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Wooster’s Communication Studies Department recognized as best in the US

Rex Mix Award

The College of Wooster Department of Communication Studies has received the prestigious 2021 Rex Mix Program of Excellence Award from the National Communication Association (NCA).

Each year, NCA’s Program of Excellence Award recognizes one undergraduate department of communication for overall excellence above all others in curriculum, program quality, course design, and special programs. Wooster was specifically applauded by the selection committee for interweaving diversity, civic engagement, social justice, undergraduate research, and mentorship into its curriculum, assignments, pedagogy, holistic advising, and student organization activities. Forty-six percent of communication studies majors at Wooster are domestic or international students of color.

“College of Wooster’s program is a phenomenal display of what dedicated and engaged faculty can do with a small communication program,” said Joy Daggs, associate professor of communication at Northwest Missouri State University, vice chair elect of the NCA’s Undergraduate College and University Section and the coordinator of the 2021 Rex Mix Award. “The student projects and the creative work from faculty impressed the committee. Their presentation at the National Conference in Seattle also spotlighted the exceptional work of their program.”

The selection committee underscored the outstanding quality of Wooster students’ coursework, senior Independent Study (I.S.) capstone projects, and how often student work focuses on diversity and/or social justice issues, whether those projects are traditional research papers or also involve applied work such as the creation of an issue message, podcast, or film.

Wooster’s Communication Studies program is well-known nationally for its undergraduate research. In the last decade, about 40 students have delivered competitive papers at conferences, with two students winning the NCA’s Stephen Smith Award for the top undergraduate research paper.

“Wooster students learn how communication research is a means for understanding social justice issues and also can be applied through civic engagement for positive ends,” explained Denise Bostdorff, professor and chair of Communication Studies.

Coursework in the department includes exercises and assignments designed specifically to help students take the perspective of others, learn about cultures beyond their own, and reflect on their own complex identities, all in relation to human communication. In addition, an array of communication studies courses focus on diversity—from Asian Political Rhetoric to Intercultural Communication to Communication, Gender, & Sexuality and more.

“Classes like Communicating Public Policy have revolutionized the way I engage with politics and media, and they have all influenced the kinds of jobs I am looking at for when I graduate,” said Noah Levy ’22, a double major in communication studies and anthropology from Painesville, Ohio. “I think prospective students should come to Wooster if they want to take a deep dive into the world around them and see what makes our country as a whole tick.”

Students in Bostdorff’s Political Rhetoric course have assisted with campus voter registration efforts through the creation of videos and social media messages that explain how to register to vote and how to vote. During the 2020-2021 academic year, the department’s Communicating Public Policy course worked with Wooster’s Trinity United Church of Christ to create a resource guide informing unsheltered people of resources available to them, as well as other relevant communication materials such as talking points addressing the need for a low-barrier shelter in town.

Hannah Nguyen ’22 from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, added that “the interdisciplinary perspectives of Wooster professors have been invaluable, providing me the tools to examine social issues under intersectional lenses.” Nguyen is currently writing her Senior I.S. on how Ho Chi Minh, an independence leader and first president of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, advocated for the creation and implementation of the first law on marriage and family, which is a cornerstone for women’s protection in Vietnam.

The department places a strong emphasis on holistic individual student mentoring, providing support for course registration and academics as well as making time to discuss goals, needs, joys, interests, fears, and concerns. According to Isabel Espinosa ’23, a double major in communication studies and global media and digital studies from Ann Arbor, Michigan, faculty mentoring has been among “the most memorable aspects” of her time at Wooster.

“When I first declared my major, I still didn’t know what path within Comm Studies I wanted to explore, but I figured it out within the first few higher-level courses I took,” said Espinosa. “My professors were so excited about what they were teaching, and it made me want to learn the material as much as possible.” Espinosa plans for her future career to include some form of media production and credits the department for helping her discover ways to apply her passion to her coursework.

“The most important thing our majors learn—apart from how to undertake and spearhead a project of significant scope—is how to use their communication studies training to contribute to their community,” said Rohini Singh, assistant professor of communication studies. “Whether they use theories of persuasion to design, market, and run a financial literacy workshop for young women; conduct interviews to understand the attitudes of Latinx communities toward the Black Lives Matter movement; or poll their peers to trace leadership patterns in teams, our majors emerge knowing that words matter, that each audience and situation is unique, and that communication studies is fundamentally the study of the words and symbols by which we form communities and interact with one another for the good of the community.”

“Graduates of the department take with them a knowledge of communication, a sensitivity to issues of diversity and social justice, and hands-on skills—all of which make them successful in their professions and their endeavors to improve the world around them,” added Bostdorff.

In addition to Bostdorff and Singh, faculty in the department include: Associate Professors Michelle Johnson, and Ahmet Atay, Assistant Professor Zhenyu Tian, and Visiting Assistant Professor Oscar Mejía.

When communication studies majors leave Wooster, they find employment in a wide range of professions in business, healthcare, media, politics and public affairs, the environment, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education, equity, marketing, law, service corps, sports, and more.

“Without the people I met and the skills I honed in the Communication Studies Department, I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today,” said Lauren Schoenewald ’15, currently a lawyer in the Cleveland area. “Wooster’s wonderful faculty members helped make me a better writer and speaker. In particular, the public speaking course, the writing-intensive courses, and my I.S. experience taught me how to communicate ideas effectively—a skill that has been instrumental throughout law school and my career.”

“I had not planned to be a communication studies major, but Professor Bostdorff refused to sign my minor card (I thank her often)! Her political rhetoric class helped take my political intrigue into a full-blown passion that led me on the path to working in the West Wing,” said Michael O’Neil ’03, veteran policy advisor and current senior director of public policy and community outreach for Vivid Seats. “I learned to think critically, but perhaps as important was how much my writing quality improved. Though my professions have varied, I have always had the need to communicate clearly to be successful. For that, I am grateful.” O’Neill served as Midwest Finance Director for Obama for America from 2008-2009, and in a variety of roles in the Obama White House from 2009-2014, including as former special assistant to President Barack Obama and senior advisor in the offices of the chief of staff and political strategy and outreach.

The award was accepted by Bostdorff, along with assistant professor Zhenyu Tian and visiting assistant professor Oscar Mejía, during the National Communication Association’s 107th Annual Convention in Seattle, Washington, on Saturday, Nov. 20, 2021.

Posted in Faculty, News on December 6, 2021.