In the 20 years between earning her bachelor’s degree and enrolling in Butler’s online Master of Science in Strategic Communication program, Ashley Murcia built an impressive resume. Now a Communication & Employment Branding Strategist at the Suter Company, Murcia finds real-world examples of course concepts in her decades of experience and applies what she’s learning in class in her current role.
As she looks forward to a senior management position, Murcia sees a master’s degree in communication as a tool to understand the strategic and tactical approaches necessary for organizational success. While balancing work, school, and a personal life is no small feat, she offers advice below on how to prioritize what matters to achieve your goals.
What made now the right time to return to school?
I have been out of college for more than 20 years! But now, our family and my career are established. Honestly, opportunities for graduate programs have changed immensely, to where you don’t necessarily need to be physically on campus to earn a degree. That was one of the biggest things that said, “This is available to me now.”
It was a combination of the right time and having an incredibly supportive employer who is backing me up and encouraging my participation in this program. All of those things together made it the right time for me to explore this.
What drove your decision to learn online. Have you taken any online classes before?
Not really, unless you count taking Facebook Blueprint classes online as part of some ongoing education and training within my professional roles. I’ve never taken online courses that are so highly structured with a synchronous, weekly virtual element.
I didn’t have any reservations about the platform itself because when I look back at my professional experience, even before the 2020 work-from-home explosion, so much has involved working with people who are not right across the table from me. Working virtually with people from around the country and different time zones has always been part of my job, so this was a very natural platform for me. I knew I could learn this way.
What did you do to prepare for your transition back into the classroom?
It sounds a little cheesy, but it was a lot of communication. I made the decision to move forward with the program in July and I was going to start in August.
It took a lot of communication with my employer just so that they would have a full understanding of what my class structure would be, what my semester structure would be, what the demands would be as far as schoolwork was concerned, and where there might be breaks in the calendar. I was very up front with them about my plans and that I would be assessing the program on a semester-by-semester basis.
I also had a lot of conversations with my family about how this changes our normal routine and what I need to feel supported, to finish my classwork, and to be successful in this. That was the most important thing I did.
How did it work out? Did you feel prepared when you started the program?
Yes. I will say though, one of the most helpful things was the orientation that we went through. It was really beneficial to learn what to expect. You’re going into a graduate program so there’s a lot of writing and an expectation that you’re going to be able to take concepts and apply them in the real world. Being prepared for that caliber of writing papers and making connections between concepts and real-world, applicable examples, is advice I would give future students.
As an entrepreneur, senior marketing professional, and student, you wear an impressive number of hats. How do you balance those roles?
One of the biggest things I had to do before coming into the program was be willing to seek out extra support. I looked to trusted friends and family who could help fill in the gaps where needed, but I also took a look at my commitments and prioritized them. I had to ask myself, “Are there things that I need to step back from a little bit?” I did that in some of my roles.
Am I still peripherally involved? Yes. Am I as actively involved in planning events and logistics? No, I’m not. It was really more of a prioritization and identifying the top things that demand my time and attention, and that came down to my family, my work, and school. When I look at anything else in my life that’s competing for my attention, I have to ask myself if I have those things sufficiently fulfilled and checked off and if I have room for other things. If there is room, then great, if not, then I focus on making sure that those top three things—work, school, and family—are taken care of.
Now that you’re through the first semester, what’s been the most interesting thing you’ve learned? And what’s been the greatest challenge?
I’ve almost completed the first two of five required communication classes. I finished Foundations of Strategic Communication, and right now I’m finishing up Research Methods: Design and Analysis. One of the most helpful things is the fact that while a lot of time I feel like, “Wow, there are 20 years between when I finished my bachelor’s degree and started this,” I also feel like my professional experience has helped so much through both of those classes. I’ve been able to connect the dots to my previous roles.
I’d say one of the most challenging things, forever and always, is time management. During those weeks when there’s a more labor-intensive assignment and you’re being pulled in other directions, whether it be with work or with family, being able to be realistic about what’s possible and how much can go into that particular assignment is key. As I’m finishing up this first semester, that’s what’s been the most challenging, and I’m still learning.
What have you been able to take from the classroom and apply in your current role?
My entire Foundations of Strategic Communication final paper was on how to improve communication within my current company. I did everything as if it were a real-world project for a situation we’re trying to solve right now.
Beyond that, I’ve been pulling in my past experience to talk about qualitative research in my Research Methods: Design and Analysis class. I’ve been fortunate enough that I’ve had really deep dives into that from a practical experience standpoint in my previous roles. I was able to have some really interesting 1:1 conversations with Dr. Wang about those experiences and tie that into the content we’ve been learning.
Is your employer responsive to the work you’re doing in the classroom? Do they understand and appreciate it?
They absolutely do. As I was working through that final paper, I was talking with my boss about what I was doing, what I was working on, what ideas I have, and they’re all things that we’re teeing up for fiscal year 2023. They are excited about the fact that I’m able to take the learning from the classroom and bring it to the organization to help us grow.
Can you describe the online support system available to students?
When you’re in an online environment, one of the biggest concerns is, “What if I have questions?” In my undergraduate days, you’d go to office hours. In this program, I’ve never had a problem or issue with being able to talk with my professors. They’ve been available and open, whether it’s through office hours—they communicate fantastically about what they have available—or in a phone call or email.
Beyond the instructors, one of the things communicated to us during the orientation process from other students who have been in the program was, “Don’t be afraid if imposter syndrome hits. It hits for all of us, and it’s usually in the first session.” I thought, “Oh that won’t be me, I’ll be fine,” but three to four weeks in I thought, “Is this what I’m supposed to be doing?”
My Student Support Coach was right there to talk me through it. Another professor was able to advise me on which courses would be the best for me to take with my career goals in mind. I feel really supported by the Butler community that we have access to.
How will this program prepare you for a senior management position?
I think that, in a senior management role, you’ve got to have a 50,000-foot viewpoint of what’s happening in the business and be able to balance the strategic with the tactical. In the communication field, it’s very natural to tend toward the tactical side.
This program is going to allow me to think at that higher level with a more universal understanding of how communication impacts all areas of my company. That’s really what’s going to be needed in senior management in my organization.
What excites you the most about earning this degree?
I’ll be really proud to have earned a master’s degree. I come from a family where everyone has a graduate degree of some sort, and I’ll be really proud of the fact that I’ve done it at this stage in life.
I’m also excited about the new approaches I’ll be able to take within my company, within community organizations I work with, and in volunteer opportunities. The new, extended thinking I’ll be able to apply to all of those roles is going to be really beneficial. I’m excited about all of the things I’m going to take forward thanks to this degree program.