Teaching students to turn what they learn in classrooms into on-the-job skills is one way Valenti School of Communication professors test drive instruction in real-life scenarios.

“As often as possible, we give our students a taste of their chosen careers,” said Temple Northup, interim director of the school. “Our faculty are constantly finding opportunities for them to sharpen their skills and prepare for the workforce.”

Valenti does this by interjecting its community engagement outreach into specialized coursework in journalism, advertising, public relations and media production. It has partnered with the Houston Grand Opera, the Houston Live Stock Show and Rodeo, Zipcar and other local nonprofits and business enterprises.

“Though a healthy number of students seek internship and employment opportunities on their own,” Northup said, “it’s our job as educators to make sure the classes they take are preparing them, as well.”

Last year, the college readiness of recent graduates in the United States was called into question with the release of an Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AACU) survey. It found a drastic gap between how graduates and employers rate the career readiness of recent students. (Hint: The majority of employers were not impressed.)

Valenti professors stay in tune with new influences and developing expectations within their academic disciplines by connecting with local practitioners. Last semester, three stories emerged from the school that shed light on what this looks like in practice — a media production partnership with the Houston Grand Opera, the public relations collaboration with the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship and an advertising campaign for Zipcar. Students implemented them all.

“We value the mutually beneficial nature of working with local businesses and organizations,” said Northup. “Not only is it an opportunity for our school to connect with the community, it transforms our classrooms into community centers where students can literally put into practice what they are being taught.”

Valenti Students at Work

Fall 2015 marked the start of the second year collaborating with the Houston Grand Opera.

The first year, they tested the waters by having the class film interviews about upcoming shows with a couple of role players. They then packaged the interviews into attractive teasers that promoted the shows.

“A former student of mine had been working at the Houston Grand Opera and mentioned what we do here,” said Keith Houk, an instructional assistant professor and media production faculty member at the Valenti School of Communication. Houk teaches the Digital Cinematography and Narrative Storytelling class, which forged a partnership with the opera.

Judith Kurnick, the Houston Grand Opera’s director of communication, was intrigued.

“It was one of those lucky, serendipitous moments,” said Kurnick. “I realized we could use the help of a film program. I had heard about some colleagues in New York and other opera companies who had partnerships with film students, and I began to look around at what we have in Houston.”

When that initial season ended, an impressed Kurnick approached Houk for a second time.

“We want to communicate the idea that opera is an exciting, vibrant and interesting pastime. Something that has meaning for people. Opera is very much connected to real emotion, and it has a lot of different elements that go into making a great whole,” shared Kurnick.

This season’s theme is “Behind the Scenes.” It seeks to engage the very audience that is producing the videos: young adults. The videos highlight people who are crucial to making the show a success but go unseen by attendees. To illustrate the work that goes into producing a superb show, the class interviewed the lighting director, stage manager, props manager and singing coaches. The resulting videos have introduced viewers to these creative team members.

Houk’s Digital Cinematography class is structured specifically for upper-level media production students interested in producing longer narrative videos. Beyond working with the Houston Grand Opera, the students take on multiple film projects during the class. By the end of the semester, they have enough polished productions under their belts to form a competitive, professional portfolio.

Houk sees preparing students to compete in the workforce after graduation as one of the most important aspects of his job. “I think it’s very easy when you go to school to just park, walk to the building where you always take your classes and then go home,” he said. “Not only do these type of collaborations let students see how other areas of the arts function, they also open up different worlds to them. College should be about learning and opening up the mind.”

As with the Houston Grand Opera, most of the community partnerships end with all parties feeling satisfied. Clients get the communication and help they need to tackle a problem. Students get the experience they crave in their chosen field of study.

“It’s very important to work with actual clients so you can interact with companies who all have different needs,” said Jan Uhrick, a graduate student at the Valenti School of Communication. “I feel prepared for a career in public relations.”

This comes a semester after she took one of the most sought-after classes in the School: Strategic Communication Applications, nicknamed The Valenti-Wolff Startup.

The class operates like a public relations agency, and students take on clients from the Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship. As the entrepreneurship students build their startups and work to take products to market, they lean on their communication peers for insight and strategic communication support.

“The Valenti-Wolff Startup class taught me quickly that you have to be prepared for anything and everything. Clients may change products, and as a practitioner, you have to be prepared to immediately reset and get information and messages prepared as quickly as possible,” said Uhrick, whose client promoted a product that efficiently converts wasted heat into energy. “During the initial stages of creating their company, we conducted a cyber scan to help them determine their largest competitors. From that point, we were able to design key messages that assisted them in a business competition this past December, where they placed third.”

Likewise, Zipcar, a leading car sharing network, recently approached the Local Campaigns class at the Valenti School of Communication. Their task was challenging: in a semester, create and implement a campaign that prompts more people to adopt its car sharing solution.

Challenge accepted.

The students crafted the “Campus Life Without Limits” campaign, which kicked off in mid-October 2015. It singlehandedly doubled the amount of user hours and ultimately increased campus sign up rates.

Several tactics worked in concord to achieve these successes. First, the class created a beautiful calendar that listed free campus and local events — all of which were only a Zipcar ride away. The class also organized three promotional events to distribute the calendars and encourage student sign ups: Trunk or Treat, where they decorated the cars and distributed candy at two popular Zipcar parking areas on campus; Bust the Bearcat, which allowed passersby to take a swing at a rival team-inspired piñata filled with candy and swag during the University homecoming celebration; and Sustainability Fest, where they reinforced the message that car sharing solutions minimize the carbon footprint.

The students appreciated the experience.

“The thing they enjoyed the most was actually executing the promotional events,” said Ken Bielicki, who teaches the class and is a lecturer at the Valenti School of Communication. “Being able to fully engage in what they were doing for the campaign was most exciting. They weren’t working on theories or papers or tests; they were implementing their own plan.”

“This is the edge that sets our students apart,” says Northup, “they live in an experience-rich city, so we’re helping them get ahead of the curve while they are here by giving them as many opportunities to prepare as possible.”