Raissa Talehata, a student in the Digital Media master’s program, graduated in December 2021. She was one of three Northeastern University students to be recognized with an Outstanding Graduate Student Award in Experiential Learning, honoring graduate students “who have shown an extraordinary capacity to integrate academics and professional work and establish themselves as emerging leaders in their field.” In addition, the College of Professional Studies has recognized Raissa’s work on three student-created websites with the 2022 XN Experiential Excellence Award.

Here is her story in her own words.

My journey began in the fall 2018 when I made a bold move to shift my career in digital marketing and event production and pursue my passion in design. I joined the MPS in the Digital Media Connect program in Winter 2019 because of my conviction that emerging technologies have re-shaped how we think of brand, story-telling, and the user-experience. I chose Northeastern University because of its great reputation in preparing students to face and tackle the real-world issues; it is not just knowledge, but the informed application of this knowledge to real-world situations.

Turning the world around

Exactly a year after I started this program, the global pandemic hit. The beginning of COVID-19 lockdown was a challenging time for many of us as we all were forced to get accustomed to the new normal, changing our plans, adjusting our routines, and familiarizing ourselves with new ethics and norms. Although it was remarkably shocking and confusing at times, I am amazed by how quickly the NU community implemented the new systems and adapted to the digital platforms.

Because of the pandemic, my initial plan to take a co-op that summer unfortunately had to be pushed ahead one more quarter. In this crucial time, faculty in College of Professional Studies (CPS) took the initiative and came up with a creative solution in facing these tough challenges. I remember receiving an email from my academic advisor about a co-curricular experiential learning opportunity for Summer 2020: “Do you have plans for the summer? The Public Relations program is assembling a small team of students to work with Professors Ed Powers and Christina Inge this summer to create a brand, website, and Instagram page for our Virtual Public Relations Firm. This will be a non-credit, non-paid role, but the experience promises to offer new achievements you can add to your resume.”

It was a pivotal experience to work on Husky Communications that gave me a deeper glimpse of the significant impacts of experiential learning to bridge the gap between knowledge and understanding. But beyond that, being a part of the Husky Communications team gave me the opportunity to dip my feet and test the water – allowing me to learn, collaborate, make mistakes, build confidence, and problem solve.

Making the most of it

That summer, I ended up working with 16 other students from different programs in developing a digital product for a Virtual PR Firm. Our work covered a wide range of tasks: Interviewing stakeholders, developing brand, conducting user research, creating digital content, designing the concept, establishing marketing strategy in HubSpot, and developing a live-site in WordPress. Our team successfully built a digital agency that would provide other students with experiential learning opportunities.

Experiential learning turned on the lightbulb for me; it gave me that ‘aha!’ moment on concepts, theories, and tools I learned in class and their adaptation and applications in real case scenarios. More importantly, experiential learning has truly given me and other students the space to explore the possibilities of working in the field we are passionate about. Just like a sandbox, experiential learning program provides students the environment to explore our creative potentials and solve complex challenges. Being a part of the Husky Communications team was a stepping stone for me as it not only sharpened my technical skills, but also developed my soft-skills that could be easily transferable to all different types of businesses – it gives me the competitive edge.

Saying “yes” will take you a long way

In the Fall 2020 term, I landed a full-time co-op position as a Web Developer and Digital Marketer at the Institute for Organizational Mindfulness (IOM). I also volunteered moderating sessions at the first ever UXPA Virtual Conference, and I joined my second co-curricular project to build a website to showcase examples of outstanding experiential projects done by students at the College of Professional Studies.

As the world calmed down from the shock of the pandemic, many organizations started to come up with ideas to implement innovative digital solutions and productive business models in order to keep the ball rolling. IOM is a company with a vision to develop more effective leaders, higher performing workforces, and a productive workplace through bringing mindfulness training into the mainstream.

When I joined the team, they were in the middle of redesigning a new website and developing a new tiered-membership dashboard. I fit right in, and it was a great opportunity for me to practice my Content Management System development skills, to apply my coding skills (HTML, CSS, and JavaScript), and to use my User Interface design skills. Our web team was able to launch the new rebranded website, test out the beta version of the dashboard, and develop a sustainable web system that dynamically connected to the content database. My work at IOM taught me to quickly adapt to an environment that is constantly changing. It gave me the ability to be versatile and creatively apply what I know (knowledge | learning) to what is happening (understanding | experience).

Never underestimate the value of process iteration

In addition to the co-op, I participated in another intensive co-curricular project. Meeting on a weekly basis with our faculty advisors, our five-person team was able to launch the portfolio showcase site called Inspire&Influence,  presenting six experiential projects completed by College of Professional Studies students. Within a 12-week period, we conducted research (see at right our User Research dashboard), built a responsive live-site in WordPress, and developed documentations for the next student team. We developed resourceful design systems and structured content collection to ensure the sustainability of the site. Today, the site has grown significantly with 26 featured projects and a recently-launched YouTube channel.

 Prototyping a new media venture

Last summer, I landed my third co-curricular project as the Design Lead to prototype a brand new media start-up venture called NUMedia. Sponsored by Associate Provost David Park, and guided by CPS faculty members Christina Inge, Ed Powers, and Carl Zangerl, our five-member team had this charge: Design a media-rich site to amplify student voices across the global university network.

My work on the Husky Communications and Inspire&Influence sites helped me accelerate the design process. During a six-week design sprint, the team performed user research, developed the brand, created content, and built a WordPress site. We experimented with a variety of ways to tell stories. At the end of the project, our team was very honored to get the opportunity to present the prototype to university communication and marketing leaders. The result: The NUMedia venture is moving forward in 2022 as a unique experiential learning opportunity for even more CPS and NU students.

Experiential learning gives students the safe space to engage, experiment, and evolve; therefore to figure out where you fit in and how your capabilities can make lasting impacts. But beyond all of that, experiential learning taught me to be a leader in my field, not only taking part in the development of digital channels, but also in educating my network on how to work hand-in-hand confidently with technology.

Defining my calling

During the final term of my graduate program, I dedicated my thesis to explore the reasons behind why end consumers like you and me end up wasting food and buying more food than we intend to eat. I want to understand the challenges facing ordinary consumers, and how we can find effective ways to help them managing their food consumption wisely. Over a 12-week period, I was able to develop a digital product solution: A food inventory and management app prototype to not only help users keep track of produce they have at home, but also to educate them on how to store them properly.

Understanding how critical the issue of climate change is and how meaningful it is to take part in solving this global problem, I want to dedicate my career in to the design of sustainable solutions that help our communities thrive and be aware of our role in saving our planet. My current goal is to explore whether I can bring this app prototype to market.

In my opinion, experiential learning – in all the curricular and co-curricular projects I’ve described – has given me the opportunity to grow as a person and a professional in digital design. The more we practice what we are learn, the better we get at doing it. Just as athletes exercise regularly to build their muscles and improve their performance, experiential learning sharpens a student’s expertise and ability to advance professionally. But beyond that, it is the perfect medium for students to align their work with  what they truly believe and are passionate about. It certainly has for me.

Posted by Raissa Talehata, CPS’21

Here are the three websites Raissa helped to design and implement:

  • Husky Communications, a digital communication and PR agency
  • Inspire&Influence, a site showcasing the experiential work of College of Professional Studies students
  • NUMedia, a media venture amplifying student voices across the global university network