There’s a decent chance that you’ve seen the handiwork of students from Diane Abdo’s specialized professional writing class at some point in your life. The distinguished senior lecturer in the Writing Program at UTSA will never forget the day when her husband, an attorney, came home from the Bexar County courthouse with a pamphlet distributed by the National Alliance of Mental Illness. “He said, ‘Isn’t this the brochure your class created? They’re handing them out at Probate Court 2!’”
That brochure was only one of many professional materials that have been developed in Abdo’s class. Other examples include biographies and articles for the Honeynet Project, various materials for San Antonio Youth Literacy’s Book Buddies initiative, and a reference guide distributed to all UTSA faculty regarding classroom incivility and mental illness. Each fall specialized professional writing students work in teams with a nonprofit client to create written materials that will be widely distributed.
The benefits are twofold. The clients get to pick and choose elements from several student submissions to craft much-needed content, while the students experience the all-too-real process of catering material to fit a client’s needs. Throughout the semester students develop skills in writing for public relations, business communications, advertising, and marketing, which has included teaching moments about brand voice, strategic messaging, and even the occasional rejection. “We’ve had clients come in and say, ‘I don’t really like this,’ and they’ve had to start over,” Abdo admits. “But those were all lessons learned.”
Erin Boren ’14 says the hands-on interaction with clients that she experienced in Abdo’s class, as well as the mix of short-term deadlines and long-term projects, fully prepared her for the expectations she would need to meet in her career. Boren now serves as a flight operations communication specialist for Southwest Airlines. She doesn’t hesitate to compare the messages she crafts in collaboration with Southwest’s flight operations teams—balancing edits and changes they request with best practices in communication—to the work she did on the classroom incivility and mental illness brochure in Abdo’s class. In both cases she absorbed constructive criticism and implemented it in a productive way. “It was helpful to learn then,” she says, “what is true to my everyday career—the first iteration of a newsletter, memo, or presentation is almost always completely different from the final draft.”
While Boren and many other students learned how to write for specific audiences, edit by style guide, and create communication plans in the specialized professional writing class, Caitlin Capps ’18 found the course’s introduction to grant writing “immensely helpful” as she embarked on her career. She works in media relations and partner engagement for 1HOPE for Kids, a foster care and adoption agency. 1HOPE for Kids has won two grants in Capps’ time at the agency, and she often wonders if her grant writing would have been as effective had she not taken Abdo’s class.
“I would have had to spend a lot of time at my current job googling grant writing and wondering if the information I read online was accurate,” Capps guesses. “I still refer to my notes and practice grant from Specialized Professional Writing when I write grants for my current job.” Abdo assigned grants using the grant template from the San Antonio Area Foundation in an effort to show her students what information real foundations would ask from nonprofit organizations. Capps says, “Writing about a real need using real data makes the assignment feel more like a job than school.”
During that fall 2017 semester Capps also designed and wrote materials for the Book Buddies initiative, which aims to provide children in underprivileged schools with free books. Abdo hopes that more San Antonio nonprofits reach out to her in the future to use the skills of her specialized professional writing students. “It helps the nonprofits, yeah, but it also helps the students,” she says. “Shirley Chisholm once said that ‘service is the rent we pay for the privilege of living on this earth,’ and that’s an attitude I’d like to instill in everyone in my class.”