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How Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Play Out in Communication

Not only do today’s organizations value expertise in diversity, equity, and inclusion—they also require it of their communication leaders.

“Whether you’re measuring innovation, goal attainment, financial performance, or any number of metrics, diversity is great for business—and research proves it,” says Amy J. Hauenstein, adjunct lecturer and director of curriculum and non-degree programs for Northwestern University’s MS in Communication (MSC) program.

With a PhD in curriculum studies, Hauenstein has learned to question how curriculum is culturally, politically, and economically positioned—and how it impacts the audiences it reaches. As a result of her education, she brings a unique view to integrating diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) with curriculum.

Not only does she want to make sure Northwestern’s MS in Communication graduates are valuable and effective leaders, but she also wants them to understand how to use communication to reach different stakeholders to move and motivate them. “If not in a program dedicated to leadership, management, and communication,” she asks, “then where else does learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion belong?”

Hauenstein points out that MSC students are already an incredibly diverse group, superseding national averages in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, and racial identities. But, to make sure the concepts of diversity, equity, and inclusion are woven into MSC curriculum, she and former faculty director Dr. Michelle Shumate led a year-long case study research project in 2016 that involved faculty and an advisory board made up of industry leaders. The goal: to define what MSC students should be able to do with their degrees once they graduate—and what they should be able to produce in the real world.

“We pulled old course descriptions, faculty bios, and syllabuses, looking for commonalities over the 35 years of the program, and we looked to national associations and at the knowledge and behavior demands on leaders of industry,” she explains. “Up from that data bubbled core curricular themes and important points in terms of learning outcomes and dispositions.”

She then used this information to build impactful statements about what MSC does, what it believes, and what it values—and how these factors align with the student experience and Northwestern’s emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion. The work served as her foundation while she realigned courses, added new curriculum, and implemented capstone projects to help students understand how DEI values show up in the real world.

“Really, we took what already existed in our program and organized it in a different way,” she explains. “We developed co-curriculum activities focused on DEI—including workshops, seminars, speakers, opportunities to visit businesses, and career coaching—that complement what students already learn in class.”

“Usually, diversity training is about studying others. Instead, we focus on studying yourself in relationship to others.”

The end result: students learn to develop a critical consciousness. “Critical consciousness is the ‘it’ skill of today’s leaders,” she says. “Our students have the advantage of working through the development of critical consciousness with an expert support team to coach, encourage, and push them. They leave understanding how complex diversity, equity, and inclusion are—and that they must be woven through business practices, policies, and cultures.”

Because most MSC students work while they earn their degree—or worked full time before returning to earn a graduate degree—many have experienced “diversity training” before. “This is much different,” she says. “Usually, diversity training is about studying others. Instead, we focus on studying yourself in relationship to others. When you’re immersed in a deep self-study next to someone who’s doing the same thing, a visceral human connection is formed.”

Moving from diversity to inclusion has been a strategic priority at Northwestern and E. Patrick Johnson, the new Dean of the School of Communication, has declared the pursuit of diversity, equity, and inclusion a central tenet of his deanship. By first understanding DEI on an individual level, Hauenstein says MSC students learn to critically and respectfully challenge and interrupt inequitable and exclusionary norms and systems.

And although specific steps have been taken to integrate DEI concepts into the curriculum, it’s not touted as the focus of the program. “It’s a priority and value in all things we do. My grandma always said, ‘When you are who you say you are, you can stop announcing it,’ and I truly believe that’s the case here,” says Hauenstein. “I don’t know of any other program that is so intentional about working students through this practice. We just want to be diverse, equitable, and inclusive. It’s who we are.”

To hear more from Amy Hauenstein, please join us for the next Webinar Wednesday, where she will speak in more detail about the MSC curriculum. The webinar will be at 12 PM CST on Wednesday, November 4th. REGISTER HERE

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Using Real-World Lessons to Help Students Prepare for the Future

Art teacher. Organic caterer. Crate & Barrel recruiter. Staffing firm owner.

Pat Messina’s decades of diverse experiences have not only prepared her to serve as the School of Communication’s associate director of career services, but also to offer students a unique perspective as they embark on professional journeys of their own.

Networking has always played a big role in Messina’s success, and she shares that tidbit with students whenever she can. “I’ve never been afraid to look at opportunities that come my way—even if they’re not something I had considered before,” she says. “I encourage students to do the same.”

In fact, that’s one of the things she enjoys most about her role: helping students think through prospects they may not have considered. It can be challenging for recent graduates to figure out where they see themselves after earning an MS in Communication. “I like to help students network and figure out exactly what they want to do. Sometimes we have to start from Ground Zero and do assessments to determine what they love—and then we take it from there. But we get it figured out.”

She says now’s a great time to be in school. Although certain job markets may be slow, this downtime provides a unique opportunity to learn new skills that will pay off later. “Whether it’s through earning a degree or using LinkedIn Learning online, you can find ways to stay engaged,” she explains.

Within the EPICS (External Programs, Internships, and Career Services) office, she helps students perfect their résumés, walks them through mock interviews, and offers job-search tips. But she also provides much more when it comes to preparing for the future: She helps them align their personal beliefs and ethics with potential industries and employers.

“When I ask students, ‘Who do you want to work for?’, everybody seems to name the same big companies. But there are lots of small companies that offer those same opportunities—maybe more. Looking at what motivates you in your heart and following that path is important for your career—not just the name of the company you work for.”

Given the unpredictable employment situation amid the global pandemic, Messina’s motto is this: Be adaptable and have a plan B. To help students find their way despite this current confusion, she put together a list of industries she thinks will do well and continue to hire despite the financial impacts of COVID-19—even if those industries don’t line up with students’ original intentions.

“Plan B can be just as fun and exciting as Plan A,” she says, “and I’m living proof. I thought I was going to be a teacher until I discovered I had a nose for business. Then I wanted to build a company I could hand to my kids one day. That didn’t materialize, either. What I’m doing now has brought everything full circle. And it’s something I never pictured doing.”

As Messina coaches students through the degree program, she also helps them overcome common obstacles and misconceptions. At the top of that list: Expecting to climb the corporate ladder too quickly. Instead of focusing on power and job titles, she encourages them to be focused on learning about a business, what it stands for, and the internal opportunities it offers.

To inspire students, she often shares real-world lessons and stories of her own—or those she borrows from trusted friends and colleagues. Hearing about people who worked their way up to CEO over time—or found a job as a server and went on to own restaurants—can give students the encouragement they need that it’s okay not to start at the very top.

“In the midst of what’s happening, I think people are going to look long and hard at what they want to do or where they want to work—or may pivot a little to work for an organization or industry that has more meaning for them.”

To hear more from Pat Messina please join us for a webinar next week where we will talk with Pat in more detail about her approach to career services for students in the MSC program. The webinar will be at 12 PM CST on Wednesday, October 28th. REGISTER HERE

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Applying Effective Communication Skills in the World of Biotech

When you think of the skills needed for a career in biotech, communication may not rise to the top of the list. But, for Adam Zetter ’19, it’s exactly what he needed.

His path began with a degree in molecular, cellular, and developmental biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1996. His first full-time job was at a small startup conducting research as a formulation engineer: evaluating, formulating, and developing products to fill the company’s drug-development pipeline.

When his employer was acquired by a larger company, there was an opening for a junior project management position. He got to know some of the people on the team and decided to try it. “The unique thing about being a project manager in drug development is that you’re right in the middle of everything,” says Zetter. “Manufacturing, regulatory, research, development, marketing—all of it.”

After a year and a half, he was lured by the thought of working for a bigger biotech company and went to serve as a product development project manager for a genomics organization in a software development role—which turned out not to be a great fit. “At the time, I wasn’t a seasoned project manager with enough knowledge of software development to make that position work and handle the pace,” he explains. “The science and genetics, yes. Software development, no.”

So he returned to smaller startups and spent the next seven years honing his project management skills in a drug development environment, where he also gained experience in roles focused on training, learning, and development. In 2007, when his employer was preparing to close its doors, he got a call from one of the biggest players in biotech: Genentech.

To work for Genentech, he went back to a drug development project manager role before transitioning to a business analyst position and serving as a liaison between IT and the business. Five years in, he shifted gears once again to become a business manager, where he learned about business from a different perspective as he worked with senior executives on strategy and tactics to help shape and advance their organizations while overseeing strategic, cross-functional initiatives—a role he still holds today.

“The great thing about this job is that there’s not any one way to do it,” he explains. “We’re counted on to leverage our experience in a multitude of situations to be thought partners on strategy and drive execution.”

Spending nearly 24 years in biotech, Zetter knew he had his technical skills down. After some personal reflection, however, he asked himself some tough questions: Where are my gaps? What’s holding me back from getting to a higher level? That’s when he realized it all came down to communication.

“It took me over 20 years to figure that out,” says Zetter. “Once it crystallized in my mind, I started researching and looking at different programs to see what they offered.”

When he discovered the MS in Communication (MSC) program, its three learning themes—managing complexity, collaborative leadership, and elegant communication—spoke to him. “At the end of the day, I only applied to the MSC program,” he says. “It’s the only one I wanted.”

Because he was based in California, Zetter appreciated the Hybrid Leadership Program option, which gave him the opportunity to learn online while still being physically present on occasion. With a young family at home, he recognized it would be a hard year—but the one-year commitment vs. two or three years made it more realistic.

“Even though we were predominantly online, the professors were incredibly engaged, and we were an extremely tight cohort,” he says. “We still message each other almost every day. These aren’t just classmates. We formed lifelong bonds, and I learned so much that I use every day.”

He credits the Understanding and Leveraging Networks course for sparking new ideas in learning and development as he builds and trains successful teams. “Helping people learn and imparting information is going to be the hallmark of the second half of my career.”

Information Design was another highlight for Zetter—if for no other reason than it inspired him to revamp his résumé, which has generated so many compliments that he says it’s now worth its weight in gold.

“I have real confidence in my communication skills and ability, knowing I can apply them in nontypical ways,” he says. “The MS in Communication program gives you skills you can apply in any business situation. Even if I go outside the biotech industry someday, I have these skills to leverage. Everything I’ve learned is going to add value.”

A Former Police Captain Making a Difference through Communication

From a young age, Cassandra Libal ’19 knew she wanted to create change in her community. Growing up in inner-city Milwaukee, she was raised by a single mother who wasn’t able to provide financial support for higher education.

To pursue her dream, she applied for a paid apprenticeship right out of high school: Milwaukee’s Police Aide program. Earning an income while she developed useful skills for a career in law enforcement, she performed clerical and support work for two years. When she turned 21, she joined the Police Academy to complete training.

Since becoming an officer in 1997, Libal has worked in nearly every aspect of law enforcement, from general patrol to narcotics. Rising through the ranks to captain and serving as the commander of community outreach and education, she helped bridge the gap between the Milwaukee community and police officers. “I loved overseeing our community outreach efforts, which circles back to the reason I wanted a career in law enforcement: to pay it forward and make a difference,” she explains.

Because she hadn’t followed a traditional education path—and because of a fluctuating work schedule based on overtime, court hearings, and shift changes—higher education for Libal began at a technical college with an associate degree and two certificate programs. Later, she also enrolled in a few training courses with Northwestern’s Center for Public Safety.

When she felt the time was right for her bachelor’s, she found an online program that let her apply work experiences and existing credits toward a degree. “I spent my career in law enforcement balancing between working full time and going to school,” she explains. “I’m a constant learner and always looking for growth opportunities. I really liked the format and curriculum that Northwestern used when I went through their public safety training. When I decided to pursue my graduate degree, they were high on my list of options.”

Recognizing that communication had been a challenge for her in the past, Libal hoped that learning more about it would help bridge that gap. She also realized she was fast approaching 25 years with the Milwaukee Police Department, anticipating retirement in the near future—and she wanted to be ready for the next step in her career.

As she started researching ways to broaden her horizons, she discovered the MS in Communication’s Hybrid Leadership Program—and liked the idea of completing the majority of coursework online while still having occasional face-to-face interaction. As a full-time employee and mother, the program’s one-year timeline also appealed to her.

“This degree was something I needed,” says Libal. “It was the tool I wanted in my toolbox no matter where I landed professionally or personally. Communication was a challenge I needed to overcome, but the program went so far beyond that.”

She says the diversity of her cohort added another dimension to the experience as she learned alongside medical, business, and marketing professionals. “In addition to helping me establish elegant communication strategies, it also gave me a network that was just as valuable as what I was learning in the classroom,” she says.

A few months after she graduated, Libal retired from the Milwaukee Police Department. Newly equipped with her MS in Communication, she felt confident in her communication abilities—and ready to take on whatever opportunity came her way, whether it was continuing in law enforcement with another agency, teaching, or entering the private sector.

“Northwestern does a great job of cultivating collaboration,” says Libal. “Communication lines were always there. They fostered that spirit of teamwork, even though we were in different time zones and facing other challenges outside the program. I wouldn’t have been as successful if it wasn’t for the way the program was structured—and the staff was there to support us through all of that.”

This June, Libal started down a new path: She joined Milwaukee County’s Office of Emergency Management as deputy director. The organization’s motto is to help people in extraordinary times. In this role, she drives and oversees large-scale change to ensure personal safety for community members.

“The skills I learned at Northwestern have already been very relevant during this time as we all enter our new normal,” she explains. “Business aside, how we conduct ourselves in every arena is going to be impacted by how we communicate. No matter what your profession is, the information you learn here is universal.”

Improving Communication Skills to Better Serve the State of Illinois

Marcus King ’19 has always been a leader—it just came naturally, even as a student.

Before he graduated from Southern Illinois University in 2011 with a journalism/integrated marketing communications degree, he was elected by 18,000+ of his peers to serve as the undergraduate student body president. In this role, he was responsible for representing student views in monthly meetings with the university chancellor.

Recognizing King’s strong performance in leadership and campus involvement, a professor encouraged him to pursue a Dunn Fellowship after graduation: a year-long governmental honors fellowship program that identifies young professionals who have the skills needed for executive-level positions within the Illinois Governor’s Office. Selected from a pool of more than 5,000 students, King had the opportunity to work in the press office to assist the press secretary with releases and media interaction.

With that experience under his belt, he was soon tapped for a new government role: chief of constituent affairs for the State of Illinois, where he was entrusted with significant authority over staff, served as a media spokesperson and handled media inquiries for the Illinois Department of Corrections, and organized and executed Summit of Hope (the No. 1 U.S. re-entry program for ex-offenders).

He had already gained impressive experience in just a few years, climbing the ladder quickly. (Maybe a little bit too quickly, he admits.) With so much of his career left in front of him, King wanted to do more to improve his skills—and realized that a graduate degree might be the answer.

“What sold me on the MS in Communication program was when I went to the open house and got to sit through a class taught by Michelle Shumate,” he says. “There was something about her. I was very impressed.”

Given the demands of his job, King couldn’t imagine being in class on a Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday night. But he also didn’t want to give up his Saturdays for classes. Once he realized he could complete the graduate program in one year, he decided the Saturday sacrifice was worth it.

Only a month after he began the MS in Communication program, King’s career took another step forward. In December 2018, he was offered another senior-level position. He now serves as the State of Illinois’ senior advisor for civic engagement.

“If you’re in any type of leadership or communications position, then this program is for you,” he says. “There’s nothing you can think of that the program doesn’t touch on.”

He says his professors presented information in a way that made him curious about communication; he could relate the curriculum to everything he dealt with at work (and in his personal life, too), which only made him want to learn more.

The lessons were so valuable, in fact, that he saved his class notes—and he’s glad he did. “I was able to reference them later—I still do—and they’re like gold,” he says. “I didn’t always make the connection at the time with some of the things being taught, but I wrote them down. When I started to step away, I was able to start connecting these ideologies and philosophies to advance my career and professional relationships.”

As he works on a personal video project—set for release this fall—he spoke with a Kentucky state representative about ethics and virtue. His ability to talk about those topics in-depth with the legislator is owed to Randy Iden, King says.

“Some of his concepts were so new to me that I became fascinated with them. That’s what this program does. The professors put you on different roads you never would have traveled. Once you start traveling those roads, you get to destinations you never would have thought about on your own.”

The Transformative Nature of the Program

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Like Mother, Like Daughter: Inspiration Begets Inspiration

As Jessie Pagliari (MSC ’20) was studying communications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, she often called her mom, Rose Pagliari (MSC ’19), as she walked home from class.

From interpersonal interaction to the mother/daughter dyad, Jessie wanted to share what she was learning—and communication was a topic they were both interested in and loved to discuss.

While Jessie was earning her undergraduate degree, Rose was a few decades into her sales career. A high-level position at an IT services company kept her busy managing a portfolio of high-impact clients, supporting their training and learning initiatives by hiring talent for their IT projects. Whenever she saw Northwestern credentials listed on a résumé, she always took time to interview the applicant. “I knew there was probably something special about that person.”

One weekend in 2018 when Jessie returned home for a quick visit (she had graduated and was working at a media company in a business development role), she found her mother writing a paper as part of prework for admission to Northwestern’s MS in Communication program.

“I had been afraid to apply and didn’t tell many people,” says Rose. “I had worked all these years and accomplished all these things. I could think of a million reasons why I shouldn’t apply, but a voice in my head just kept saying, ‘Keep going. You have to be part of this.’ I wanted to become stronger, smarter, and better. I wanted to be able to share what I learned with other people.”

Rose says her inspiration to return to school had come from her daughter – although Jessie didn’t realize it at the time. “As a parent, to learn from you child is an amazing moment,” Rose says. We spend our whole lives teaching them…and then they turn around and teach us.”

Soon, the phone calls after class started again. But this time it was Rose calling Jessie to share what she was learning: from behavior discussions of high self-monitors vs. low self-monitors to the impacts of working globally and cross-border communication differences.

For Rose, the program was answering questions that had lingered for years. She finally understood why change initiatives sometimes failed, why some people were promoted when they lacked necessary skills, and the impact of assigning overly aggressive goals—and she was excited to share with Jessie what she was discovering.

The more she heard about her mother’s classroom experiences, the more Jessie realized that an MS in Communication might be a valuable tool for her, too. Only a few years into her career, she wanted leadership, persuasion, and communication skills that would set her apart.

“My mom was learning unique things that were directly applicable to the situations I faced as an enterprise salesperson,” says Jessie, who had moved to a role with LinkedIn Learning as a mid-market relationship manager. “She inspired me to want to learn the things she was learning—and to pursue a graduate degree in communication. It was a full-circle moment: inspiration begets inspiration.” 

One year after her mother, Jessie took the leap and enrolled, beginning the MS in Communication program in Fall 2019. “I was so excited for her during the application process,” says Rose. “I knew she had so much to offer. As I took these courses and reflected on my career, I kept thinking, ‘If I only knew then what I know now.’ I’m so happy she has that opportunity.”

Jessie says it’s been helpful to talk to her mom about what she’s learning and compare it to what Rose learned a year earlier. 

“I was pleasantly surprised by the corporate application aspects,” says Jessie. “Once we hear a theory and it resonates, our professors encourage us to try it when it makes sense. If it doesn’t feel like it fits, then challenge it.”

In one class, for example, students are guided through the steps of building their own leadership stories. Jessie enjoyed the process so much that she decided to try it out, sharing the concept with her manager. From there, Jessie led her team through a three-hour storytelling workshop. “It was awesome to learn it and then teach it back to see how much other people loved and enjoyed it, too,” she says.

In the past year, while Jessie has been working and studying, Rose has been reflecting on what she learned and the confidence the program gave her. Last July, to re-focus, she decided to resign from her high-level sales position. “I have all these resources and knowledge now,” she says. “I can do whatever I put my mind to. Now I just want to think about what that is.”

After she graduated in 2019, Rose combined the lessons she learned in one of her MS in Communication courses with her own research and presented at an ATD Chicagoland Chapter Conference about the power of networks. She loved the experience so much that she plans to continue sharing her knowledge this way in the future. “Your network truly determines the opportunities that cross your desk,” she says. “There are small things you can do to increase the power of your network. I want to share that with people.”