Teddi A. Joyce, University of South Dakota
Real World Career Preparation: A Guide to Creating a University Student-Run Communications Agency
Author: Douglas J. Swanson
Peter Lang, 2017
A 2015 study conducted for the American Association of Colleges & Universities, noted that 60 percent of employers surveyed think all college students should complete a significant applied learning project before graduation. Whether it is called “project based”, “active”, or “experiential learning”, popular press, students, and today’s employers value applied learning. Exploring authentic problems in real situations enriches students’ academic experiences and engagement while allowing them to demonstrate readiness for the workplace. Real World Career Preparation: A Guide to Creating a University Student-Run Communication Agency presents an inside look at how to operate a significant hands-on learning experience. The book offers faculty and department chairs ideas about structuring an environment where students work collectively building what can be described as a communication business.
Swanson proposes that a student-run agency offers pedagogical, curricular, and resource advantages for a program. The text draws on his personal experience creating a student-run agency. Divided into three sections, the book’s format includes real case studies. Available at the end of each chapter, these Agency Spotlights make it easy for those developing student-run agencies to see how the text applies to these real-world cases.
Point of View
Upfront, Swanson emphasizes the focus is a student-run agency (learning and workplace preparation), not on a student-staffed agency (defined by revenue generation and recognition). This critical distinction (p. 6) situates his approach to academic and career advising as part of holistic education and comes through in the text and in the bit-too-numerous Spotlights of his own campus’ agency. However, Swanson’s “how-to” approach provides readers with a solid guide linking the curriculum to career preparation.
Section I (Chapters 1-8) frames the student-run agency as a place for students to develop skills for the workplace. Swanson draws on Kuh’s 2008 criteria of High-Impact Practice (HIP) proposing how an agency creates a learning environment of increased engagement and success (p. 8). Throughout Section I, Swanson works to build a case for a student agency by linking it to curriculum (Chapter 2); discussing facilities (Chapter 3) and student engagement (Chapter 4); mentoring and working with graduate students (Chapters 5 and 6); and assessment and accreditation (Chapters 7 and 8).
While campus realities differ, these topics are familiar to most faculty, and it would be easy to bypass the first section. Yet, the Agency Spotlights and some specific examples make reading the first section worth the investment. For example, Chapter 5 (p. 77) outlines the practical procedures for dismissing a student with a concise overview of how to create and structure a performance plan. In addition, Swanson’s discussion on the assessment of student learning outcomes is valuable as every chair and department grapples with assessment. The Agency Spotlights presented after Chapters 7 and 8 (pp. 105-112 and pp. 125-129) offer helpful insights into data collection, learning goals, and the power of national recognition. How an agency adds to the curriculum will depend on each campus’ situation, yet these examples are helpful tools to maximize a reader’s understanding of the complexities—whether curricular or co-curricular—that often accompany creating a new program.
Chapters 9-14 (Section II) address many questions about how to build a student-run agency as a business. Creating a business within an academic environment may be uncharted territory, and several chapters in this section detail the concepts discussed in Section I. For example, Chapter 9 (Establishing a Business within the Academic Environment) provides a detailed list of questions to help faculty drive strategic planning discussions linked to the curriculum discussion (also addressed in Chapter 2). Chapter 10 (Dissent within the Ranks) discusses how programmatic change can create opposition. Again, Swanson pulls forward concepts addressed in Section I and his own experiences to provide commentary on how to address criticism. Chapter 11 (Establishing a Firm Foundation) discusses resources, space, supplies and equipment (see Chapter 3). Swanson’s list is comprehensive, and he even notes that the space and equipment recommended are basic to ensure the program’s success. However, given the varied nature of campuses and available resources for program start-up, prioritizing the list could have benefited programs with limited initial funding.
Section II is rounded out with chapters on billing (Chapter 12), recruiting and retaining clients (Chapter 13) and promoting the agency (Chapter 14). Chapter 13 presents a sample client services agreement (pp. 197-199) key to client recruitment and retention, while the Agency Spotlight at the conclusion of Chapter 14 (pp. 220-222) reinforces the value of branding and promotion for the actual agency.
The final section (Chapters 15-17) offers thoughts on a student-run agency co-existing with professional agencies in the area (Chapter 15), working with local nonprofits (Chapter 16), and creating a diverse, inclusive approach for recruiting clients (Chapter 17). Of significant help to anyone balancing organization and accreditation issues and town/gown relationship building are the Agency Spotlights at the end of Chapter 15. Campuses may collect good ideas from the spotlights in Working with an Advisory Board of Alumni and Bridging the Gap in a Small Town for working with their unique circumstances.
Swanson also shares a directory of student-run communication agencies. The 2016 list, gleaned from a professional online directory and institutional websites, presents the university, the agency’s focus, name (if used) and URL. For those considering the development of a student-run agency, the directory, albeit a bit dated, complements the Spotlights and Swanson’s advice.
Wherever an institution is creating professional activities to equip students for the workplace, Real World Career Preparation: A Guide to Creating a University Student-Run Communication Agency can help move the conversation. Whether the discussion is investing an applied learning environment or how the agency experience can demonstrate learning for accreditation, the easy-to-read style offers an entry into that conversation. Using Agency Spotlights, faculty can develop a deeper understanding of how to shape conversations about operational and curricular issues central to this type of student learning opportunity to better prepare the next generation of communication professionals.