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Partners in success: communication department strategic planning and assessment with a student advisory board.

With more than 400 active chapters at four-year colleges and universities worldwide, Lambda Pi Eta (LPH) seeks "to build a visibly cohesive community of national and international honor societies, individually and collaboratively exhibiting excellence in scholarship, service, programs, and governance" (National Communication Association, "About LPH"). But how do students enact this community? At Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania, Lambda members begin at the local level, pursuing leadership activities that build on their academic success to enhance the learning environment for all communication majors. At the forefront of their efforts is their work as a Student Advisory Board, offering a student perspective on Communication Department facilities, technology, curriculum, faculty, and student development while serving their institution in departmental assessment and strategic planning processes. This potential role for groups like Lambda Pi Eta fosters leadership and personal development beyond the classroom, and promotes a holistic understanding of the evolving landscape of communication media education at institutions of higher education.

An understanding of the LPH Student Advisory Board at Slippery Rock begins with a full perspective of the group's role of service within the department. Each year, the elected officers of the group set forth chapter-delineated goals for integrated student development including service projects, academic leadership, and participation in the department's own communication media.

Lambda members support departmental recruitment efforts by accompanying a faculty member to the university's "Saturday Showcase" and "Preview Day" activities for high school students. As upperclassmen, Lambda members offer potential students a perspective on the personal development and professional training afforded by the communication program from a student's point-of-view. Once enrolled, freshmen can continue to expect engagement with members of Lambda who serve as peer leaders for the department's Freshman Seminar (FYRST) course and host interactive sessions known as "Lambda Lunches." "Lunch with Lambda" gives freshmen an opportunity to ask questions and seek advice on classes, student life, and extracurricular activities from their successful upper-class peers. These mentoring relationships help to establish an environment in which freshmen are set up for success.

Lambda members also seek to enhance the physical environment of the Communication Department by maintaining department bulletin boards, transforming them from general-announcement-type boards to educational and motivational showcases. Efforts in previous years have focused on staples of communication literacy, like communication research methods and First Amendment law. This past year, an effort was launched to match departmental boards with national commemorative celebrations--for example, developing an exhibit on the iconic Pittsburgh Courier for Black History Month and an exhibit on prominent women communicators for Women's History Month. Other efforts have focused on emerging social media platforms and new-media tactics.

Lambda provides its own members opportunities for personal academic and leadership development through participation in the campus COMPASS Leadership Certification Program and regional conferences and workshops. The COMPASS Leadership Certification Program provides a series of workshops in which students can become proficient in areas such as self-awareness, teamwork, and diversity. Participation in COMPASS, while encouraged for Lambda members, is not required. A similar effort is made to encourage members of Lambda to participate in academic conferences and pursue publication of their work. An on-campus Symposium for Undergraduate Research provides a convenient opportunity for Lambda members to present and discuss their work in the presence of their peers and faculty. These co-curricular activities affirm the success of our Lambda members and challenge them to take ownership of their academic accomplishments.

Most prominent among the activities of SRU's Lambda Pi Eta is its work as a Student Advisory Board for the Communication Department. As academic departments conduct strategic planning and assessment on a regular basis, one perspective is often overlooked: the student perspective. Since 2008, Lambda has provided this perspective through this annual process, a guided discussion in which students consider issues such as curriculum, facilities and technology, faculty and advising, student organizations, and any proposals brought forth by the department. Members participate in brainstorming and collaborative sessions to highlight departmental strengths and areas for improvement. Over the course of several weeks, students flesh out their ideas and proposals. Managed by a student coordinator, the effort results in a multi-page report which undergoes several revisions and is finally brought to the faculty in a presentation to the department chair.

The student advisory board has debated many of the same issues faculty contend with. The balance of theoretical coursework and applied experience is one, with Lambda members torn between requiring participation in co-curricular activities such as the student-run PR firm or the campus newspaper, which provides obvious advantages in the job market, and an acknowledgement of the administrative issues and motivational consequences of such a requirement. Members question the ethics of permitting a journalism major to graduate without practical experience on either the newspaper or television staff, and yet realize that imposing participation in the form of a credited or non-credited practicum interferes with the operational integrity and quality outcomes of those organizations. Another subject of discussion is the integration of High Impact Practices across the curriculum, including the need for internships, cultural experiences, and service learning. Core curricular requirements of the department have also been debated, particularly as intercultural communication becomes a more timely concern. Yet how can this important coursework be added when the core curriculum is already populated with coursework in communication theory, research, and law? This is a question which has yet to be answered.

Another category of High Impact Practices, the benefits of service learning and client-based experiences, has likewise been a topic of ongoing debate. Internships and client-based coursework are staples of the Bachelor of Science degree programs in public relations, journalism, and digital media, both in and out of the classroom. Of particular interest here, however, has been whether or not to require an internship for Bachelor of Arts--Communication Studies students, whose program of study provides a more theoretical and less applied curriculum, and which is often chosen by students with the intention of pursuing graduate degrees. Recognizing that graduate school plans often change and that communication is an applied discipline, however, the Student Advisory Board typically endorses the requirement, although it has yet to be adopted by the department.

Substantive administrative and curricular change can be attributed in part to the work of Lambda Pi Eta's Student Advisory Board. In 2011, for example, requests for expanded access to computer labs were answered with expanded evening and weekend hours. For several years, the report advocated an overhaul of the department's Emerging Technology Degree,

which provided broad but unfocused training in a variety of media platforms. In 2013, the program was restructured as Digital Media Production, offering emphasis in areas of multimedia production and television production, largely adopting the suggestions of the student report. In 2014, the Student Advisory Board considered, and strongly endorsed, a proposed new Integrated Marketing Communication Bachelor of Science Degree, which will be implemented in the fall of 2015. More controversial, and as yet unsettled, is the question of a three-year degree program, endorsed by Lambda Pi Eta, but not as popular among faculty members. As we move forward in our assessment of this proposal, the voices of student leaders in Lambda Pi Eta will be taken into serious consideration.

Payoff of the process is profound for students and the department alike. Students develop a sense of investment and ownership over the department and their educational outcomes. They regularly voice a satisfaction in the idea that their efforts as a Student Advisory Board are taken seriously by the department as we discern areas for growth. Students gain valuable management skills as they participate in assessment and strategic planning processes, and they develop a deeper understanding of administrative structure, budget limitations, and institutional politics. They also find a sense of pride knowing that their work can leave a meaningful legacy for future students.

Payoff for the department is significant as well. The annual student assessment report provides a comprehensive student perspective which was previously absent from our assessment and strategic planning documentation. The material they produce provides support for the assessment process, particularly as new standards, such as student satisfaction and student centeredness, are considered by institutional leadership and PASSHE. It gives the department an opportunity to field-test new initiatives, to gauge student interest in potential programs, and to fill the gaps in student service.

As the process moves forward, we predict expanding roles for the students of Lambda Pi Eta. Beginning in 2014, the group hosted the Communication Department's professional Advisory Board for a reception in the spring semester, and they would like to plan collaborative sessions with their external counterparts. The Student Advisory Board has received university-wide recognition, and the president of Lambda has been invited to serve on the college assessment committee, a group comprised of student and faculty representatives of each department in the College of Business, Information, and Social Sciences, which will provide ongoing, college-wide oversight. For several years, representatives of Lambda have presented their Student Advisory Board model at regional conferences, and are considering ways to reach out to LPH chapters at other universities to replicate the process.

The academic leadership provided by Lambda Pi Eta to the Communication Department at Slippery Rock University has transformed the way a communication honor society can enact community and demonstrate collective excellence. The Student Advisory Board, in particular, has redefined the Lambda Pi Eta chapter at Slippery Rock University as a true partner in success.

Katrina J. Quinn, Ph.D., Amber N. Beason, and Julie M. Jurich

Slippery Rock University


National Communication Association, "About LPH." April 2014. < Secondary.aspx?id=204> (2014).
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Author:Quinn, Katrina J.; Beason, Amber N.; Jurich, Julie M.
Publication:The Proceedings of the Laurel Highlands Communications Conference
Date:Jan 1, 2014
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