Ah, September. A time of endings and beginnings, when the summer slowdown makes way for the season where you can’t remember what eight hours of sleep in one night feels like.

And I’m not just talking to those in the working world; this is also being felt by the thousands upon thousands of students heading back to Calgary’s many universities and colleges.

Yes, it’s that time of the year again, and I was recently reminiscing about my time not so long ago at Mount Royal University (College back in ‘05), when I was studying for my Bachelor of Applied Communications – Public Relations. Talk about a learning experience – after spending almost three years in a classroom with 400 other people who I never really got to know, there I was, with 40 strangers who would quickly become a significant part of my life.

So I wanted to write an open letter to the Mount Royal University students who are beginning their PR journey, with some tips and tricks (a.k.a. “If I knew then what I know now”), and encouragement along the way. First thing, you’ve made a great choice – this program has a great faculty, and you will learn the fundamental skills you need to make a confident step into the PR world (and I’m not just saying this because I went there).

But you need to recognize that going to class, taking notes and completing your assignments isn’t enough. If you really want to take advantage of what you are being taught and make the most of this degree, there are a few things you should keep in mind:

  1. You get out what you put in: Common sense I realize, but this is the time to make the most of your classes and the time you have in university. Ask lots of questions, debate, and don’t just limit this to the classroom. Follow Twitter and RSS feeds, blogs and industry sites to find out the current trends and how you can relate this to what you are learning.
  2. Remember that at some point in time, group work is going to suck: It’s a fact of life. There will be people you don’t want to work with, deadlines that change, new directives from the client, and while it may not be the most pleasant thing in the world to deal with, remember that this is a mirror to real life. You will have jobs with co-workers you don’t get along with, clients that will change their mind and tight deadlines to meet. So learn the ropes, figure out how to manage deadlines, personalities and clients, because I’ll let you know that these skills will be crucial as you move into your career.
  3. …but don’t burn your MRU bridges; these people will be your lifeline: It’s amazing how much your class will become a family as the semesters go on, with everyone looking out for everyone else. But just like every family, there will be bumps in the road (likely during group work). Were there times during the program that I wanted to wring someone’s neck? Likely. Were there times they wanted to wring my neck? Pretty much guaranteed. The key is to not burn your bridges. I’ve been incredibly lucky to make some lifelong friends through the PR program, but as an added perk to that, these people have also become my sounding board. I know now, because of the relationships I built early on, that I can call any number of PR peeps to bounce ideas off of, or get advice on, everything from media relations to crisis communications.
  4. The PR community operates a “3 degrees of Kevin Bacon” rule: You hear people talking about this being a small community; this isn’t rumor, it’s the cold hard truth. The spider web within the PR/Communications community is so complex, it’s not hard to find the person you’re looking for. But this brings its own set of problems. It is even easier to blow your reputation in the blink of an eye and even more difficult to restore it. So be smart – don’t go talking dirt about another practitioner or agency because you never know who they know, and you don’t want to be blacklisted in the community before you’ve graduated.
  5. Networking will give you a competitive advantage: This has been at the foundation of my PR journey for almost seven years – and it’s not hard to do. The “I’m a student” card is the best weapon you have in your arsenal right now, so use it! Go to CPRS and IABC events; set up LinkedIn and Twitter accounts; call up the agencies you’re interested in working for and take them out for coffee; follow some MRU PR alumnus on Twitter or LinkedIn and take us out for coffee [hint hint 😉 ]. Start building your personal brand, because if you can establish yourself early, you will be one step ahead of the rest when you start looking for jobs.
  6. …So will volunteering: Another core of my PR journey, volunteering not only gives you an increased network, but you can add a breadth and depth to your skillset that most jobs can’t offer. On top of that, you get the opportunity to try out every field of PR, see what works, what doesn’t, and where you may want to eventually work.
  7. (most importantly) HAVE FUN!!! This is an amazing program, full of unique opportunities and people that will change your life forever. Carpe diem.

But, as LeVar Burton would say, “You don’t have to take my word for it.” Here are some pieces of advice I grabbed from some of my MRU classmates:

“Stay true to who you are and what makes your happy. PR is not a narrow field and the job opportunities are incredibly diverse. My advice; constantly question yourself. What do you want to be doing for the rest of your career? Do you want to climb the corporate ladder? Do you want to be an expert in a niche field? Do you want to make a difference? Do you want to trail blaze an unbeaten path? Remember – the only limitations and obstacles are the ones you create. Ask questions, find your passion, stay committed and have fun.” Greg Vanier (@gregvanier)

“Volunteer as much time as you can with people doing things you would love to do one day.” Jason Krell (@jasonkrell)

“I think I’ve learned over the years that although having the best marks from class and wonderful recommendations from professors and employers helps with the job hunt process, the true networking and ‘door-opening’ has come through the different organizations I’ve volunteered with. Really invest time with your volunteering because that ‘free time’ can lead to some of the most fulfilling full-time employment opportunities.” Andrea Lauder (@andrealauder)

(featured pic is a very small sampling of my fellow alumnus – photo courtesy of Nikki Macaraeg)