Melanie Shelton and her classmates at Washington State University Vancouver debated the tagline for their club, Strategic U.
“A student organization for nonprofits” or “a student organization branding nonprofits?”
Scratch that. Faculty advisor Narayanan Iyer pointed out that the newly-formed group may not want to pigeonhole themselves into working only for nonprofits.
“Branding our local community,” Wadi Yakhour suggested.
That’s more like it. A website is in the works, and the club is working on a logo for Strategic U, where the U is outlined by a light bulb.
The idea to launch a professional student organization partially aimed at helping local nonprofits build their brands was a light bulb moment for Shelton, a junior at the university. As she perused the club offerings during student orientation, she realized she could start her own club to help students further their professional development.
While taking classes at Clark College, Shelton helped Children’s Center with its art supply drive through a service learning project and met Matthew Butte, the nonprofit’s development director. He told her about a video the nonprofit was trying to put together on a limited budget.
“I think sometimes there’s a lot of creativity that can happen in a really tight budget because you have to come up with such a unique way to tackle the problem that’s still interesting,” Shelton said.
She helped write the script and assemble volunteers for the video, which gives a child’s perspective on the importance of mental health treatment.
“It was a lot of fun, and I think it really drove home that this is really what I want to do,” Shelton said.
So, when she transferred to WSUV, she started the club — though one might consider the students more like pro bono consultants, lending their expertise and outside perspective, than club members. Shelton actually began working on the club in late July, before classes started. It’s more involved than a lot of clubs, and not everyone can afford that sort of time commitment.
Strategic U has committed to helping the Children’s Center over the next year or two working on fundraising, the annual toy drive and producing another video for the next luncheon, Butte said.
These students have skills that the Children’s Center needs, Butte said. He’s the only staff member doing development work.
“They bring tremendous resources, ideas, creativity. That is a great gift to us,” he said, adding that younger talent helps the nonprofit reach younger audiences.
In addition to the Children’s Center, Portland-based Live.Treat.Heal.Repeat is benefiting from the fresh and free talents of Strategic U, which used to be known as the Integrated Strategic Communications Society. The small nonprofit that supplies hygiene products to people living in poverty is getting a new website and a new name as part of a rebranding.
The big picture
Integrated strategic communications will become an official major offered by the Edward R. Murrow College of Communication at WSUV this spring, said Iyer, program director of integrated communication and clinical associate professor. However, many students already take the classes or are in related majors — humanities, marketing, creative media and digital culture. Those majors are represented among the students who make up Strategic U.
“We try to incorporate service learning in every class,” Iyer said.
Strategic U is different because it’s not a class and it’s student-driven. When students deal with real clients who have real problems, they develop those soft skills that aren’t taught in class, such as how to talk with people in a professional manner, he said. Most students enter the workforce needing experience, and Strategic U gives them real-world examples of what they’ve accomplished.
Shelton describes strategic communications as the big picture: “How do we take this message of what this organization wants to do and put it out in the world in the best way?”
She’s not sure what to do with her degree. That’s partly why she started the club, to figure out where her strengths lie.
“I’m a strong writer. I do like being involved in projects,” she said. “And I think I have a good mindset for the bigger picture, so I think I’d work well in a strategy department.”
She went back to school after 15 years of working in medical sales and realizing that the demanding field wasn’t the right fit for her. The single mom also wants a career that will keep her closer to home rather than jetting around the globe. Her part-time sales job is based in Long Island, N.Y.
“Sales has never felt that exciting to me because my driver isn’t money. I want to do something. I want to do something that is good for the people around me, and I want to be involved in things that actually matter,” Shelton said. “Especially now that I have a daughter growing up in this community, it seems to matter even more now.”
Shelton is a lifelong Vancouver resident and graduated from Columbia River High School.