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SOC Students Design, Host Conference

AU’s public relations capstone embodies experiential learning by taking on real-world advertising clients.

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Students designed the logo for AU's first experiential learning conference.

Butterflies danced in Mara Shepherd’s stomach as she watched people file into the Mary Graydon Center’s Wechsler Theater just weeks before spring commencement. Her nervousness wore off quickly, however, as the room filled for a conference she and classmates organized. 

“I thought, ‘Whew, we did it. It’s going to be fine,’” says Shepherd, CAS-SOC/BA ’22, SOC/MA ’23. 

Hard work and hands-on preparation allowed Shepherd and her classmates in the public relations capstone course to design and facilitate AU’s first experiential learning conference—AU and Beyond: Where Education Meets Experience.  

“It’s really funny that a class guided by experiential learning took on as a client, a conference about experiential learning,” Shepherd says. “Very meta.” 

The conference was a partnership between the PR class, led by SOC professor Gemma Puglisi, SOC professor Sarah Menke-Fish, and AU librarian Olivia Ivey, who help coordinate the university’s experiential learning efforts. 

Ivey’s interest lies in literacy and learning outcomes, and her work in those areas connected her with groups on campus dedicated to service- and community-based learning.  

Menke-Fish, SOC’s assistant dean of experiential learning, and Ivey connected around the work of AU’s strategic plan, Changemakers for a Changing World, and deputy provost Monica Jackson, who leads the implementation team for imperative four: learning for undergraduate, graduate, and professional students, which calls for the expansion of experiential learning opportunities at AU. 

“This is a valuable form of pedagogy,” Ivey says. “It’s a way we know students can thrive and learn.” 

Menke-Fish’s work at SOC meant she didn’t need to look far for a partner.  

Puglisi, a former journalist and media relations expert, has long put experiential learning at the heart of her instruction. From the public relations portfolio class to the PR practicum involving experiential learning, Puglisi has for nearly 20 years provided real-world clients—including the Boys and Girls Club, the Wounded Warrior Project, the Yellow Ribbon Fund, and Covenant House—with PR support from SOC students. Graduates have even brought the nonprofits they worked with in the classroom to their new employers as clients. 

“I’m really proud of this class and the work the students have done” Puglisi says. “We try to raise awareness of the message and the issues that these organizations stand for. I think we leave these organizations in a better place. [The conference] was a great opportunity to showcase all of the work going on across the university and highlight groups doing similar work.” 

Puglisi’s class works with nonprofits on specific needs like marketing and social media and helps fill communications gaps. The group usually takes on a few clients per semester, but the experiential learning conference was the sole client in the spring semester because of the heavy lift involved with designing a conference from its inception. 

After Menke-Fish and Ivey pitched the vision to the class, students broke into three groups, each charged with an aspect of the conference: media outreach and promotion, branding, and hosting the event. 

Students designed the logo. They combed through the AU website directory to book appropriate participants and led outreach to faculty and staff. They secured a venue and put together a program that included four panel discussions and a poster session showcasing student and on-campus work. And they built a website and did social media outreach. 

“They did the whole thing, top to bottom,” Ivey says. 

Nearly 80 members of the AU community attended the conference, which brought together panelists from different corners of campus who were each using experiential learning as a tool. The event highlighted examples of experiential learning from the classroom, as well as programs and centers from each of the colleges and examples of work from campus life organizations. 

“One of the cool things that came out of the conference is that participants became aware of what others on campus were doing, and now they are talking and coordinating,” Ivey says. 

Shepherd and her classmates got the chance to run an event—an invaluable experience for students entering the public relations field. They discovered how to manage all the moving parts of a large institution like a university. And they functioned as a team, with each of the groups pulling their weight to make the conference a success. 

Shepherd says the experience helped her land a job as a communications and programming associate at the Bethesda, Maryland, nonprofit Giving Square, which teaches children the value of philanthropy, civic responsibility, and empathetic connections. 

“The conference was a great practical experience that has helped me in my day job,” she says, “because it illustrated the need for teamwork and building relationships to make an event happen.”