The Diederich Experiences relaunch with flair as a cohort of communication students explore career opportunities with Marquette alumni on the captivating island of Puerto Rico.
By Ann Christenson, CJPA ’91
The trip was a whirlwind, and it almost didn’t happen. A unique experience program that allies Diederich College of Communication students with alumni and other professionals who work in their fields of study was set to return over the 2021 winter break — after a two-year pandemic-related absence — when the COVID-19 Omicron variant hit. To the relief of the 10 students set to embark on the trip, the stars aligned over spring break 2022, and those students, joined by Marquette faculty and staff, were able to make the more than 2,000-mile journey to the island of Puerto Rico to get a feel for what it’s like to work as a broadcast and print journalist or public relations and marketing professional in the vibrant, history-rich capital city of San Juan.
The four-day trip was a defining one for the students, many of whom were in the last months of their college careers. With a combined study of journalism, digital media and Latinx studies — and as a Latina student herself — Alexa Jurado, Comm ’22, says it was “nice to see minorities that are successful at what they do.”
The trip would not have happened but for the vision of Marquette alumnus Bernardo Fiol-Costa, CJPA ’93, president and founder of the public relations/digital marketing firm The Big Think Group in San Juan, and Diederich College Dean Sarah Feldner. “It was April 2020, during the pandemic,” Fiol-Costa recalls. “We were all in lockdown, bored. I started looking at Marquette’s website and what the university has been doing and doing for the best.”
Impressed with what Marquette has accomplished in the last 30 years, on a whim, he emailed Feldner, looking for a way to give back. His story and interest resonated with Feldner, and that culminated with Fiol-Costa and his family making a trip back to Milwaukee. Touring the campus, meeting with the dean and reconnecting with “this super-high-tech and wonderful” university that “gave me so many opportunities” planted the seeds for the Puerto Rico Experience.
Feldner summed up the Puerto Rico Experience with a note of acknowledgment: “We are grateful to have opportunities like the Diederich Experiences that allow our students a unique chance to explore the field of communication. Having Bernardo on the ground in San Juan, paving the way and setting up our visits to local agencies and media outlets, was a gift that created an incredibly rich experience for all of us.”
The Diederich Experiences premiered in spring 2017 with a trip to Los Angeles in which six digital media and journalism students met with Marquette alumni in film and television. The college followed that successful immersion with three new experiences the following year: in Chicago twice, once for advertising students and then again for journalism students, and in New York City for theatre arts students. The itineraries are jam-packed, the students motivated and the alumni eager to show off their industries. The program has been a big hit among students and alumni alike.
Fiol-Costa served as host for this Puerto Rico retreat, using his connections on the island to set up tours, networking events and meet-and-greets with its many communication professionals. “It was a very hands-on experience,” he says. The itinerary was also rigorous. The first professional event introduced students to some of Fiol-Costa’s company clients — from T-Mobile to the Chrysler Group.
The day after they arrived on the island, the students kicked off their survey of the communication field, visiting the offices of GFR Media, which operates two newspapers in Puerto Rico, El Nuevo Dia and Primera Hora. With aspirations of being a print news reporter, Jurado says the stories she heard from the papers’ reporters suggested their commitment to service. “The impact they had on the political corruption there … reaffirmed what I want to do and inspired me,” Jurado says. How the news source handled a major natural disaster — 2017’s devastating Hurricane Maria — gave the students a better understanding of how breaking, world-changing news is covered.
For Riley Lade, Comm ’22, the GFR journalists’ collaborative approach to other media covering the same story was eye-opening, a point in time where work and real life intersected. “GFR was the only hub up and running while Puerto Rico was in shambles,” Lade says. “They opened up their doors to everyone. They were able to house people at their offices.”
Piggybacking on their visit with the GFR Media team and amid the “afternoon business rush,” as Fiol-Costa called it, the Marquette crew landed at advertising/communication agency DDB Latina Puerto Rico, whose clients include Walmart and L’Oréal Caribe. Hearing the executives talk about how they tell stories through ad campaigns and work closely with clients gave them a taste of different careers, explains Jurado. “If I ever wanted to pivot to PR and advertising, I have an idea of the things I can do.”
The final visit of their experience was to WAPA-TV, which included tours of the newsroom and TV studio and a through-the-lens look at covering the news as it’s unfolding. From behind the rolling cameras, the students watched the anchor in the thick of her daily newscast. When the cameras unexpectedly turned to them for a quick shoutout, they waved to viewers. “It was so unexpected and cool,” says Lade, who has recently embarked on a digital media career as a video assistant for Marquette.
Another student, Rachel Ryan, Grad ’22, who has since earned her master’s degree in digital communication strategies, brought to the trip her experience in marketing for the EAA Aviation Center in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. With a goal of being a storyteller in journalism or sales and marketing, Ryan says she was excited to see the work opportunities in Puerto Rico and make connections with the professionals there. Alumni, too — with whom the students were able to connect at an evening reception in their hotel and at a dinner hosted by Tim Mullen, Comm ’96, who co-founded The Cervantes Group with his wife, Joanna Bauza, Bus Ad ’97. “It was good to get out of my comfort zone for language and culture,” Ryan says. “It showed me I can move somewhere else and feel comfortable.”
The schedule also made room for exploration of the old city of San Juan, which the students found as valuable a component as the career enrichment. “Being able to experience a culture outside of the Midwest was a highlight,” says Lade. “I come from a large family and haven’t had the opportunity to travel that much. There’s so much to explore.”
In terms of big takeaways, several students say their experiences in Puerto Rico gave them an appreciation for the robust spirit and pride of Marquette alumni. Of host Fiol-Costa, Lade says, “I felt like I’d known him for 15 years. He’s passionate about what he does, which showed me what I could be.”
Hurricane Fiona ripped across Puerto Rico on Sept. 18, 2022. The storm dumped up to 30 inches of rain in some regions of the island. Catastrophic flooding, landslides, power outages and drinkable-water access have been major concerns plaguing residents ever since. If you are interested in helping Puerto Rico at this difficult time, please consider contributing to ConPRmetidos, an independent nonprofit organization that works with grassroots organizations to activate an immediate relief and recovery plan. Visit conprmetidos.org.