Digital Careers in the New Normal
The October 30, 2007 earthquake near Alum Rock, California was terrifying. It was so powerful that residents 60 miles away in Salinas felt the earth tremble beneath them. With a 5.6 magnitude, it was the biggest earthquake to hit since Loma Prieta in October of 1989. Bay area residents were hit by not the typical one or two but eleven aftershocks, each measuring 1.3 to 2.1 on the Richter scale. Thousands of miles away, Columbia College Instructor Demetrio Maguigad was reading his family’s live tweets of the event. He was worried. He checked the news. Nothing. He checked again. Nothing. It wasn’t until over a half hour later that news reports began to surface. He says, “At that time, I was working at a media research organization. It dawned on me that [through social media] I was getting first-hand accounts of a major event happening on the other side of the country. The feeling was powerful.”
Today, Maguigad teaches Intro to Social Media and Digital Strategy at Columbia, a course designed to prepare students for successful completion of the larger Social Media and Digital Strategy program. His dedication to the importance of the field is matched by that of Communication Chair Suzanne McBride, Associate Professor Betsy Edgerton, and Associate Professor Peg Murphy, who developed the program in the early 2010s to ensure that Columbia Communication students can be competitive in the marketplace after graduation.
In the Fall of 2016, the program launched to align students with the new “digital first” mode of communication and to facilitate new career pathways for Columbia students. As McBride says, “Rarely does a week pass by that I don’t hear from an employer or learn about a position that requires the very skills our Social Media and Digital Strategy students are mastering. Even in this time of uncertainty, employers from all sectors are still seeking workers who have this expertise and experience.”
Today, in the Fall of 2020, the program is undergoing an evolution led in part by the appointment of new Assistant Professor Grace Choi. As Choi says, “I’m very excited to join and represent [the] Social Media and Digital Strategy Program at Columbia College Chicago…I’m working with other Communication faculty to add new relevant courses and strengthen existing courses. I also recently met with some Social Media and Digital Strategy students, and we are very excited to form a student organization to connect students together and work on real social media projects. Other than developing Social Media and Digital Strategy curricula, as a researcher, I look forward to creating interdisciplinary research opportunities to engage students in systematically studying social media effects.”
Students graduating from this program learn, as Murphy notes, “the art and the science behind social media and digital content. Students graduating with this degree will not only be able to develop strategic communication plans across a variety of social media and digital platforms but also create content (e.g., branded videos and websites), and measure the resulting audience engagement and involvement for professional reporting and next steps recommendations.” This, Choi notes, is especially important for students who may be comfortable using social media personally but do not have the skills to run social media accounts for businesses. “By learning from experienced and connected professors from this program, students can be equipped with multifaceted knowledge and skills to develop effective digital strategies and take their control over social media,” she says.
Above: Instructor Laurence Minsky
Instructors teaching in the field construct their courses to prepare students for a wide variety of career outcomes. Instructor Laurence Minsky who teaches Social Media Content, Advertising Copywriting I, Copywriter/Art Director Teams, and Ad Portfolio, says, “I can’t think of a discipline within [advertising, public relations, or] marketing communication that doesn’t tie back to the use of social media and, possibly digital platforms such as a landing page or entire website. As a result, students need a solid understanding of social medial and digital strategies if they want to work in public relations or advertising.”
Similarly, Maguigad designs his courses to ensure that students are prepared to engage with these new digital platforms and modes of communication. He says, “In my class I prepare students to think critically and creatively. Social technologies change overnight, one year it's SnapChat, one year it's Instagram, and the next is TikTok. So rather than focusing on platforms and technology, we focus on strategic frameworks to help analyze social relationships, business acumen, and their ability to adapt and learn to the environment.” This strategy allows students to have a degree with a far longer lifespan than the platforms they may engage with in their daily lives.
Students also often pair this degree with related minors including Advertising, Journalism, and Public Relations. As Murphy says, “These are great ‘combo platters,’ as these industries are very often employers of graduates. Students with a Social Media and Digital Strategy (SMDS) major and Ad minor may end up in a digital strategy role at an agency or working for a brand as a content creator. A SMDS major and Journalism minor could end up creating digital news stories, photograph essays, or social media posts for a media outlet. And, a Social Media and Digital Strategy major with a public relations minor could end up working with an association as a social media manager or helping a non-profit or political organization communicate their key messages across a variety of platforms.”
One of the benefits of studying in this field is that even amidst incredible disruptions, as has happened during COVID-19, transitioning to remote learning is relatively seamless. As Minsky says, “Since I’ve been teaching online for years, converting Art Director/Copywriter Team with my co-facilitator was fairly easy.” In fact, using remote platforms can prepare students for a world that increasingly looks to hire talent that is comfortable working remotely anyway. “Clients are reluctant to pay the travel expenses of their agency employees and want quick turn projects. Remote is the only way to do it. Zoom has been the industry meeting tool of choice for years and agency project management software is very similar to Canvas,” Minksy says.
Of course, instructors are well aware of the challenges that this unprecedented time has created for students and continue to work hard in order to build human empathy into remote learning, a goal that remains in line with the program’s emphasis on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Minksy notes, “I acknowledge the incredible disruption students have gone through, have worked with their schedules and adjusted assignments as their other course transitioned to remote instruction, and, as always, I let students know I care and am available to meet [with them].”
Though the future is yet unwritten, students in Social Media and Digital Strategy are well prepared for many potential eventualities in the job market post-graduation. As McBride says, “The demand for people who have deep knowledge and strategic know-how to communicate in this manner continues to grow at a dizzying pace across all sectors. Whether someone wants to work in the corporate world, run a small business, lead a non-profit, or have a career in government and public service, this major will serve you well.” Maguigad chimes in with some advice for students interested in the program: “Network. Learn to be a good listener. Be authentic and follow what you are most passionate about and always work towards being a better communicator and writer.” And always remember that Communication faculty are here to learn from you, too. As Choi says, “I, personally, welcome you to educate me about the latest TikTok challenges!”