Posted At: August 24, 2009 11:04 AM
by Rebecca Timms, Contributing Writer
If you asked me what the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) was four years ago, I’d have shrugged my shoulders or made a timid guess at its purpose.
Today, I’m the national president of the organization.
My head still spins when I think of the life-changing transition I’ve experienced over the course of my college career, fronted by a bit of my senior year in high school. Yet taking a step back to examine my lengthy path to the present provides a new perspective to the journey. To explain my lessons learned, you’ll need some background. Here’s a bit of my PRSSA story:
In the spring of 2006, I settled on Rowan University as my college destination. A high school senior, all I saw was my 50-minute roundtrip commute, living at home for another four years and a general loss of the college experience I’d come to expect. My dismal view was worsened by a series of rainy campus tours, which only made the school seem dreary and unforgiving.
Yet, with some parental prodding, I gave Rowan a chance. My dad and I visited a class that opened my eyes to the intricacies of public relations writing. Soon after, I received an invitation from then-Rowan PRSSA president Arianna Stefanoni to attend their Regional Activity. It was one weekend. What did I have to lose?
Little did I know the effect that first small step would have on my life.
A bundle of nerves, I arrived at the Regional Activity site and was quickly ushered into the Rowan PRSSA circle. Arianna paired me with two sophomores – Rosie Braude and Nicole Galvin – who quickly welcomed me as their roommate for the overnight event. After the two-day, hands-on learning activity, I came home raving about PRSSA. I already felt a natural bond with this group of older public relations students and knew the organization was to be a mainstay in my college life. By this time, my attitude about Rowan made a full turnaround.
Then, the day after my high school graduation, I received strange but exciting news – I’d been chosen to represent Rowan PRSSA as logistics director for the Chapter’s PRSSA 2007 National Conference bid team. The e-mail, sent by faculty advisor Professor M. Larry Litwin, APR, Fellow PRSA, explained the decision. Three students – my Regional Activity roommates, Rosie and Nicole, and another now-junior, Amy Ovsiew – all saw potential in me at the spring event. They needed a fourth member of the team and chose me over more senior members of the Chapter.
From that day on, one opportunity followed another. Our conference committee – later joined with that of Howard University – went on to successfully host the 2007 National Conference in Philadelphia. Just months later, I used that organization-wide exposure, coupled with extensive chapter experience, to win a place on PRSSA’s National Committee. And in March of this year, I was elected national president.
Yet it wasn’t just the titles that moved me forward professionally and in PRSSA. I did the work each position required, and did it well. As much as possible, I made the most of my opportunities – reconnecting with professionals after meeting them, investing an extra 15 to 30 minutes to ensure my research was thorough or sending a thank-you note when appropriate to professionals and peers alike. All of these little things, together, added up to a solid resume of professional experience and qualified me to move forward.
Here are five specific lessons I’ve learned:
1. Don’t fall into the trap of trivialities.
It’s just a good contact. A speaking engagement added to the calendar. Another article to draft.
By themselves, these assignments and contacts may seem insignificant. But somewhere down the line of life, when done well, they give way to greater opportunities for growth and career advancement. Continued over a long period of time, those chances turn into serious turning points – for me, hosting a national event, serving 10,000 students as a National Committee member and later leading the Society as president. Grasp the true gravity of such “small” assignments.
2. Recognize and exploit your strengths.
I’m fortunate to have a father working in the media, who interacts with public relations professionals daily. Dad pointed me toward the field early in high school and later provided valuable contacts that have helped me gain internships and provided mentoring throughout college. But often, they didn’t reach out to me on their own – I had to initiate interaction. Don’t be pushy, but maintain interest and be overt about your needs.
3. Never take a contact for granted.
Remember Arianna, the past Rowan PRSSA president who invited me to the Regional Activity? We kept in touch since that event back in 2006. When I needed an internship this summer, she advocated for my placement in her department. We’re now working together at Campbell Soup Company.
4. Create opportunity.
Last, as PRSA Chair and CEO Mike Cherenson frequently says, make your own luck. If contacts don’t drop in your lap, go find them. Actively seek portfolio- and resume-building opportunities. Take internships early and often to increase your knowledge base. Fill in the gaps in your experience whenever and wherever possible.
5. You will not “arrive.”
Never believe you are finished learning. There’s always room for improvement.
My path won’t work for everyone. In fact, it can’t. The story I’ve relayed is unique to me. But applying these life lessons implies a solid route to both challenge and success.
Strike out and find your own story – because you have one waiting to be told.