Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many Catholic schools in the New York region were struggling. The pandemic only exacerbated the situation, with 28 schools closing this past summer. Few have the resources to hire a public relations firm to raise their profile and potentially tap into a donor base among their alumni. However, two lucky schools in the Bronx are getting help from Fordham students studying public relations. And the students are getting real-world experience from helping the schools amidst the crisis.
Steve Horowitz, Ph.D., who teaches advanced public relations at the School of Professional and Continuing Studies, decided that for his online classes this fall, he wanted his students to tackle an actual publicity problem instead of examining textbook cases. He worked with Nicole Bryan, associate dean for programs and innovation at PCS, to identify neighboring institutions in the Bronx that need public relations help to fiscally survive the pandemic. They identified two Bronx schools that sought to raise their profile and maintain enrollment.
Though the course has just begun, Fordham students have already held several virtual meetings with the principals of the Academy of Mount St. Ursula, an all-girls high school on Bedford Park Boulevard, and Immaculate Conception School in the South Bronx, the oldest Catholic grade school in the borough.
At Immaculate Conception, the group is helping to launch a newsletter that will be sent to alumni using a new alumni database that they are also helping to create. The newsletter will feature an online student exhibit inspired by the Cloisters and will also include stories of the school’s reopening during the pandemic. At Mount St. Ursula, the Fordham students interviewed 15 donors and alumni and created text content for an email blast to promote and celebrate the school’s 165th-anniversary celebration on Oct. 1, which was named Mount St. Ursula Day by Bronx Borough President Rubin Diaz, Jr.
Throughout, students are able to refer to Horowitz’s syllabus, which provides detailed information on public relations skills, ranging from writing press releases to crisis communication to fundraising. It’s more like a PR user’s manual than a syllabus, he said.
“The course teaches students the basic skills to put together persuasive messages that are going to influence people in the community to support these schools,” he said. “If you don’t have the public reaction skills—and these are very specific skills—you’re not going to persuade anybody.”
The four-credit course falls under the PCS Special Topics Seminar in public relations. This semester, 17 students enrolled in the class, which is broken down into three groups. The first group either took a PR course with Horowitz before or have enough professional background to be permitted to work directly with the Bronx schools. The collaborative work is done in lieu of class coursework and the group meets regularly with Horowitz via Zoom to report on their progress. Students in the second group have enough PR experience to partially work with the Bronx schools, but they still need to complete additional coursework. The third group of students is taking public relations for the first time and concentrates only on the coursework, though they’re informed of the progress of the project through periodic progress reports during Zoom sessions with the rest of the class.
PCS sophomore Andrew Purvis is in the first group and works directly with Immaculate Conception. He said he took a course with Horowitz last semester and was looking forward to taking the seminar, but he wasn’t quite sure what the class would look like during the pandemic. He said that despite not being on-site he’s been impressed with the class and inspired by the Immaculate Conception’s leadership in the face of tough times.
“[Principal] Amy [Rodriguez] said that even with all that’s going on with Black Lives Matter and the pandemic, through thick and thin, we still want our kids to have a great education,” said Purvis. “So, this whole program has been a great environment to be in, even though we’re going through these harsh times, because it’s all about making sure the students still get their education to put their best foot forward.”
Rodriguez said the students’ help has been very welcomed.
“Quite frankly we wouldn’t have had the time or resources to accomplish what we’re doing without the help of the Fordham students,” she said. “This has been very smooth and streamlined to roll out.”
Jasmin Abbatiello, executive director of alumnae relations and external affairs at Mount St. Ursula, said that while the Bronx schools appreciate the assistance from Fordham students, they also, in turn, have a responsibility to the students.
“We want to make sure we’re able to achieve our goals, but we also want to make sure that the Fordham students are learning from the experience,” she said. “We feel happy we have something to offer to them, that they’re learning, and then they can go and take that out into the community.”
PCS senior Mario Della Valle Jr. said he learned a lot from interviewing alumni and donors about their memories of attending the high school for the anniversary newsletter, which was part of his assignment. The exchanges were highly personal, he said, even online, and he noted that he does not think that sort of thing would happen in the corporate sector.
“In corporate life, it’s about consumers; here it’s about alumni and their personal stories, their experiences. I think a big part of the nonprofit work is the interpersonal connections you make. It’s a direct kind of touch that I think that corporate life misses,” he said, adding that it’s also a skill he thinks would appeal to employers in all sectors. “I definitely think that entering the job market, this gives me an edge with the experience of being able to handle a Zoom call and still make a person-to-person contact. It’s about building connections.”