COMM Students Get Hands-On at 2019 WSCA Convention

A student’s aunt and grandmother made the centerpieces for the kickoff

Seeing an opportunity for growth beyond the classroom, Associate Professor Christine Harold (who also served as Chair of the local host committee for the 2019 Western States Communication Association (WSCA) Convention) transformed the annual event into a project management practicum for her students. Last winter quarter, Dr. Harold’s “Project Management and Event Planning” class worked closely with WSCA leadership to organize several key components of the event, and gained real-world, hands-on experience as a result.

About 750 students, faculty, and communication professionals were expected to attend the Seattle convention. As local hosts, the Department was therefore in charge of organizing events like the convention kickoff and sock hop party, tourist activities, staffing registration, and arranging A/V support for the venue. With just a month’s lead time between the start of the quarter and the event, students were excited by this challenge, and rose to meet it.

Dr. David Domke addresses attendees at the kickoff

To best prepare them, Dr. Harold invited Jeff Lynch, a professional project management consultant, to present on the fundamentals, including planning project scope, risk assessment, and work breakdown structure. Next, Dr. Harold divided the class into functional teams: kickoff event, sock hop party, wayfinding and hospitality, registration, communication, social media and A/V, sponsorship, and product/brand collateral.

Throughout the quarter, Dr. Harold says she was pleasantly surprised by how students “were ready to just step up.” For instance, students flexed their community connections and persuaded a local yoga studio to donate mats to use during morning yoga sessions at the convention. Moreover, the sponsorship team, in spite of little lead time, still managed to procure multiple donations from prominent local businesses, which were then auctioned off at the sock hop.

Charlie Sylvetsky, from the product/brand collateral team, says he is particularly proud of the t-shirts they designed for the UW Communication students to wear on-site. He described how the team worked with the Department’s graphic designer, Tommy Ferguson, to create a preliminary design, and then found a group called ImpacT from the UW Foster School Entrepreneurship program to produce the final product. ImpacT then donated 25% of their profits to purchase supplies for underfunded Seattle schools.

Decorations for the sock hop

Students say they have learned many valuable lessons through this experience. Initially, explains Emily Mickelson of the sock hop team, they felt challenged by having to work with a total budget of $2,000; they were afraid it would not cover the costs of quality food, fun activities, and a good DJ. However, the team developed several thrifty and creative ideas, which did not compromise their goals, and even allowed them to come in under budget.

At the conference’s conclusion, WSCA President Brian Heisterkamp, as well as several other attendees, applauded the professionalism of the Department’s students and the smooth execution of the event. “I don’t know how I would have pulled off being the local host for the conference without them,” says Dr. Harold.

After the convention, the class met to review what lessons they had learned together, and how everyone coped when things inevitably went wrong. For example, in order to keep costs low, the registration team decided to provide both clip-badges and nametag lanyards; attendees would then choose which they preferred at registration. The lanyards proved to be far more popular than the clips, and the students were forced to make a quick, unplanned trip to Office Depot for more, which ended up being up more expensive than purchasing them in bulk initially. The students all agreed, however, that it was valuable to reflect on the challenges of project management, as it would enable them to better balance the scope, costs, and available resources of future endeavors.

Midori Blanchard (COM student) at the sock hop

Dr. Harold also worked with the students on how to best present their experiences on resumes and in cover letters. She wanted, in particular, for the juniors and seniors of her class to come out of it with a professional portfolio, which they could use as they entered the job market. This experience, which many students likened to an off-campus internship, gave them the ability and confidence to think on their feet, work across teams, and seek creative solutions to problems.

Photo booth at the sock hop

“This was one of the best experiences I’ve had in the Communication department, because I got to do real-world stuff,” says Emily Mickelson. “We worked very hard, but everything we did had a real impact. At the end of all our hard work, we got to see a real result, which was highly rewarding and cemented in everything I had learned that quarter.”

Dr. Harold says she looks forward to working with her colleagues to offer more classes like this one, which will give students more practical experience as they prepare to enter the post-graduation job market.