Megan vanVollenhoven is a junior PR major at the University of South Carolina and the PRSSA 2023-2024 national vice president of Professional Development. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
Entry level is no longer synonymous with inexperienced. Many public relations and communications students are working as creative directors, account managers, brand strategists and even chief executives for their student-run firms. These firms produce work for real world clients that help make an impact on local communities all over the country.
Although the idea of student-run firms is not new, with the first one started at Boston University in 1978, their capabilities have never been broader. These firms are led by passionate, driven students whose hunger for growth is likely to change the field of public relations in the next few years.
Student-run firm leaders commit to their roles and lead teams anywhere from 10 to more than 100 students. In these agencies, students learn hard skills like media relations, social media management, design and research. However, they are also learning what it is like to manage multiple client teams, collaborate, delegate and provide professional level service. Students leave these firms with knowledge about agency life, satisfied clients and enter the workforce experienced and excited.
Today’s students are tomorrow’s creative executives. The importance of innovation is something Alexis Lee, a senior at Marist College and a co-director of student-run North Road Communications (NRC), incorporates into all of her work. Her time in NRC has taught her lessons on peer leadership, client relations and the pace of agency life.
During her junior year, while studying abroad in Florence, Italy, Lee founded the firm’s international branch, an experience which provided her valuable lessons in connecting communities to each other as well as other skills which can easily translate to a professional public relations career.
As Lee says, “interacting with real clients and doing real work” helps students to be more confident when they enter their first jobs. Lee’s day-to-day involves managing “client issues, recruitment periods, interviews and creative assistance.” Like many firm directors all over the country, she works hard to ensure that her clients receive high quality work that can help them fulfill their goals.
The lessons learned in firms are carried far beyond college.
Student-run firm alumni are changemakers. They leave college with a sense of the day-to-day life and pace of a PR or IMC agency; they know what it is like to adapt to a client’s feedback or collaborate across multiple departments.
Kynsay Hunt, a graduate of the University of South Carolina, is a client experience associate at Weber Shandwick. She was confident throughout her college years that she wanted to work on an in-house communications team, but her love for agency life began when she joined student-run The Carolina Agency in her senior year.
The agency route “was a hard pivot from everything that I thought that I was going to do,” Hunt says, but through her student experience she quickly saw the opportunities that an agency could give her.
Student-run firms mostly work for small businesses and non-profits, so Hunt quickly felt she was able to make an impact and that this was helpful when interviewing for entry level positions.
“I remember being asked if I had worked on any social impact related projects before, and I had actual numbers that I could talk about,” Hunt says. “Being in a student-run firm gave me a crash course in public relations experience, etiquette and how to interact with clients in a way that they will understand.”
Students graduating from these firms, which are incorporated throughout the country and in South America, are career-ready and experienced in full-time work. When looking for new associates, I would encourage potential employers to check out student-run firms.