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Building a Broader Perspective Sonya Grier’s Marketing for Social Change Class Pushes the Status Quo

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Students writing social change in the sand.
Credit: Social Butterfly

Experiential learning isn’t just part of Sonya Grier’s teaching. It’s the core of it. Grier structures her classes around projects that challenge students to “see broader connections in their work. Marketing isn’t just about business,” she says.

She teaches students to apply their skills across academic subjects—and careers. Assigning interdisciplinary, hands-on work allows students to explore how marketing, Grier’s area of expertise, intersects with other fields.

“This approach gives students a deeper perspective of the issues at hand,” she explains. “It also exposes them to professions inside and outside of business that utilize marketing skills.”

Grier’s Marketing for Social Change class is a prime example. The course explores the role of marketing beyond commercial gain, requiring students to use it as a catalyst for societal change.

As a community-based learning (CBL) class, Marketing for Social Change students work with a DC-area non-profit on a specialized marketing project. The assignment focuses on fostering community engagement and integrating students into different organizations in Washington, DC, and beyond. “There are so many incredible businesses in this city,” Grier says. “This project allows students to see beyond campus and embrace marketing challenges DC businesses face.”

Students have worked with organizations such as DC Department of Health, WMATA, Arcadia Farms and multiple centers on the American University campus. Grier thinks they learned the most, however, working with Unity Healthcare.

Students developed a social marketing plan for the company’s partnership with Capital Bike Share, aiming to increase bicycle usage among underserved segments of the population. Class groups researched their target audience, organized their findings and proposed a plan of action for Unity Healthcare. “They conducted deep research,” Grier says, “and learned a great deal about barriers lower income populations face.”

The project has implications well beyond bicycle usage. Bike share riders are typically middle class and white, says Grier. The students’ work encourages other population groups to use this service, which has a positive influence on obesity levels and physical well-being.

"The project taught us how to use marketing principles for societal good,” says Denis Sgouros, MSMKTG ‘17. “It's personally rewarding knowing I contributed to a campaign that could help a community in DC.”

Grier’s experiential approach also shows students what a career in marketing is actually like. Students interact with a real client and are required to work together on teams. This exposes them to problems they’d face as a marketing professional, and teaches them about different roles on teams. “Project-based learning integrates the concepts we study,” Grier says. “Student learn much more applying theory to practice.”

Students don’t just invest in projects off campus, though. Grier believes engaging the AU community is just as important.

The diversity and inclusion project, offered in Spring 2016, provided the chance to interact with different groups across campus. The class developed marketing plans to increase student inclusiveness at AU, with hopes of creating deeper connections among cultural groups. Student teams spoke with students, faculty and administrators about different on-campus problems, such as gender issues or racial segregation; they then translated their research into actionable plans.

“It helped them think about campus in a different way,” Grier says. “These projects personally affected students because they were connected to the campus community.”

The project supports Grier’s goal of exposing students to broader perspectives. Its interdisciplinary nature challenged them to examine different viewpoints. Students saw first-hand how marketing overlaps with problems outside of business.

Grier wants to achieve this in every project she assigns. “I hope students realize that marketing and business connect to everything. It’s not just the private sector—it’s non-profits, the entertainment industry, public resources.”

This broader approach leaves a lasting impact on her students and in the communities they work with. It’s reciprocal: students gain experience working with different real-world organizations, and businesses get to use students’ expertise.

Marketing is not just for sales—it’s also for social impact. Grier’s experiential projects encourage students to think “out-of-the-box,” empowering them with the knowledge to drive societal change.

“It gets students to think of community problems as business problems,” says Grier. “And I think that touches people’s lives.”

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