By its very nature, online education is a more solitary pursuit than its on-campus counterpart. Without physical classroom space and required, scheduled in-person meetings, students earning distance degrees may understandably assume that the trek toward graduation will be a lonesome endeavor with little opportunity for comraderie or cohort building.
However, two recent graduates of the College of Media & Communication M.A. in Strategic Communication and Innovation program have discovered that working on a degree online doesn't necessarily equate to working alone.
After many years in the public relations industry, Jennifer McHugh, vice president of community engagement at Royal Credit Union, and Jessamy Brown, public relations specialist at John Peter Smith Hospital, decided to return to school for a master's degree.
Although they didn't know each other at the time of enrollment, their busy lives pointed them both to the Strategic Innovation and Communication program in the College of Media & Communication. Through the interactive online learning environment cultivated by the program, McHugh and Brown would form a friendship made from much more than tests and textbooks.
“We met during our first semester,” said Brown. “One of the reasons I reached out to [McHugh] was because she was so eloquent in her discussion responses, and I thought she was taking the program very seriously. Turns out, we were in similar positons with our careers, too.”
Likewise, McHugh remembers the moment of “meeting” very clearly, and she will be forever grateful.
“We really connected after our first midterm,” said McHugh. “We were brand new students. For both of us, it had been awhile since we were undergraduates. We were getting used to being students again, and then we took that midterm. It was hard. It was scary. She sent me an email afterwards, and I think I just said ‘Can we talk?' I needed a friend.” With a laugh, she adds, “We both did just fine on that test.”
After the first midterm, the duo leaned on each other for emotional and intellectual support. McHugh lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, while Brown lives in Forth Worth, Texas, but the women remained dedicated to each other's success through their connection as Red Raiders.
“I really think I would not have done as well in the program without [McHugh],” Brown said. “There were so many times where I was like ‘Thank goodness you found this information.' She would email the professor and share the information with me, even if I hadn't asked for it. Then it got to the point where we would take turns emailing the professors because we were afraid we had too many stupid questions.”
“I would say my relationship with [Brown] is as much of a reason for my success as my own hard work is,” McHugh said. “It was absolutely critical for me to have someone to talk to and vent to. If I was struggling with something, I could ask if she had figured it out or if she had a different perspective.”
McHugh thinks the online environment not only helped them make a friendship but bolstered it.
“I think we are perfect examples that you don't have to be an in-person student to find that person,” McHugh said. “You can find them in a digital environment, and I'm just so grateful we did.”
When their late nights and scary midterms were behind them, Brown and McHugh met each other beyond the computer screen for the first time when they came to Lubbock for graduation. It was their first time being in Lubbock, as well.
“I really wish I had gone to visit earlier,” McHugh said. “It wasn't until I got to campus, saw the Media and Communication building, and walked around that I really felt like a Tech grad. I really felt like I could be proud.”
McHugh and Brown wasted no time getting to Broadway Street and filling shopping bags with Red Raider apparel and memorabilia. Once they had their fill, they met with their former professor and biggest advocate, Coy Callison, Ph.D., professor and associate dean of graduate students.
“He spent nearly an hour chatting with us,” McHugh said. “He talked about not only our experience as students but he also gave us advice on where to eat and what to do. He was the professor of our hardest class, data analysis, but he taught us so much and I really appreciated his time.”
On the other side of the lectern, Callison believes McHugh and Brown are authentic exemplifications of what the College of Media & Communication is about.
“Meeting Jenn and Jessamy on graduation day further convinced me that our M.A. in Strategic Communication and Innovation is special,” Callison said. “They wanted to expand their opportunities and joined the program for advanced training. They received that, but they also met each other and a multitude of other movers and shakers in strategic communication along the way.”
Both McHugh and Brown thank the attitude and spirit of all Texas Tech faculty, who provided robust curriculums and ample opportunity for development.
“So many programs around the country have jerry-rigged the materials,” Brown said. “What was so great about Tech was their program was designed for the online environment. They're not trying to figure out how to do it last-minute—it was meant to be this way. You can easily tell. You feel it. And there was really no difference from a traditional learning experience. It was better for me, actually, given the state of my career and my location.”
As McHugh and Brown return to work with their new diplomas, their chance meeting and shared experiences remain firmly and fondly in their memories. But nothing is fading into the backdrop, as they now consult with each other about their professional endeavors.
“It's so nice to have someone who speaks the same language now,” Brown said. “I can talk to someone about strategic communication—about my work—knowing they don't have a dog in the hunt, knowing they're giving honest advice about what I should do. That's invaluable.”
“I think after all we've been through together, our friendship will last as long as our degrees,” McHugh said. “You can't take it away.”