Back to News

From none to done: CreateAthon@VCU resumes virtually after abrupt cancelation due to COVID-19

Apr 17, 2020

Posted in: News

By Mario Sequeira Quesada, Communications Intern

Robertson School students and professors launched the first virtual CreateAthon.

The excitement around celebrating 13 years of the signature CreateAthon@VCU turned into frustration and uncertainty when the COVID-19 outbreak forced the Robertson School of Media and Culture to cancel the event. But the ingenuity and tenacity of professors and students led them to develop a historic alternative, the first virtual CreateAthon.

Peyton Rowe, director of undergraduate studies and associate professor in the advertising sequence, implemented the very first college CreateAthon in 2008 at the Robertson School. This year Rowe, along with advertising assistant professor Jessica Collins, pioneered a new twist.

The event, usually a 24-hour marketing blitz, was originally scheduled to be in the T. Edward Temple Building on Friday, March 13. After a couple weeks of adapting the format, students began working remotely on April 3 and will delivered the final presentations on April 13.

"Thanks to our professors and students for their amazing Robertson spirit and to their clients for their continued participation in our signature academic program," said Robertson School interim director Dr. Marcus Messner. "It has been great to see how they all came together under difficult circumstances to do good for our community."

Virtual CreateAthon Sprint began with an opening check with the three team leaders Michelle Mead, Jack Duffy and Madeline Honig, the three student volunteers Michael Bradican, Allison Farrell and Ethan Parker, and volunteer mentor and alumnus Julia Boyd.

CreateAthon is a nonprofit initiative that gathers creative talent in the communications field to help nonprofit organizations develop marketing strategies and content. Robertson School students from the different sequences volunteer to serve local nonprofits. CreatAthon@VCU has five clients this year: Latinos en Virginia, OAR of Richmond, Paws Unleash PotentialRichmond Parkinson’s Dance Project and Richmond Story House.

In prior years, each group of students would work over a 24-hour period for one nonprofit and deliver a project presentation. This time, for the virtual modality, Rowe and Collins allowed students to choose either a “creative jog” or “creative sprint.” For the jog, students worked for 12 consecutive days at their own pace to deliver the final result. In the sprint, students worked in three separate eight-hour sessions to exclusively create content for the nonprofits. Students used videoconference platforms such as Zoom, the messaging app Slack and shared content via email and on the cloud.

“Jess and Peyton have gone above and beyond to ensure that this class is everything we wanted it to be, even in an online world,” said Khalied Bashri, a senior in the public relations sequence. “They've worked tirelessly with us to individualize the experience to each group, thus creating the sprint and jog methods for CreateAthon. They've both put all into making this class feel like a community that is heard.”

Bashri worked over a two-week period to help Latinos en Virginia. This organization provides education, advocacy, and support to Spanish-speaking individuals affected by violence and injustice. Bashri said that the CreateAthon project helped ground his day, and he took advantage of working from home.

“Creating work for our client over the past two weeks has allowed me to channel my newfound free time into something productive and beneficial for an organization that I've come to truly care about over the course of the semester,” he said.

Virtual CreateAthon Sprint has student Madeline Honig sharing her logo development for client Richmond Parkinson's Dance Project while her classmate Kevin Nguyen documents the first ever Virtual CreateAthon and profeessors Jess Collins and Peyton Rowe give feedback.

Natalie Lundin, a senior in the strategic advertising sequence, said the cancelation of CreateAthon was a disappointment and called it an emotional roller coaster. But she wanted to do anything needed to make it work. After a time of doubt and concern regarding the activity, she said she feels happy that the project continued.

“Even though CreateAthon was cancelled I still wanted that experience,” Lundin said. “To me, there was really no other option. I just wanted to create great work for my client in a time of uncertainty.”

Lundin worked in a creative sprint group to create marketing strategies and content for Paws Unleash Potential. The nonprofit is a rebranding of Sprite’s HERO. Its mission is to provide vulnerable children with life-changing relationships with dogs. The pairing improves the children’s health and welfare by increasing self-esteem and empathy, and lowering their stress and anxiety.

Lundin said Collins and Rowe challenged the students to think about the logistics and different alternatives behind a virtual CreateAthon. She said she is grateful that the professors dedicated time and effort into helping students be successful after the abrupt interruption of the semester.

“Truly, this couldn’t have happened without them,” Lundin said. “They were all hands on deck, bringing in mentors to give feedback, they were there every step of the way, constantly checking in on us and giving us feedback.”

During Virtual CreateAthon, students and professors used Slack to share sketches, ideas and feedback quickly, complimenting the Zoom meetings. For most students, it was the first time using this tool.

Collins is amazed by the enthusiasm and tenacity students have shown.

“No other university tackled this problem, everyone has different circumstances,” Collins said. “But I just think this shows the commitment of VCU and our students to say, ‘We'll do it, we'll be the first university to ever do virtual CreateAthon.’”

Rowe said this CreateAthon will be one to remember. She said that diving into a virtual dynamic prepares students for the international job market. Nowadays public relations and marketing companies work closely with organizations all over the world. After participating in a virtual experience like this CreateAthon, students will be more prepared to embrace that.

Rowe participated in her first CreateAthon before arriving at VCU in 2004, at a “memorable” event with Riggs Partners, founders of CreateAthon, in South Carolina. Rowe said that the Robertson School had all the potential to introduce CreateAthon at a college level and worked to make it a reality.

The CreateAthon Closing Ceremony included eight CreateAthon team leaders, three student volunteers, four professional mentors and alumni and some costumes.

“It was such a remarkable experience for me from a creative side, and I thought ‘I've got to give this to students’ and they were very supportive,” Rowe said. “I realized that this was the place to do it because we had multiple disciplines, we had creative and strategic advertising, broadcast and print journalism, and public relations. There was a way for everybody to work together.”

Rowe, a CreateAthon board member, has worked with Riggs Partners on growing CreateAthon since 2004, including founding the nonprofit organization in 2013 and serving as its Executive Director from 2013 through 2017. Since that first CreateAthon@VCU in 2008, dozens of nonprofits have been benefited and hundreds of students experienced how the professional environment operates.

Jeanne McNeil, member of the board of directors of Paws Unleash Potential, said the CreateAthon@VCU gives them a chance to rebrand Sprite’s HERO and improve their website, marketing strategy and content.

“With a more clear identity, we should be able to be in a position to attract not only more volunteers, which we desperately need, but also funding,” McNeil said. “They're designing a new website, and it's just a huge gift to us. Because we don't have the time or the expertise to do that for ourselves, and we don't have the money to hire someone to do that.”

McNeil is also a business manager at VCU Life Sciences and has seen the work of VCU students in the past.

“All the accolades to those students, and to the faculty for standing up behind them, encouraging them and giving them the tools that they need,” McNeil said. “I'm always impressed with what our students at VCU do, but this just really knocked my socks off. It's just amazing.”