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Learning Through Service: PR Class Provides Real-World Volunteer Experience

At the College of Communication and Information, students are being prepared to
take on the next stage of their lives and launch their careers after they graduate. To do that, they need knowledge, experience, and a network of Volunteers and community support at their side. Their education often goes beyond the walls of a classroom and into the real world, which is part of CCI’s Strategic Plan Goal 5, which seeks for CCI to “connect with Tennesseans and with industries and communities around the world, securing support for the college and inspiring future Volunteers to join our community.”

Hands-on experiences and networking play a vital role in education at CCI, and PBRL 470s Public Relations Campaign is one such class that embodies this approach. The “s” at the end of the course number stands for “service,” explained Tombras Assistant Professor Christina Jimenez Najera. 

“It forces us who teach the course to ensure there is a service learning component. We could easily say, there’s no service designation here, I could just have them do a hypothetical campaign for some nonprofit. But it’s up to us to make sure we have connections and establish that with the nonprofits we work with,” Najera said.

For her, that nonprofit is Bryant’s Bridge, a fledgling organization with the mission to eradicate homelessness among youth in Knoxville. While Bryant’s Bridge focuses on all youth, a component of its  mission is to ensure LGBTQ+ youth are welcomed and included in receiving their services. Though there are other resources for homeless young people in Knoxville, some organizations are less inclusive in their practices, making it more difficult for LGBTQ+ youth to get the help they need.

The Campaign

Najera brought this campaign project for Bryant’s Bridge to the Public Relations Campaign class this past summer, after she began volunteering with the organization in fall 2021. 

“When I was told I was going to be teaching PR Campaigns in the summer, I said, as long as there’s no conflict of interest, I’d love to do Bryant’s Bridge. They’re a brand-new nonprofit, they have only been around for a year and a half,” she said. “A lot of the nonprofits we’ve done in the past were local and established, so they had things in place. It was almost an existential crisis for the students because they said, they need awareness, but what else do they need?”

The students immediately got to work to decide what the organization needed in terms of public relations, and how they would deliver it. The class was small, with just four students total, so they all worked closely on the campaign as a team. Here are some of the pitches that they created and delivered to the Bryant’s Bridge board:

  • Suggestions of how to revamp the organization’s website.
  • The idea of starting a newsletter to help clarify the organization’s mission and keep followers up-to-date on fundraising campaigns, events, and other goings-on.
  • Creating handouts about Bryant’s Bridge that can be put in public spaces that are LGBTQ+ friendly.
  • Creating a way for businesses to conduct social media partnerships with Bryant’s Bridge to help elevate awareness. 


“The students were really excited, and when they got to put their skills into play, they were looking forward to making an impact. I think they initially got a little hung up on the fact that the organization was so new and they were a little scared that everything was relying on us. It is a little scary when you don’t have anything to launch off of, it’s a completely blank slate. So it took them a week or two to not be in panic mode, and then they really got into it,” Najera said. 

This is exactly the type of real-world scenario that will benefit the students when they enter the workforce, she said. Next time they’re presented with a client who is starting from scratch, or has no idea what they want or need in a PR campaign, these students will be able to call upon what they learned in class.

The Students

Packing an entire PR campaign into one summer alongside jobs, summer life, and other courses was a lot for the students. In spite of the challenges, Elaney Noe and Adrienne Narro (’22) said their experience in the class was very positive and allowed them to put everything they’ve learned during undergrad into action.

“Right after I finished that class, I went straight into working full time. It really gave me an idea of what I was going to get myself into,” said Narro, who graduated in August and is now working as a digital media associate at the Knoxville-based full-service ad agency Tombras. 

Working with the team was both a challenge and a boon, Noe said. Coordinating schedules, divvying up the work, and meeting deadlines was often difficult, but each student brought their strongest skills to the table. She boosted the creative writing portions of the campaign, while others carried areas where she has less expertise, such as graphic design.

“You hear about campaigns and you learn about the principles and all the stuff you’re supposed to do, but until you really put that into action, you don’t comprehend the full effect and how much work it can be at times,” Noe said.

Noe and Narro said that doing the work for a client such as Bryant’s Bridge really pushed them to create a valuable campaign that would benefit the nonprofit. 

“I like the message of Bryant’s Bridge and it was really easy to connect with everything they had to say. They feel so passionate about it, so it made us passionate about doing the campaign,” Narro said.

Noe also said the volunteers of Bryant’s Bridge were inspiring to her, and that completing the campaign was one of the most rewarding experiences she’s had during her college years.

“I was able to actually feel like I could make a difference for someone. The mission of Bryant’s Bridge is so important that I was really happy to be able to do work for them. I think I cried after we did our presentation, just because the board at Bryant’s Bridge really is so caring and they really are so passionate about what they’re doing. It felt really nice to be able to do something like that for them,” she said.