reputation in the field of journalism, its engaging delivery system for class, and its proximity to my home. I wanted to walk in the graduation ceremony.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please elaborate on your experience in UI’s online MA program? How is the program structured? 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?
[Jen McKeown] The University of Iowa’s online MA program is very engaging for the student, both in delivery and in curriculum. Some classes were asynchronous, but most were synchronous. The instructors designed their classes particularly for the online delivery platform, so the slides worked well on a computer screen and used adult learning principles. They would pause often for discussion and sometimes break us up into small groups or partners for discussions or projects. You could see all of your classmates on the screen during class, which really helped us get to know each other and helped keep us engaged in the discussion.
The curriculum is designed to take students through the basics of strategic communication first: background and overarching considerations, writing, communication plan design, digital communication, finance for communicators, and communication research. Then, you have the opportunity to branch out and take courses in areas which interest you, such as internal communications, campaign development, social media marketing, event planning, and other courses tied to strategic communications.
The professors were very aware of who their students were: working professionals. They encouraged us to use work projects for class projects, or to take back their teachings and share with our teams. I was able to do much great work for Avera, the Catholic health care organization for which I work, during my degree program and get great guidance from my professors and valuable input from my classmates. It also allowed me to devote more time to some really big, strategic projects that I might not have during work hours. In addition, I was able to present several workshops to our internal communications team using takeaways from my UI classes.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your capstone project? What communication issue or challenge did it address, and what were your primary deliverables (i.e. communications plan, tutorial, video, visual marketing materials, etc.)? What advice do you have for students in terms of successfully completing their project?
[Jen McKeown] The capstone course required several deliverables from which I learned. First, I revised a previous project. In my case, the original project was an audit of Avera’s internal communication channels. The audit identified several areas of opportunity in Avera’s internal communications. One of my recommendations was to develop a comprehensive internal communications strategy. I used all I had learned throughout my graduate program to add this into my audit. My advisor and classmates supported me by giving me feedback on my initial draft.
I also had the opportunity to build an e-portfolio. I had never built a website before, nor did I realize how fun it could be. I was able to use items from my professional experience as well as my graduate program to develop a great site. It not only taught me something new, but also helped build my confidence in my own skills when I saw everything in one place. My advisor and classmates supported me by giving me feedback on my initial draft.
Finally, we wrote case studies evaluating a campaign using the SMART model. I was able to evaluate a local university’s public relations response to a crisis, which was a wonderful way for me to apply what I had learned about public relations throughout the program. It was a great learning experience for me as I typically focus on internal communications at work. I gathered research online and through in-depth interviews. My scope was set by the requirements of the project. My advisor and classmates supported me by giving me feedback on my initial draft. My advice for future classmates in embarking upon any of these projects is to follow the project requirements, limit your scope to a realistic parameter, and constantly discuss your project with your advisor.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from UI’s Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Jen McKeown] I think my biggest takeaway from the UI Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program was confidence. I understand the theory behind strategic communication and how to apply it, not only in my current role but also potentially in other specialties such as public relations or social media marketing. The program does a nice job of giving you plenty of opportunities to apply what you’re learning, so it becomes very real. The hands-on experience also makes it much less intimidating to consider moving within the communications profession.
I obtained my undergraduate degree when digital had not yet developed, so my most helpful classes were those which gave me theory and experience in developing content and strategy for digital communications and social media. I also learned how to write for mediums different from those I normally touch, which has rounded out my knowledge of developing strategic communications content. In addition, the social media marketing class was phenomenal. My knowledge in strategy and content increased tenfold through the readings, discussions, videos and projects explored during that class. It actually forced me to try some social media channels I had not explored yet, which was a really great experience. Finally, I learned about the basics of finance and why it matters to communicators. This was really helpful in preparing me to operate more knowledgeably in the business world.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting The University of Iowa’s online MA in Strategic Communication 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 UI or another university?
[Jen McKeown] You get out of your degree what you put into it. In other words, the harder you work to learn and apply the information, the more valuable it will be for you. I also would suggest trying to apply the class learnings in real-world situations, such as at work. I used assignments as an opportunity to dig deeper into projects I needed to complete at work, and it enriched my graduate school experience greatly. It also allowed me to spend more time on work projects and make them even better. I benefited greatly from my experience in the University of Iowa Strategic Communications program and would highly recommend it to others.
Thank you, Ms. McKeown, for your excellent insights on The University of Iowa’s online Master of Arts in Strategic Communication program!