|Jane Praeger (left) and Trudi Baldwin
The first class of Columbia's Strategic Communications master's program will accept diplomas on Oct. 25 with more than a Master of Science degree. They will have gained valuable experience working as communications consultants to a variety of New York City for-profit and nonprofit organizations.
The program was developed after extensive consultation with chief executives and other high-level professionals at public relations and advertising agencies, corporations and nonprofit groups. What grew out of these discussions was the program's strong base in teaching the critical and analytical thinking necessary to solve complex communications problems for real-world organizations.
The more than 100 groups involved with the program so far include NYC & Co., Partnership for a Drug Free America, Gatorade, Timberland, Polo Ralph Lauren Foundation, the Associated Press, Partnership for the Homeless, Brooklyn Historical Society and God's Love We Deliver.
"Our applied curriculum and faculty are deeply rooted in the communications sector of New York City," said Frank Wolf, dean of the School of Continuing Education, which offers the program, "with the added value of a setting that demands both intellectual rigor on the part of each student as well as a demonstrated capacity for effective teamwork."
Graduate Kate Premo's experience was typical. For her class on "Writing for the Media," she created a successful publicity campaign that raised awareness of Furnish A Future, a furniture bank for the formerly homeless. Her pitches to local and national news outlets garnered coverage for the organization, including stories in the New York Daily News and Lucky magazine.
"When Kate walked into our organization, it wasn't a traditional student internship," said Beverly Cheuvront, communications director for Partnership for the Homeless, which sponsors Furnish A Future. "The experience [was] more like having a very professional, very knowledgeable consultant join our team -- at no expense! She required no hand-holding. In fact, it was just the opposite. With her expertise, Kate quickly took on a leadership role."
Her successful campaign and other work for the organization paid off personally as well. Just a few weeks ago, Premo was promoted to vice president, corporate communications and marketing for Niermann Weeks, the high-end home furnishings company where she has been working for five years.
"While the promotion reflects the work I have done over the past five years, the company president made a point of telling me that it was also based on the knowledge I gained through my studies at Columbia," she said.
Jane Praeger is an instructor of the program and has owned her own media coaching and consulting business, Media Mentors, since 1992. "Our graduates know how to create a careful and artful plan to help organizations get from where they are to where they want to be," Praeger said. "They are pushed to be rigorous in their research and creative in their thinking, so that they don't settle for the most obvious and predictable solutions."
In some courses, students do individual projects in which they are encouraged to seek out and adopt relationships with organizations. In others, instructors bring communications professionals to the classroom. "That's the beauty of having practicing professionals for our faculty," said Program Director Trudi Baldwin. "These are individuals who have access to and relationships with New York City organizations because of their level of expertise and experience in the field."
Communications is playing an increasingly important role in organizations, according to Baldwin. "The ability of an organization to effectively communicate with its target audiences has never been more critical -- whether it's a nonprofit stating its mission or a corporation speaking to its shareholders, every organization has its constituents to influence." In 2000, Columbia began exploring the idea of granting a master's degree in communications through Continuing Education, and when Continuing Education was officially designated a School in 2002 -- the first new school created at Columbia since 1948 -- the Master of Science in Strategic Communications became its first degree program.
Wolf has ambitious plans. "For those of us at the School of Continuing Education the award of our first master's degrees marks an important milestone," he said. "We now have 160 degree candidates enrolled in three masters programs. Three additional masters programs are in the pipeline. I hope that in a few years we will have six to eight degree programs and a graduate student body of close to 1,000 students. It is both a privilege and a responsibility to be building a new school at such an ambitious pace. We would not have gotten this far without the tremendous support of President Bollinger, Provost Brinkley and a succession of vice presidents of Arts and Sciences."
"Many of this year's graduates came in as mid-career professionals," said Praeger. "Because of the intellectual and practical experience they got in the program, many of them are ready to move into the upper echelons of communications. I think some of them will be real stars."