Timia Whitsey, '20SPS, Strategic Communication, was skeptical about attending graduate school, but a professor at her undergraduate institution Hampton University wouldn’t take Whitsey’s no for an answer, persisting with the Columbia HBCU Fellowship nomination process. Now in her final term in Columbia’s M.S. in Strategic Communication program, Whitsey credits the program with equipping her with the business acumen needed to translate and get buy-in for her creative concepts. Despite coronavirus-related limitations, she worked with internship sponsor ViacomCBS, impressing the company so much that it helped her to secure the role of Development PA. She recently spoke about the advantages of Columbia’s Strategic Communication program and the indispensable sense of support and community she developed through the HBCU Fellowship.
How did you learn about the Columbia HBCU Fellowship?
During my senior year at Hampton University, I was having a conversation with one of my professors when the dean of my school interrupted to drop off flyers about Columbia’s HBCU Fellowship program. My professor asked, “Do you want to go to grad school?” I quickly shut him down with a no. I never considered attending grad school, let alone Columbia, as I planned to head straight into the workforce after graduation. A month or so passed after that conversation and I totally forgot about the fellowship. One evening, I received an email saying “Congratulations! You’ve been nominated to apply for the Columbia University HBCU Fellowship Program.” I was confused because I hadn’t expressed interest in the program — in fact, I explicitly said no. Turns out, one of my favorite professors at the university secretly nominated me. Before turning down the nomination, I decided to do some research on what the program entailed and figured that it wouldn’t hurt to apply. I began the application process just so my professor’s nomination wouldn’t be in vain. Looking back, I’m super grateful that he opened my eyes to the program. He obviously saw potential in me that I didn’t yet see in myself.
What attracted you to the Strategic Communication master's program in particular?
The Strategic Communication program caught my eye because it was the most familiar subject for me out of all the SPS programs. At Hampton, I studied in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communication. Although I was a journalism major, I had taken a few Strategic Communication courses. I figured that Columbia’s program would be an enhanced extension of what was taught in undergrad. When I did my research on the courses offered in Columbia’s program, I learned that so much more would be offered. I saw classes like The Strategic Storyteller and Compelling Communicator would be offered and realized that learning how to communicate with professionals in a strategic manner would help propel me in my career as a TV content creator.
Who is your favorite professor(s) and why?
My absolute favorite professor is Alex Merceron! I rave about her to everyone I meet. I remember the first day I entered her Strategic Communication Management class. I was so intimidated by the material and afraid that I wouldn’t be able to apply anything I learned to my career. Fortunately, her teaching style took me by surprise. She made learning enjoyable with fun jokes, liveliness and sarcasm; she used real world examples to help us grasp the concepts better; and she always made herself available to answer any questions we had. Her teaching style isn’t the only reason I adore her so much. Her love for her students goes beyond the classroom. She did for me what no other professor did, which was take me under her wing as a mentee. She set up one-on-one meetings with me outside of class to write down my career goals. She created a Google Doc and added job and internship opportunities that aligned with my interests weekly. She gave me raw professional advice about surviving in this industry as a Black woman. Most importantly, she always encouraged me to give my all in class and she still encourages me to give my all in life. While I was only fortunate enough to take her for one semester, that semester changed my entire experience at Columbia for the better. She is by far the most impactful professor I’ve had during my tenure here.
What are your career aspirations? How are the Strategic Communication program and the Columbia network helping you to stand out among your peers?
Initially, I set out to become a television writer. Now, I just have dreams of being involved with the content creation process more holistically. I want to create the concept, pitch it, write it, produce and direct it! Eventually, I want to create my own production company and make content that represents the authentic stories of Black people. The strategic communication program is helping me stand out amongst my peers because it has made me a triple threat. I was already a strong writer and a creative, but now I know the ins and outs of the business of the communication industry and I learned them from an Ivy League university. A lot of my peers can’t say the same. Even more, a lot of creatives don’t have an understanding of how the business world operates. They just know they want to make art and that’s it. I was the same way before coming to Columbia. Now, thanks to the program, I know how to approach executives and clearly present my ideas. I have learned persuasive tactics that could convince investors to give me the funding I need for a project or the green light to film a new show concept. I also know how to conduct research and analyze data in a way that helps me create the best marketing strategies to promote my content. These are things that I think most creative people, including myself, normally shy away from. But because I’ve faced my fear of these concepts and tackled them, they are now tools I use to my advantage, allowing me to stand out from the crowd.
Describe your ViacomCBS internship over the summer.
This past summer, I was a creative development intern at ViacomCBS. I worked in the MTV and VH1 department, helping ideate new unscripted shows for the two channels. I was responsible for conducting secondary research to support potential projects; writing about pop culture trends; creating pitch decks and one-sheets to help my team visualize show concepts; and watching cuts of potential shows and providing valuable feedback. By the end of my internship, I had the opportunity to pitch two original show concepts to a team of executives! I enjoyed every hour of my internship. My team was always very inclusive and eager to hear my perspective. I even had the pleasure of working for a Columbia alum!
I went into the internship determined to turn it into a job offer, but as a result of COVID, the company had no open positions available. I was disappointed, but I continued to work my hardest during the internship. By the end, my team was so impressed by my pitch that they contacted me to find out when I would graduate from my master’s program, as they wanted to consider me should an opportunity present itself. Until it did, I remained persistent. I made my intentions very clear with my team regarding my desire to stay with the company and I nurtured the genuine relationships I made with my teammates. A few months later, I received word about a position opening up, but it was not handed to me by any means. I went through three rounds of interviews and had to come up with original show concepts with only a 24-hour turnaround. Finally, when I least expected it, I got a call from my boss that the job was mine.
(Pictured, above) Timia and HBCU Fellows and Strategic Communication students Kendall Hamilton and Michael Watkins winding down from a class day by attending a pop-up shop event pre-pandemic.
How have SPS' co-curricular offerings — such as student organizations, the Career Design Lab and special events and workshops — helped you maintain your connections and a sense of community?
The HBCU Fellowship gave me a sense of community through the numerous bonding events that they’ve organized. From ice skating and Christmas parties to having game nights and seeing Broadway plays together, the fellowship found so many fun ways to unite us. More specifically, it allowed me to form a tight-knit relationship with the other Strategic Communication Fellows in my program! We do everything together. We go to the library and do homework, sharpen each other’s minds through thoughtful discussions, support one another’s career goals, and do LOTS of fun activities outside of class. Without them, I don’t know how I would’ve gotten through this program!
Aside from the fellowship, I found a sense of community by working with a community service group on campus. I enjoyed the projects we worked on, like creating care packages for the homeless and cleaning up Morningside Park. The volunteer group gave me a warm, familiar feeling—reminding me of my days in undergrad, waking up on an early morning with my sorority sisters to help people who were in need. With them, I felt at home.
The Career Design Lab events have definitely helped me maintain some strong relationships and are in fact how I received my internship-turned-job! Onika Richards, specifically, is amazing. She is so intentional about listening to our desires and needs as fellows and seeing that we are provided with the resources to make our dreams become a reality. I really appreciated the mock interview and salary negotiation events. Those events and many others like them helped prepare me for the challenges I faced when vying for my current role.