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Point Park students go beyond just building resumes

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Liz Berie
Student designer Alexa Miller works with Wood Street Communications partner Chelsea Trimble creating the American Heart Association invitations for the annual heart ball.

Point Park University students know nonprofits have important messages, but don’t always have the means to reach the masses.

And Point Park professors know students need firsthand experience to land the best jobs.

A new program in the School of Communication is serving both needs by pairing students with organizations to assist with their marketing, public relations and social-media efforts.

“In the media field, employers are expecting students to come out of school with skills already in hand,” says Heather Starr Fiedler, the professor who oversees the program called Wood Street Communications. “They can treat this like it’s their first job. It makes them more attractive.”

More than 40 students are assisting 26 organizations around the Pittsburgh region with focuses ranging from the arts to health and wellness, job placement to child advocacy. All work is free for the nonprofits.

Projects are structured around what students are learning in class, including photography, videography, graphic design, social media, advertising and public relations.

“In class, students are required to do projects. So, rather than do a pretend project, now they can actually work with clients,” says Starr Fiedler, who knows firsthand the needs of local nonprofits. She runs Play It Forward, which collects toys for children in need.

“I’m lucky in that I know how to do graphic design and build a website, but a lot of people don’t have those skills,” Fiedler says. “It’s really expensive to pay for them. When building the initiative, it was important to do it for free and for the nonprofits.”

Adam Cagle, manager of corporate sponsorship at Junior Achievement of Western PA who, until recently, worked as marketing director at Life’sWork, relied on Wood Street Communications to produce video for the latter organization’s event honoring community champions.

In years past, the same videos cost from $5,000 to $10,000, he says.

“As a nonprofit, you want as much money as possible to go back to the cause you’re trying to help,” he says. “There are so many nonprofits in Pittsburgh, and we’re all competing for certain dollars, so for a university to do something that can save nonprofits any kind of money and relieve a little bit of pressure is amazing.”

Student video projects have included shooting annual events, fundraising promos and man-on-the-street style segments on topics from health care to hospices to musical organizations, faculty member Robin Cecala says.

“A lot of times, school projects are ones you do in … class, and that’s the end of it,” Cecala says. “This is something where not only are they getting to have personal fulfillment, they’re getting professional work and experience. They’re not just doing what they want to do. Now, they have more direction, and it’s really a lot more realistic as far as what they will face when get jobs.”

All work that students do for the nonprofits is monitored and overseen by Point Park faculty.

Wood Street Communications is assisting the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force in creating a printed marketing campaign featuring those infected and affected by HIV/AIDS.

“Most nonprofits work on a shoestring budget that often fluctuates from mediocre to nonexistent,” says Jason Herring, Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force’s marketing and communication coordinator. “Programs like Wood Street Communications, while providing invaluable real-world experience to students, fill a need that organizations have for creative and skilled assistance with problems that would otherwise go unsolved.”

Dean Simpson, who is pursuing a master’s degree in communication technology, is working with Village Green Partners in Sewickley on their social-media presence to strengthen their mission of supporting the local business district.

“I’ve been working as a graphic designer many years, but my focus has always been in printing, and I need to keep working for many more years, so I thought the best thing to do would be to learn more about social media and web design,” he says. “The projects are really fun. Not only doing projects but working with somebody who is using them has been a great experience.”

Alexa Miller, a senior majoring in mass communication and advertising/public relations, has done work for the American Heart Association and the Pittsburgh AIDS Task Force.

“It’s been a mind-blowing experience working with nonprofits,” she says. “You’re getting real-world experience, directly speaking to companies and their communications department and getting work approved rather than just having a professor do it. When (potential employers) ask you a question, you’ll not only have an answer but you’ll have experience to show them exactly how you handled that situation.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or [email protected].

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