If you pass the School of Communication’s Fishbowl on a Tuesday or Thursday afternoon, you might see a sharp-dressed group giving a presentation proposing logo changes, website redesigns or a fundraising campaign to representatives from a local nonprofit. No, the school hasn’t been invaded by a startup—it’s just another day in class for students taking the strategic communication practicum, NEXU.
NEXU is both a communication course and a communication agency. Students tackle tasks for real clients, giving them the chance to put what they’ve learned in the classroom to work. From the beginning, NEXU was intended both to give students marketable experience and to give back to the community.
“I’ve always been a fan of real-world work,” said Dr. Lara Needham, dean of the School of Communication, “My vision was always students in a classroom, doing work for real organizations, real agencies and creating portfolio-quality work—not case study work out of a textbook, or working the word problem at the end of the chapter.” To that end, she enlisted the help of professor Stacie Shain to teach the class and guide the continued growth and progress of the NEXU agency.
The first NEXU class had quite the challenge before them: In addition to managing other clients’ work, they had to build NEXU’s brand from the ground up, including coming up with the name.
“We were calling it ‘the agency’ because we didn’t have a name,” Dr. Needham said. “We didn’t have a website, we didn’t have social media channels, we had zero to start with. So we were our own first client.”
So what’s in a name? According to their website, NEXU “is Latin for ‘connection.’ As a strategic communication agency, it is our job to connect with the client and connect the client to its target audience.”
NEXU’s mission today goes beyond giving students marketable experience and portfolio pieces. The agency specializes in working with local nonprofits, including Kentucky Harvest and Honor Flight Kentucky.
Kentucky Harvest delivers food to those in need. They were one of NEXU’s main clients during its first semester, and a continuing client the following semester.
“One of their main objectives when they came to us was they needed money,” said Quin Welch, one of the students who participated in NEXU in spring 2016. “A lot of people, when they think of Harvest, they think of just giving away food. But with an organization that goes seven days a week to grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations all across the city, one of the big things they have is operational costs with gas, storage and trucks.”
To address this, the class devised two separate communication campaigns. The first was an awareness campaign called “Follow the Truck,” which featured quarterly sub-campaigns that included videos, public service announcements and a social media outreach plan that demonstrated the day-to-day operations of Kentucky Harvest.
The second was a capital campaign called “Fill Up the Truck” with the goal of increasing Kentucky Harvest’s yearly operating income to $110,000, allowing them to continue transporting 2 million pounds of food to more than 100 churches and shelters every week. The campaign included completely rebranding Kentucky Harvest by changing their logo (with the assistance of Bellarmine student Shae Goodlett), their slogan and their website to better fit their mission.
“Harvest was headed toward its last leg. Not food-wise, but operationally,” said Marc Curtis, director of operations at Kentucky Harvest. Working with NEXU “was almost the savior of Harvest, from my standpoint. We’re blessed to be here with them, really.”
Honor Flight Kentucky is one of NEXU’s fall 2016 clients. The Honor Flight network flies veterans of World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War free of charge to Washington, D.C., to visit the memorials dedicated to their service and sacrifice. However, many veterans from Eastern and Central Kentucky don’t know about Honor Flight or its local chapter. NEXU’s job was to help increase awareness.
The students compiled an updated media list for every county in Eastern and Central Kentucky, audited the chapter’s website (honorflightky.org), drafted a series of social media posts highlighting anniversaries of key events from the wars in which these veterans served, created a branded PowerPoint template featuring a variety of slide formats and styles, converted their existing volunteer training material into an interactive Prezi presentation, redesigned their brochure and designed pizza box stickers and paper donation cutouts.
They did all of this with minimal direction from Honor Flight. “We kind of stepped back,” said Honor Flight ambassador Phillip Pittman. “We came in and said, ‘This is what we think we need,’ and we let them do their own thing.”
He was not disappointed. “What [NEXU] provided us, we’re going to be able to use,” he said. “It’s going to be a tremendous benefit to us, believe me … I think we’ve got enough resources, as far as people we’ve been talking to, that I think would be happy to make up the pizza box stickers and the brochures. We’ll get those printed up by the thousands, I’m sure. So, it’s just wonderful. It’s been a good experience.”
The benefits students get from working with these clients goes beyond class credit. Tara Bowling, who oversaw Honor Flight’s website audit, said, “What we’re doing is not just providing someone with a service or a product. We’re actually helping them raise money for what they do, and what they do is absolutely amazing. As I was doing the website audit, seeing and reading everything about what they do, how they do it, how it works and then seeing the pictures of how people react, it just kind of gives you perspective on something you may not have known about before.”
Experiences like these can’t be bought. Which is good, because all NEXU’s work is free.
Though the students don’t get paid directly, the work they complete is actually used by clients and makes for strong portfolio pieces. Some NEXU students have already been offered jobs and internships due in some part to their work and experiences in the course.
“I have stuff that I’ve used in interviews for internships that I did in that class, like when we rebranded Kentucky Harvest. Now, for my internship, they’re having me work with the rebranding, because they know I’ve done that before,” said Emily Gahafer, who took the NEXU course its inaugural semester. “Having those examples is helpful, because it makes people want to let you do more in your internships, too.”
NEXU is a practicum available to students who have taken some form of advertising, public relations, graphic design or video production class, or who can demonstrate skills that can be applied to the kind of work NEXU does. If a student meets these requirements, and is interested in building a professional body of work from a small, general-purpose communication agency, NEXU is a great asset.
Or, as Welch put it, “I think for all of us, it was more than just a class. For me, it wasn’t about getting an A. It was about helping people.”
By Walter Parker ’15
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar