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150 industry professionals help Robertson students in first virtual portfolio event

May 9, 2020

Posted in: News

By Alix Bryan, Instructor, and Mario Sequeira Quesada, Communications Intern

Mechelle Hankerson (left), reporter at WHRO in Norfolk and a Robertson School alumna, reviewed the portfolio of digital journalism student Maia Stanley.

The end-of-semester portfolio reviews for capstone courses at the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture are an apex moment for students across all sequences in the advertising, digital journalism and public relations programs.

The big day usually starts early, with enthusiastic students filing in to shake hands and share their portfolios with industry professionals. A buzz of excitement and conversation fills the rooms as steaming coffee and fresh breakfast treats are consumed during hours of feedback.

Now campuses across the nation are shut down and classes taught remotely to help flatten the curve in the COVID-19 pandemic. But professors in the advertising, digital journalism and public relations sequences at Virginia Commonwealth University were determined to still provide students the opportunity to network and receive valuable career advice.

It took a flurry of outreach, an avalanche of emails, detailed spreadsheets and precarious schedule juggling, but more than 100 students participated in virtual portfolio reviews held through videoconferencing applications such as Zoom, Google Hangouts and WebEx.

Virginia Mercury editor Robert Zullo (left) met virtually with digital journalism student Andrew Ringle during the portfolio reviews. 

“When the pandemic hit, it was so hard to see our students, especially the seniors, feel so deflated,” said Jessica Collins, assistant professor of advertising. “Every class it got worse, even though they were trying their best. No graduation, no celebration, and then trying to find a job? They were lost.”

Students like Khalied Bashri, a senior in the public relations sequence, really wanted the tradition to continue.

“Imposter syndrome is something that a lot of students deal with because the professional dreams you have seem so far away, but events like these really give you the extra boost to keep working towards those goals,” he said.

Collins, Bashri, and Professor Scott Sherman contacted their Richmond contacts and also put out a call for reviewers on all social media platforms.

“The response was overwhelming,” Collins said. “We had over 120 reviewers from the East to the West coasts, as well as one from Canada and one from Denmark.”

The advertising and public relations event usually has 30 slots open for seniors only. This semester, the review was open to everyone who wanted career advice, which added more than 80 students – including sophomores, juniors, seniors and some students from the VCU Brandcenter.

The event took place on May 1, and each student had around 10 professionals review their work.

More than 30 digital journalism students in Capital News Service (CNS) and in MASC 403, a capstone course taught by instructor Mary Ann Owens that focuses on investigative and enterprise reporting, met with reviewers in media markets throughout Virginia, and even Arizona and New York.

“We knew this could become an opportunity to involve our media partners outside of Richmond,” said instructor Alix Bryan, who co-directs CNS with instructor Veronica Garabelli. “We weren’t going to cancel the reviews after students worked so hard to cover a historic General Assembly session and filed over a 100 articles picked up throughout the state.”

Since reporters are very busy covering the current health crisis, the instructors decided reviews would take place over one week to accommodate hectic schedules.

Advertising and public relations students posted about their experiences on Instagram after their portfolio reviews. 

Students sent their clips and resumes to three reviewers who they were matched up with, and then set up a date to meet virtually. Bryan and Garabelli spent two weeks providing resume and website advice ahead of the event and encouraged students to research their reviewers and bring some story pitches as well.

As it turned out, the virtual reviews were a hit, not just a substitute. Many students said it was the most interaction they had in months.

“They had to get dressed and actually talk about themselves and present their work,” Collins said. “It was a nice change of pace for them amidst the craziness.”

 “I felt energized and reinvigorated,” Bashri said.

The professionals in the industry were so helpful and you could tell they really wanted to help us grow as young professionals,” said Alexandra Patrick, a strategic and creative advertising senior. Patrick added that she gained more confidence after each reviewer.

“It made it clearer for me,” she said. “It pushed me in all the best ways.”

Lauren Thomas, a senior in creative advertising, enjoyed this portfolio review most of the five she has done, saying it was nice to not have the pressure of presenting in the same space as other students.

“I felt like this review was one of the most authentic and productive ones I've had,” she said.

She said the advice on how to take student campaign work into the real world is “especially necessary for May 2020 graduates like myself.”

“I was able to get advice on freelancing, which now during the pandemic, is actually one of the best times to do it,” Thomas said.

Journalism students, who dove into reporting on COVID-19 after spring break, said the virtual reviews gave them more time to speak with professionals and learn about the current industry.

“This semester, I’ve had the opportunity to talk with my reviewer about what it’s like to work in the news industry, how they got their start in journalism and how I can make myself more attractive to potential employers,” said Jimmy O’Keefe, a graduating digital journalism major who also took CNS last fall.

Emma Gauthier (right) had the opportunity to discuss her portfolio with Katy Evans, local government editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch and a Robertson School alumna. 

Senior Will Gonzalez filed six political reports this semester, many picked up by the Associated Press, but his career goal is sports reporting. He had a virtual review with Michael Pina, a Brooklyn-based reporter who covers the NBA for SB Nation and a Sports Illustrated podcast. 

“He’s doing exactly what I want to do, so it was really cool to talk to him,” Gonzalez said. 

“I feel like having a digital review might even be something for the department to consider once everything goes back to normal,” said Emma Gauthier, a graduating digital journalism major.

Professors all agreed that the virtual event helps involve professionals who can’t usually visit campus, and are open to the idea of a hybrid-style review in the future.

“I’m proud of their dedication and professionalism during this critical time, and I know they’ll be topnotch journalists once they enter newsrooms,” Garabelli said.

“I really think it gave students back a sense of hope that was lost this semester,” Collins said.