A Conversation with Northwestern MSC student Ashley Polk

Ashley Polk currently works for Northwestern Memorial Hospital in the corporate building and supply chain as a purchasing agent in charge of cardiology and radiology. She entered the program in January of 2017, five years after completing her undergraduate degree in communications from the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign.

Why did you choose to attend the Master of Science in Communication program at Northwestern?

One day at lunch I was introduced to an alumni of the MSC program, Brandi Snodgrass, by a mutual friend in Kellogg. I was originally looking into the getting an MBA, and while our mutual friend was telling me about the program at Kellogg, she was telling me all about the MSC program. She talked about how it’s made her a better leader and how she was more confident in her position and got a better job with this degree. She has a communications background, and so do I, so I related to her. 

The best part, however, was that she was in class with people that had totally different backgrounds than us. She emphasized that the program was open to everybody including people in engineering, some who specialize in medicine, and entrepreneurs. After our conversation, the MSC Open House completely sold me on the program.

Why did you decide to pursue a degree at this point in your career?

I’ve wanted a master’s degree for a while, but I’ve always been very busy with work. The more I learned about MSC, the more I saw how beneficial it would be to my career. I wanted to become a better, more valuable leader. I am looking for a management role when I graduate and I want to feel confident in taking that role. After being introduced to the program, it changed my mind and I realized I just had to prioritize my time and go for it.

What is your favorite aspect of MSC at Northwestern?

I really value the fact that I can apply the material from the program to real life situations and everyday work challenges. That started after the very first class I took – Change Management with Mike Roloff. I found myself thinking about class, and practicing the strategies we talked about, the very next day at work. Because the classes are small, I have more freedom to ask questions and to gain a better understanding of material. Also, I’ve found that because students are from very different backgrounds, everyone has their own experiences. We are able to relate and come up with different solutions based on our diverse perspectives.

What is something you’ve learned so far that you’ve been able to apply to your career?

The highly interactive curriculum has really challenged me to think outside the box and the skills I’ve learned in the program have already made me more confident in my workplace. For example, I used some material from the change management course to negotiate things with my boss in terms of compensation. The class helped me learn how to put exactly what I want on the table and go for it.

Can you talk about your cohort?

I’m already forming great relationships with a lot of my classmates. They are just as curious and driven as I am, so they are willing to work together and talk about material so we can all gain a deeper understanding. There is a lot of open communication in the program, so you feel a sense of family. I felt this almost immediately, but the program just has great people. People are very supportive because everybody is there for the same reason. We study together and we help each other out.

What was your first impression of the program?

I was very nervous because I thought the first day we would immediately begin challenging each other, like a debate. I immediately, however, felt comfortable. The challenges were about ideas, not personal. The professors and my classmates were very open, so they made it very easy. Once I walked into class, and got a feel for things, my nervousness went away.

What advice would you have for anyone considering the MSC program?

Be proactive and always look for opportunities to better your brand. This program can definitely help you improve yourself with the different seminars, workshops, and guest speakers who can help with your development, along with the career advising team.

Join at a time when you’re willing to sacrifice some time and things you enjoy. I knew this program would require dedication and hard work. I’m happy about cutting down on things I enjoy because I know in the end it will be rewarding to my future.

Learning Themes: What Does Communication Mean To Us?

Any master’s degree program should be able to explain in not-so-many words how it’s curriculum is designed. We can explain our curriculum in two words “Learning Themes”. Our curriculum is anchored by three learning themes – Managing Complexity, Collaborative Leadership and Elegant Communication. 
The Master of Science in Communication program curriculum is deliberate and unique. We believe that the Learning Themes are integral not only to the MSC program but to becoming a successful communicator. Mastering these themes by combining the conceptual and applied knowledge will provide you will a skillset that will set you apart from your peers.

The core courses in the MSC program will introduce conceptual knowledge from each of these themes and provide you with an opportunity share your own experience or applied knowledge from your workplace to help deepen your understanding of the concepts. As a class – along with your faculty – you will take this all one step further by combining the conceptual knowledge with the applied knowledge and creating brand new produced knowledge. This produced knowledge did not exist before you entered the MSC program, this is knowledge that you will take with you and use in your job and a variety other real life situation that call for it.   

Learn more about how our learning themes can be found in both the Custom Leadership Program and the Hybrid Leadership Program.

Congratulations MSC Class of 2017!

Northwestern University’s MSC Program Graduation at the Alice Millar Chapel on Friday, August 11th, 2017. Photos by Jasmin Shah.

On Friday, August 11, 2017, 83 students walked across the stage at Alice Millar Chapel to receive their diplomas as the newest graduates of Northwestern’s Master of Science in Communication (MSC) program. It was an honor to see these students take this next step in their journey and join the ever-growing MSC Alumni Community.

Nearly 700 audience members cheered on their friends, family members, parents, coworkers and spouses as the graduates entered the Chapel to take their seats, and then as they walked across the stage. Among the speeches given was a welcome from Faculty Director, Michelle Shumate, PhD, who teaches in the program. Additionally, the Dean of the School of Communication, Barbara O’Keefe, PhD congratulated the Class of 2017 in her speech, and encouraged them to stay involved in the Northwestern alumni community.  

It is a tradition in the MSC program that each year’s class nominate potential keynote speakers from their own networks. The class then votes on the nominees and the winner is invited by the Faculty Director and the student who made the nomination. This year’s keynote speaker was nominated and invited by MSC student, Lauren Rein. Lauren was able to leverage her professional network and invite Rocky Wirtz, owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, Chairman of Wirtz Corporation, and Northwestern University Trustee as the keynote speaker. Lauren also introduced Mr. Wirtz in a speech made to her classmates that highlighted the unique accomplishments they had throughout the 2016-2017 year. In the theme of traditions, Lauren’s speech also focused on the history of the MSC program, which is somewhat personal for her. Lauren’s father, Professor Irv Rein, was one of the founders of the MSC program over 30 years ago, and was in attendance at the ceremony to see his daughter give the convocation speech. Following Lauren, Mr. Wirtz’s speech mused on the many personal ties he holds with the Northwestern community, and especially to the School of Communication. He urged students to maintain the work ethic developed over their year in the MSC program and to bring that into their professional lives.

Among the 83 graduates were 12 Hybrid Leadership Program (HLP) students. This year, the MSC program launched the HLP to extend its geographic reach of Chicagoland and to embrace the challenges that professional students’ lives sometimes demand. The 12 HLP students completed the program by taking classes mostly online, and also coming to campus for four In Residence weekends throughout the 2016-2017 academic year. For these distance learners, being enveloped by the massive MSC community and celebrating the milestone of graduation with friends and family was and the perfect way to complete their fourth and final In Residence weekend.

After the ceremony, the new graduates joined their guests for a reception hosted by MSC Staff before heading off to celebrate their first free Saturday in weeks. On behalf of MSC staff and faculty: Congratulations to the Class of 2017. That’s a wrap!

Alumni Spotlight: Lauren M. Pacheco’s (’16) Work Selected as Finalist in Downtown Gary Public Art Competition

Lauren M. Pacheco graduated from the MSC program in 2016. Her project, Destination Gary: Art | Park, was recently selected as a finalist in the Downtown Gary Public Art Competition.

Lauren is an arts administrator and community organizer working at the intersections of social practice and social strategy. She is a third-generation Mexican-American born and raised in Brighton Park, a community on Chicago’s southwest side.  Lauren is co-founder of the Chicago Urban Art Society (, a contemporary arts organization supporting curatorial and artistic-based practice and co-producer of the Chicago Lowrider Festival (, an outdoor community and cultural initiative taking place in the Pilsen community. Pacheco has worked hard to bring the arts to a broader audience and bridges cultural sector programming within Chicago’s diverse arts community.  She has become a resource to policymakers and has helped engage in the public dialogue about issues that impact artists and creative enterprises.

DESTINATION GARY: ART | PARK reimagines urban space in celebration of art and design, transforming vacant sites into public spaces, walkable and park-like. A series of creative installations invites exploration in the unbuilt environment and challenges our notion of traditional art spaces. Awarded $25,000.  For more project details and how to support or donate please visit:

Lauren’s other projects include: Chicago Urban Art Society (, Chicago Lowrider Festival (, Destination Gary (, 2017 Terrain Biennial Curator, Gary Indiana (, Art In Public Places: 25th Ward Community Arts Initiative (

About the Gary Public Art Competition

By bringing art outside the traditional context of museums and galleries, Public Art benefits the community and its visitors by increasing access to art and providing artists with opportunities to expand their artistic practice and market. The program has a commitment to work with both emerging and established artists to produce high quality, innovative, and creative art projects and exhibitions in public spaces in Gary, Indiana. It’s institutional funders are the Legacy Foundation, the Knight Foundation, and theCity of Gary – Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Graduation Reflections

The MSC ’17 cohort graduated on August 11. It was an amazing day and I was delighted to introduce our keynote speaker, Rocky Wirtz! As some people have asked to see the words to the speech, I am including them below as it’s an accurate recap of my MSC experience.

Northwestern University’s MSC Program Graduation at the Alice Millar Chapel on Friday, August 11th, 2017. Photos by Jasmin Shah.

Since we walked into orientation for the Faculty Meet and Greet last September, we’ve been asked to define what earning a MSC degree from Northwestern means to us. The answers probably vary as each of us had different paths and experiences along the way. 

In a few moments, we will be Northwestern graduates! Think about that! The deadlines, director dens, the stack of reading, writing, and overthinking will be behind us. I, personally, have been waiting for this moment since the program’s inception in the early 80s. 

The MSC debuted as the first communication master’s degree for professionals in the United States and continues to be a leader in the field.

The two co-founders, Professors Paul Arntson and Irv Rein (my dad) designed the program by scribbling the curriculum onto a napkin at Houlihan’s Restaurant in Schaumburg, IL. That program took flight and the first class graduated in 1986 with my mom as the first director.  

What makes the MSC so exciting and powerful is that more than three decades later; the faculty, students, and staff continue to build on the vision of this program. 

It is a credit to our superb Dean, faculty, and staff that have made our degree so meaningful and we all owe them many thanks and appreciation. Whether it was encouraging us or advising us or expanding the way we think, without you, we would not have this degree.

Our family, friends, coworkers, and the dedicated crew in the MSC Alumni Association were critical in providing patience, encouragement, and ever-needed support, allowing us to rant and rave as we annotated, created, and pontificated during this past year. 

What has this MSC odyssey meant to all of us? Discussion boards and case studies and desperate late night calls on the night before the work was due. Eating lots of food at the Allen Center, lunchtime walks by the lake, and enlightening Happy Hours.

Professors Leslie DeChurch and Michelle Shumate kicked us off in the fall with groupthink, team composition, and climbing Mt. Everest, without breaking a sweat!

Over winter break, crisis communication was the focus and we learned from the panel discussion featuring MSC alumnus Bob Rowley, Professors Tim Coombs and Irv Rein to anticipate, control the narrative and “know something” to succeed during a crisis. 

In the winter, we witnessed the revelation of good faith and logrolling from a self-proclaimed old buffalo also known as Professor Mike Roloff.

As the season turned to spring, we became infected with a network virus and a reciprocity ring introduced by Professor Nosh Contractor.

In the summer as senioritis started to kick in, Professor Robert Hariman set us straight on the power of how to construct a two-sided argument in our ethics in communication class. 

It was a busy and great year and that brings us to this moment at convocation for our distinguished Keynote Speaker.

Since graduation, I am still intertwined with the MSC program – partly because I work at Northwestern. I miss my classmates and have made some very strong friendships. They were a fixture in my life for a year! I will be involved in the MSC Alumni Association – so my cohort WILL be hearing from me. I know a few people who are in the 2018 class. It’s fun and exciting as I get to relax, answer their questions, and watch them shape their own MSC journey! 

Friday Roundup: 7/14/17

Our weekly roundup highlights links to articles and talks to help you be a more effective leader.

  1. The Ways Your Brain Manages Overload, and How to Improve Them (HBR)

    “At the core of managing information overload is the ability to know which function to use, and how and when to use it. The six principles below can serve as a guide to the proper brain hygiene for managing information overload on a busy work day.”


    “Who wouldn’t want to capture some of the estimated $6 trillion in play with the Internet of Things (IoT)? Companies embrace IoT solutions for a number of reasons, such as lowering operating costs, increasing productivity, expanding into new markets, and developing new products/services. However, it may seem as if only small, agile companies are reaping the benefits of the IoT: innovation appears to be the domain of upstarts.”

  3. Are You a Great Leader? Here’s the Only Proof That Matters (Inc.)

    Great leaders know how to develop great employees. This is critically important to an organization because having exceptional gifts when it comes to mentoring, encouragement, and an ability to pass on what you know to others means the entire company is great, not just one person. The true sign of greatness is not one leader puffing up his or her credentials; it’s when those credentials start mirroring themselves in everyone at the company.”

Friday Roundup: 7/7/17

Our weekly roundup highlights links to articles and talks to help you be a more effective leader.

  1. Yoplait Learns to Manufacture Authenticity to Go With Its Yogurt (NYT)

    “Eventually a choice was needed. Yoplait, based in Minneapolis, is part of General Mills, the huge international food conglomerate, which prides itself on cleareyed, data-driven decision-making. Cold, hard numbers — not passion — have made Cheerios, Green Giant and Betty Crocker into colossal brands. ‘We’re disciplined,’ David Clark, a 26-year company veteran, told me. ‘That’s why we succeed.'”

  2. Every Manager Can Become A Better Leader By Asking This One Question (Forbes)

    “HighGround surveyed 525 managers and 525 employees in a variety of industries, including technology, financial services, retail and health care. It found that only 43% of managers ask their employees how they can be better managers.”

  3. Are You a Collaborative Leader? (HBR)

    “Watching his employees use a new social technology, Marc Benioff, the CEO of, had an epiphany. His company had developed Chatter, a Facebook inspired application for companies that allows users to keep track of their colleagues and customers and share information and ideas. The employees had been trying it out internally, not just within their own work groups but across the entire organization. As Benioff read the Chatter posts, he realized that many of the people who had critical customer knowledge and were adding the most value were not even known to the management team.”

Friday Roundup: 6/30/17

Our weekly roundup highlights links to articles and talks to help you be a more effective leader.

  1. The unexpected benefit of celebrating failure (TED)

    “We use the word “moonshots” to remind us to keep our visions big — to keep dreaming. And we use the word “factory” to remind ourselves that we want to have concrete visions — concrete plans to make them real.”

  2. To Grow Leadership Skills, Get People Out of Their Comfort Zones (B2C)

    Kodak invented the digital camera in the 1970s, but the company stubbornly stuck with film and missed a huge opportunity. That cash cow was quickly eaten by competitors who weren’t afraid to run with new technology.
  3. A Conversation with Northwestern MSC Alumna, Jeanne Sparrow

    “In the end, the MSC turned out to be perfect for me not only because of the courses, but also because of the other people in my cohort. When you’re on air, your workflow and interactions with others happen very differently than in other businesses and industries. Through my classmates, I was able to learn about interactions in different industries.”

    A Conversation with Northwestern MSC Alumna, Jeanne Sparrow

    Jeanne was most recently a host of a television morning news talk show in Chicago for nearly 8 years and has had a 30-year career in radio and television. Her passion for media began in high school and continued at WNUR radio during her undergraduate degree at Northwestern. Jeanne believes in the importance of integrating experiential learning and academics in order to be able to truly organize and fully learn from our experiences.

    At what point in your career did you enter the MSC program?

    My undergraduate degree was from Northwestern and it was in psychology. I wanted to take a little break before graduate school, and instead I ended up having an entire career in the media. I had been working on “You & Me” for 4 or 5 years when I first entered MSC. However, I always had a life goal of going back to graduate school because I love school and love learning. The problem was that most of my learning between my undergraduate degree and the MSC was on the job– it was valuable but it was more like enrichment because it wasn’t academically rigorous.

    So why was this the right time for you?

    As my career changed, I changed too and I learned different things. Eventually, I realized that I wasn’t going to remain in broadcasting forever. The industry has changed a lot in the years that I’ve been in it and I realized I need to prepare myself for the next thing. I thought, maybe going back to school will help me codify and organize what I know. Sometimes what you’ve learned in life doesn’t have a place because it hasn’t been organized in the way that learning in an academic environment helps you to do. The coursework helped me to understand another layer of how to truly learn from my experience in broadcast, and that was what I wanted.

    I enjoyed going back to school, and going back to Northwestern was very important for me too. I’m glad I waited until later in life (20+ years after undergrad) to go back to school. I was able to appreciate my Northwestern experience a lot more. I also brought a lot of my own experiences to the program and put it in perspective.

    Why was MSC the right program for you?

    I did a lot of research on different programs and already had an idea of what I wanted to do after broadcast. Eventually I decided that a graduate degree in communication was right for me. I wanted something a little different and broader in scope than what my career has been and covered all the different ways we communicate across the board.

    In the end, the MSC turned out to be perfect for me not only because of the courses, but also because of the other people in my cohort. When you’re on air, your workflow and interactions with others happen very differently than in other businesses and industries. Through my classmates, I was able to learn about interactions in different industries.

    What is something you’ve learned that has made an impact on your professional life?

    Michael Roloff’s Change Management class was one of the first classes I took. To begin with, I love him and his style of teaching.

    In an industry that constantly shifts according to people’s tastes, changes in technology, and new modes of media, my entire career has been about change. Thanks to this class I was able to analyze all of those different changes I had been through, and put them into context in order to understand how to manage them better. A lot of people have preconceived notions on how you implement change, not realizing there might be a better way to do it.

    Any interesting or unique projects you worked on during your time in the program?

    I really enjoyed my project in Professor Roloff’s class, because I was able to make it more personal. It was about analyzing a change management scenario. I chose changes that a coworker and I wanted to implement. It had to do with some workflow challenges for our team and the changes didn’t quite work the first time we tried. We used the material from the class to understand the different factors involved and how to adjust to them. I even followed up with him later about what worked and what didn’t. Every class that I’ve taken has applied to what I’ve already experienced or something that I’ve lived with in my industry and career, and I’m positive many students in my cohort felt the same way.

    What advice would you have for anyone considering the Northwestern MSC program?

    If you think the program might be right for you, it probably is. No matter where you are on the spectrum of experience, there is something in the program for you if you are interested in communication and becoming a better communicator. There is always room to get better and get to the next level. The program is so valuable because in everything we do, we are always communicating, negotiating and needing other people to understand us to accomplish goals.

    Friday Roundup: 6/23/17

    Our weekly roundup highlights links to articles and talks to help you be a more effective leader.

    1. 5 Stories That Will Make You Rethink Your Leadership Style (Entrepreneur)

      CEOs speak candidly of times they fumbled on the job, and what they learned in the process.

    2. How Cultures Across the World Approach Leadership (HBR)

      The importance of thinking about attitudes toward authority and decision making when managing global teams.

    3. Changing Company Culture Requires a Movement, Not a Mandate (HBR)

      “…culture change can’t be achieved through top-down mandate. It lives in the collective hearts and habits of people and their shared perception of “how things are done around here.” Someone with authority can demand compliance, but they can’t dictate optimism, trust, conviction, or creativity.”