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CJC Students Travel to D.C. to Explore Public Interest Communications

By Angela Bradbery, Frank Karel Endowed Chair in Public Interest Communications

In the emerging academic discipline of public interest communications, the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communications (UFCJC) is a national leader. To that end, we aim each year to offer students more opportunities to explore the field than we did the previous year.

This year, that meant taking students to Washington, D.C., for an immersive experience designed to introduce them to key people and places in the public interest communications ecosystem and excite them about the wide array of career opportunities in the field.

Students stop for a photo outside the U.S. Supreme Court.

I used to work at a public interest organization in Washington, D.C., a vibrant city with myriad opportunities for those passionate about public interest work. For students who have never lived in or visited a large city, a job like the one I had might seem out of reach. I wanted to show students not only that those jobs are attainable, but that the students absolutely have what it takes to get those jobs.

So at the end of March, I took a sophomore, nine juniors, seven seniors and three graduate students to D.C. Most were public relations majors – public relations houses the public interest communications program. We also had one journalism major, a political science major and three public health majors. Over three days, we visited a foundation, two agencies, four organizations and a U.S. Senate office. We heard from recent UFCJC graduates and well as seasoned professionals.

Gabriella Zwolfer (center), B.S. Public Relations 2022, joins students in a Gator chomp. Zwolfer spoke about her role as digital manager for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. The group met in the committee hearing room.

Although people have been using strategic communications for social change for hundreds of years, public interest communications is an emerging academic discipline, and UF is one of the few universities in the country that offer public interest communications courses. Public interest communications uses strategic communications grounded in research to achieve sustained and positive social change. It borrows from public relations, advertising, journalism and marketing and is informed by sociology, psychology, neuroscience and political science. This year, we introduced a public interest communications track for undergraduate public relations majors – a complement to our online master’s concentration in public interest communications.

In Washington, D.C., we visited the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Prosperity Now, Center for Science in the Public Interest, the World Wildlife Fund, Burness, Spitfire, Public Citizen (where I used to work) and the U.S. Senate. At each stop, our hosts were welcoming and generous, offering advice on networking (follow up with us on LinkedIn), selecting a career path (follow your passion) and getting noticed by employers (engage in volunteer work or other activities that make you stand out). We heard from communications professionals, policy experts and organization leaders.

Victoria French, B.S. Public Relations 2021, welcomes students and shares details about her work as senior coordinator for development and outreach at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation.

Despite my fears that the notoriously glitchy metro system would break down and throw off our carefully calibrated schedule, everything went smoothly. I was grateful for the help of Gisele McAuliffe, public interest communications professional and adjunct in our UF Online undergraduate program. McAuliffe lives in the D.C. area and joined us for the three days.

At two stops, we met with recent UFCJC grads who showed that it’s possible to turn a dream job into reality: Victoria French, B.S. Public Relations 2021, senior coordinator for development and outreach at the Elizabeth Dole Foundation, and Gabriella Zwolfer, B.S. Public Relations 2022, digital manager for the U.S. Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. I was thrilled and proud to see them flourishing in their new careers.

At Burness, the group does a Gator chomp. Trip leader Angela Bradbery is standing on the left. Burness founder Andy Burness is standing on the right.

At Burness, a public interest communications agency, we met with founder and president Andy Burness, who told students about Frank Karel, his friend and colleague who passed away in 2009. Karel, a UFCJC alumus, is why we have public interest communications at UF. Two years before he died, he established a fund for the Frank Karel Chair in Public Interest Communications, a position I now hold. The same day we met Andy, we had dinner with Betsy Karel, Frank Karel’s wife. I was so glad that she was able to meet the students and see the positive impact the program is having.

But the most rewarding part of the trip was feedback from students.

“This was by far the most meaningful experience of my time at UF,” said Angelina Gamba, a senior public relations major. “I am excited to apply the insights I gained to my future career endeavors!”

Added public relations senior Melissa Etienne, “Meeting new peers on this journey was also a highlight for me, as it allowed me to expand my network and gain fresh perspectives. … I am filled with gratitude for the opportunities to learn, grow, and connect with like-minded individuals who share my passion for making a positive impact through communications.”

At the World Wildlife Fund, Alex MacLennan, senior director, publications & editorial production, explains his role in the organization.

The World Wildlife Fund deserves a special shout-out. Our hosts not only provided an overview of internal and external communications but also devised a quiz with plush toys for winners. The stuffed sloth, tiger, elephant and other animals toured Washington for the rest of the day.

I can’t wait to do it again next year.


Posted: April 10, 2024
Category: College News
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