As the Director of Brand Management at Eastern Kentucky University, Erick Collings understands the importance of lifelong learning. Though Erick successfully worked in the communication field for several years, his curiosity and drive for a more solid theoretical foundation inspired him to enroll in Butler University’s online Master of Science in Strategic Communication program.
Prior to joining the program, Collings set a high bar for what he wanted his online learning experience to look like. He researched Butler’s master’s in strategic communication extensively, connected with admissions counselors via program webinars, and even talked to professors. A few semesters in, Collings is confident that he made the right choice and describes the degree as life-changing. Below, he shares his thoughts on what made Butler the best fit.
What made this the right time for you to pursue a Master of Science in Strategic Communication?
I got my undergraduate degree in English literature, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. I hoped it would lead me somewhere, and I would discover my place along the way. And find it, I did!
I picked up a job in the communication industry and just by sheer will, I figured it out. After a couple of years, I started settling into my job and realized I was doing everyday things off the cuff without using theoretical concepts. I didn’t have a foundation. I realized I wanted to study this discipline. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life, and I wanted to get a degree in communication.
I was already working full time, so I couldn’t enroll in an in-person program. That’s what led me to the online program. I had some industry experience in the communication field but no academic training. I wanted the knowledge, of course, but I also wanted the confidence that would come with a degree. That’s what made this the right time.
Can you describe your first semester? Did the program begin with the foundational knowledge you needed?
It was challenging but exciting. The professors were all very understanding of the fact that we were largely working professionals who had not studied strategic communication before. They were ready to start slowly and ramp up gradually so we didn’t feel overwhelmed.
Making sure that I felt taken care of was one of the most important things to me because I had enrolled in programs in the past where I didn’t feel supported. I felt like a number on a screen, which was really disappointing and disheartening. I was desperately hoping this program wouldn’t be like that. And I’ve been pleasantly surprised; it hasn’t been like that at all.
After having negative online learning experiences in the past, how did you decide Butler’s online program was the right fit?
In other programs, I wasn’t as invested in the content, and the professors treated me as if they didn’t care if I stayed or left. It did not feel personalized; I didn’t feel seen or understood.
Knowing that, I set a really high bar for Butler’s program. I knew that I wanted to choose a program that was well known for being the opposite of everything I had experienced in the past. I did some research online, then scheduled sessions with an enrollment advisor and the program director before submitting an application. The program director accommodated me and emailed me back the same day to ask if I wanted to talk that afternoon. I was really impressed.
After that, I attended a prospective applicant webinar hosted by current students. I asked them very candid questions and got their contact information to follow up with them. They were all extremely helpful, and their stories were really impactful. That was enough evidence to convince me this was worth giving online learning another shot. People remembered my name, and they kept answering my questions. Even before I was a student, I felt like I mattered.
Have you been able to apply course concepts and classroom topics to your work?
I was not expecting the program to have such a direct impact in my day-to-day life. I bring my notes to work and compare and apply concepts from almost every strategic communication course.
Specifically, I’m in a Crisis Communication course right now, and one of my responsibilities after my promotion was collaborating with my team on improving our crisis communication plan, which wasn’t as robust as it needed to be. I was able to use theories we had talked about in class to help form my proposal for a comprehensive communication plan. I definitely would not have known how to do that had I not taken this course.
Another big area of growth for me has been my understanding of graphic design principles. I was a DIY, learn-it-yourself kind of guy previously. I knew enough to get by, but I did not have experience in the Adobe Creative Cloud, which is the industry standard. I was only vaguely aware of Photoshop and had a little bit of experience in InDesign. In the Strategic Visual Communication course, we covered InDesign in one week. The next day I could create icons for a design I needed at work, using the information I learned in that course.
This is a program that is 100 percent focused on the practical side of communication while still giving you a theoretical foundation.
Do you feel connected to your classmates?
Yes. My classmates started a GroupMe, which has helped us feel like we’re part of the Butler University culture when we’re spread across the country.
In our group chat, we talk about how we can apply what we’re learning to current events. There’s a crisis every day that you can pick apart and analyze. We share with each other and are proud to say, “I learned this, have applied it successfully, and it’s useful.”
What advice would you offer to someone who wants to return to school while working full time?
Connect with your classmates. They’re going to be as rich of a resource as any other component of the program.
Engage with your professors. Whether that’s on LinkedIn or just in an email that says, “Hey, here’s who I am, here’s what I’m interested in, and here’s what I’m hoping to get out of this class.”
Inevitably, you will have something come up in your life, and you won’t be able to make a deadline or attend a class at a specific time. If you communicate that to your professors, they’ll help ensure you can make up the coursework on a schedule that works for you. They also enjoy hearing about you as a person. You’re not just a face on the screen to them.
Give yourself grace. I went into this program expecting a lot of myself. I expected that I would get everything right because I’ve never had a problem with school. I expected to jump right back in and be perfect. I had only taken two years off of school, and it was already difficult! I had lost some of the habits I had as an undergraduate and felt like I wasn’t as good of a student as I had been.
I just needed to give myself a little bit of grace; the same grace my peers and professors were giving me. I had to let myself engage with material that was challenging and persevere. That meant I wasn’t going to get it right at first, because it takes time. If I could go back, I would tell myself, “Give yourself some grace.”
Commit to the program. They say you get as much out of the program as you put into it, and I agree entirely. The more you invest, even if it’s just in things like the relationships you build, the more real and fulfilling it feels.
Who have you met in the program so far? Has anyone surprised you?
I have met a lot of individuals from the healthcare industry, some from this part of the country and some from very far away. I think they are doing phenomenal work, and they’re great to partner with. We’re in a world where public health is at the top of everybody’s mind coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, and I never anticipated working with as many health communicators as I have. I’ve also worked with individuals who are global marketing leads and people in the technology industry. I’m blown away every single day by my peers.
There are people who are early in their careers, and others who have decades of experience in the communication field. They’re in the program to move up to that next level, and they’re earning this degree to help them do it. Everyone is learning and adapting and just wants to be better.
We also have guest speakers come in, and I’ve met people who lead advertising agencies, extremely successful PR firms, and law firms. I’m meeting people who are not just in my industry and gaining so many different perspectives. There’s even an award-winning journalist in my cohort.
Has working with students from so many different industries inspired you to move into a new role or path in communication?
I work in higher education today. I’m a first-generation student, the first to graduate from college, and now the first to be in a graduate program. It’s changed the trajectory of my life and my family’s life, so I’m passionate about higher education and think I’m here to stay.
But it’s exciting to see people from other industries doing exciting things because that inspires me to infuse their passion, perspective, and attitudes into my own profession, especially when we’re thinking about our own students.
What excites you most about earning this degree?
I’m excited to gain confidence in the field and to have a credential that has an impact on my day-to-day life and work. I’m excited to have a new theoretical foundation and to keep pushing myself. I want to follow these habits and attitudes of bettering myself every single day. This program has really changed my life.