About David Blackmer: David Blackmer is the Director of Member Experience at AAPC. As Director, he oversees member outreach and customer experience management, leads membership engagement programming, and shapes the development of marketing and other educational materials for the organization. Prior to his current role, Mr. Blackmer was the Director of Operations at AAPC, and before that he worked for the company as a Senior Marketing Manager and PR specialist. In addition to his professional career, Mr. Blackmer serves as a Board Member of The Empress Theatre. He earned his Bachelor of Arts in French Language and Literature at Brigham Young University, and his Master of Strategic Communication from Westminster College.
[MastersinCommunications.com] May we please have a brief description of your educational and professional background?
[Dave Blackmer] I earned my Bachelor of Arts from Brigham Young University in 2007, just looking for a degree to complete my collegiate path, so I could dive into the workforce as soon as possible. Of course, my first job out of school was managing a pizza restaurant, so I clearly put that degree to good use immediately…
Shortly after deciding that the food industry was not my ultimate destination, I began working at a company that focused on healthcare education and certification. Much of the company’s marketing was open to internal evaluation, and I often expressed opinions to ensure appropriate branding, style, tone, diction, etc. Before long, I was working in the Marketing Department, crafting the very emails, press releases, and other communications I had critiqued before. As my career with this organization progressed, I moved into more operational and leadership positions. I currently oversee our membership experience, working to keep our broad customer base happy and engaged.
In 2012, I felt I had hit a glass ceiling with my career. I had been slowly climbing and enjoying diverse and new responsibilities, but I wasn’t sure which direction I would go from where I was at the time, either within the company where I worked or even elsewhere. I received a letter from Westminster College about their Master’s in Strategic Communication program. I turned to my wife and declared, “I think I’m going back to school to get a master’s degree.” I started at the beginning of 2013 and graduated in the summer of 2014.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Why did you decide to pursue a master’s degree in communication, and why did you ultimately choose Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication?
[Dave Blackmer] I had never considered returning to school. I had not enjoyed several aspects of my educational past. Grades seemed nearly arbitrary. It was easier to get a “good” grade if a teacher was amicable or lenient, offered sources of extra credit, or simply had better communication skills regarding assignment requirements. On top of that frustration, degrees were just indications of general completion, not the actual amount of education received. In other words, an individual could perform the bare minimum to pass all classes and still earn a degree, missing out on much of the core curriculum.
With this background, my wife and I were both stunned at my firm declaration of heading back to school. But there were a handful of key traits about Westminster’s program that caught my eye from the start. I still did my research and investigated other programs, both local and national. I just kept coming back to Westminster’s Master of Strategic Communication because I loved the unique focus on competency-based learning, accommodating hybrid model of online and live education, and broad flexibility in how each module can be catered to the learner’s career interests (with real-world application).
At the time, in terms of my career plans, I wanted the position my boss held. I saw some graduate programs that would have prepared me very well for such an occupation. However, I didn’t know where I would go from there, or if I would really enjoy that job. Westminster’s program can be so catered to the individual student that I felt it would leave with me a lot more career options. Looking back, I do feel that it prepared me adequately for the position my boss held, but it also prepared me for the position I currently hold, positions I hope to hold in the future, and other roles I’m filling in serving my community.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please provide an overview of your experience completing the curriculum for this program? What key concepts did the program emphasize, and how did the five specific content areas inform your learning outcomes? What skills and strategies did you learn in your classes, and how did you apply them to course assignments?
[Dave Blackmer] Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program currently has five sequences (semesters) that cover:
- Strategic Communication in Action
- Visual Branding & Communication Design
- Organizational Strategy Assessment
- Strategic Marketing Communications
- Corporate Training & Capstone Project
While the program’s curriculum has evolved a bit since I was a student, the focus has largely remained the same. I loved that each sequence began with an in-person introduction to the content, working with the faculty mentor that would be our primary guide for that specific portion. These introductions provided the opportunity to map out the upcoming few months in terms of individual and team goals and projects.
With every competency covered in every sequence, we chose real-world examples and/or actual clients to work with, defining those choices and refining the deliverables with the faculty mentors. This made the education infinitely more valuable, as we were building portfolios and résumés the entire time, not just memorizing principles to be regurgitated on a test. The team projects contributed to this atmosphere of education meeting reality, since large projects in the workplace require coordination among diverse team members.
The competency-based learning style carried high expectations for every assignment. I was coordinating with my faculty mentor and often with a client as well, juggling expectations and improvements to meet the goals we had outlined from the beginning. The faculty mentors wanted the best work produced for me to demonstrate truly mastering every skill we studied. This turned the traditional grading concept on its head, as I could not proceed to the next assignment until I had produced exceptional work on the current one.
This learning method, in a small cohort where faculty could focus on every individual and dedicate substantial time to each of them, pushed me to achieve and learn more than any previous educational experience. It was the most focused schooling I had ever gone through, which is why I got so much out of it – and loved every minute (even the more challenging times).
[MastersinCommunications.com] As a student of Westminster College’s online/hybrid program format, what were your experiences interacting with course faculty and peers both in and outside of classes? What learning technologies did this program use, and were they effective in helping you feel connected to your professors and class cohort?
[Dave Blackmer] I was adamant that I keep my day job while in school, which made the online element of this program so attractive. But I had taken online courses before and knew they could leave a lot to be desired. Fortunately, Westminster planned ways to overcome the usual problems. When we had the live introductions for each sequence, these were very full instructional periods. Each offered a deep dive into the content, but also into the connection to our faculty mentors and our peers. When I needed to interact with faculty or set up team meetings with our classmates, it was more like reaching out to a dear friend. The time and medium of contact were always flexible based on mutual availability – all that mattered was that both sides cared about connecting.
I had phone calls and video chats with faculty mentors at various times throughout the day, sometimes even in the middle of the night. If they were up and I needed a consultation, they never hesitated to chat. That’s not to say they were entirely at my beck and call, just that they were much more available than a few hours a week for official “office hours.”
With my classmates, we set up a regular meeting schedule to keep our team project progressing well and offer support with each other’s individual assignments. We found that just booking a room at a local library once every couple of weeks was enough for our needs, although we did meet through video chat a few times as well.
Westminster provided portals through which we could video chat, watch instructional videos from our faculty mentors, access vast online libraries of research and information to augment our studies, and of course review and submit assignments. I found that I used the core functions of these resources, just scratching the surface of what was offered. I didn’t want to rely too heavily on tools that would not be available to me after graduation. The program was never so rigid or strict that we had to use certain tools to complete assignments or interact. As we mastered each competency we studied, we progressed.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Westminster College’s program is unique in that it includes a fully funded international trip during which students work collaboratively on a field project for a non-profit or other organization. Could you describe your experiences on this trip, and what learning outcomes, professional connections, and hands-on experience you gained from it?
[Dave Blackmer] Many of our projects for real-world clients were secured based on our own individual connections and network. These were still fantastic opportunities, but there is something innately different when participating in a project for a client you don’t know at the start, especially when that client is international. It feels more realistic, perhaps even entrepreneurial, and that was the experience Westminster provided through this focused effort for a non-profit organization.
Some master’s programs offer a free laptop. Some offer a trip, perhaps even an international one, where the students get to see what a career in a related field is like. This program offers the experience of actually stepping into a relevant career. Our cohort revamped a website and put together promotional materials for the non-profit organization Peruvian Hearts. Our unforgettable trip to Peru showed us the individuals we were serving with this work.
Prior to the trip, we enjoyed the work we had been putting together for Peruvian Hearts. On the trip, seeing the conditions and challenges faced, we all became firm believers in the mission the organization stood for. That may not have changed the scope or direction of our projects, since we had clear enough plans from the outset, but it certainly changed our dedication. We held our work to a higher standard and valued it more.
[MastersinCommunications.com] Could you please describe your experience completing your Corporate Training and Capstone Project? Which client did you work with, and how did you collaborate with your team of peers on a strategic communication project? How did your faculty advisor(s) support you in your research and work?
[Dave Blackmer] For our fifth sequence, we actually combined our entire cohort into one team to work on the numerous deliverables requested by the Peruvian Hearts client. As we recreated their website together, our individual projects involved creating our own websites to showcase portfolios of all our previous work. Again, the flexibility of the program shined through in these studies. Some students wanted to learn more about user experience and interface, others focused on the graphic elements or messaging, others played with the actual coding to include unique features.
Our team client had an event in New York that was going to bring a lot of media attention. Their organization was included in a prominent documentary, and they had received a donation of high-profile advertising in conjunction with this film screening. Their website needed a fresh look to maximize donations from the planned influx of internet visitors, and they also required a complete press kit for distribution.
As we had been working on team projects throughout the program, we had fine-tuned strategies for coordinating workload, communication, leadership, feedback and quality assurance, deadlines, etc. Our faculty mentor was available for our meetings, but he didn’t try to override our decisions or take charge, just nudge us in the right direction and offer help and encouragement when needed.
[MastersinCommunications.com] What key takeaways, experiences, or connections from Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication have you found to be the most helpful for you in your career path?
[Dave Blackmer] There are so many to choose from!
I learned essential skills in handling projects with other team members that will serve me in all my communication with others through the rest of my life. Some of these proficiencies, like offering productive feedback when copy editing, were based on faculty mentors coaching me through challenges. Other skills were learned along the way, through experiences I only could have had by working on the projects I did.
The sequence on organizational behavior opened my eyes to a lot of ways that companies can run more smoothly, especially in terms of meetings, interdepartmental communications, and unified visions. I have been able to apply this knowledge where I work, streamlining many business operations and helping create a Culture Committee that has been a force of positive change.
The principles of rhetoric and persuasive analysis we studied even gave me the background I needed to approach an issue with our state legislature a couple years ago. There was a matter close to my heart, and a legislator was moving to make a change that I felt would be very detrimental. I found out about the public comment possibility a few hours before. I used my training to research the audience, plan my remarks, and headed to the state capital building. The proposed bill did not move forward!
[MastersinCommunications.com] What advice would you give students just starting Westminster College’s Master of 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 is at Westminster College or another university?
[Dave Blackmer] For those who are considering a master’s in communication, I definitely recommend prioritizing your needs and researching which programs seem to meet the most important ones (budget, proximity, online/live training based on your preference, etc.). Narrow the choices down to two or three schools and then meet with a current student of that program or a recent alum to help make your final decision. This is a big decision that you will likely never make again. If you do adequate research, you’ll never have to second guess the decision you made. You’ll also feel more motivated to push through the harder moments.
I clearly loved the Strategic Communication program at Westminster. But I do not believe this is the perfect program for everybody; any program that claims to be one-size-fits-all is probably so desperate for admissions that it sacrifices real quality. For any who decide to attend this program, I would recommend planning regular time to dedicate to schoolwork, both for personal and team projects. When coursework is available online, it’s much easier to procrastinate, but don’t let yourself. Go to “class.”
For any who choose a competency-based program, I would recommend removing emotions from your assignments. You will receive lots of feedback, and you will need to rework assignments multiple times before they are completed. If you take any of that personally, you will start falling behind. Embrace the critiques and let the comments wash away your shortcomings. Master the education.
Thank you, David Blackmer, for your fantastic insight into Westminster College’s Master of Strategic Communication program!