By Clarence C. Picard
In the world of mass communications, there is perhaps no bigger, more important place to be than New York City. Whether it’s print, television, radio or digital media, New York provides pathways to communicate to the world, as well as an audience always thirsting for more content.
Each year countless college students and new graduates flock to the city to test themselves against the best and brightest. While the eventual payoff may bring fame, notoriety and the opportunity to speak to millions, simply getting started is often the most difficult task.
On top of the high cost of living, just finding an internship can prove to be a daunting challenge. In light of these obstacles, the ability to place interns at the Rockefeller Center studios of SiriusXM Radio in New York City each year is a serious advantage that St. Bona-venture offers its journalism and mass communication majors.
For the last several years, St. Bonaventure students have found a home at SiriusXM, a multi-billion-dollar audio entertainment company that provides more than 135 channels of commercial-free music and premier sports, news, talk, entertainment and comedy, as well as traffic and weather.
The Importance of Internships
One of the great strengths of the Russell J. Jandoli School of Journalism and Mass Communication is that it requires students to complete 400 internship hours in order to graduate. According the Lee Coppola, J/MC dean for the last 15 years, SBU’s required hours are not the norm.
“It’s unusual in the sense that we require it. Other institutions urge their students to obtain internships, but they don’t require it. I think it’s a very important requirement as part of our program. I think it’s necessary for all of those elements that help a student,” he said.
The recently retired dean described the importance of internships for a journalism student.
“I think any internship opportunity helps students, not only to be better prepared for the professional field in which they choose to enter, but also to help determine if that is the field they want to enter. It’s a real-life experience. It helps the student make connections and start to network,” said Coppola.
Pat Vecchio, lecturer in the Jandoli School, said students can complete 100 of their hours on campus with the Buzz radio station, The Bona Venture student newspaper, the Bonadieu yearbook or The Laurel literary magazine. The remaining 300 hours must be completed in “a professional workplace with professional supervision,” said Vecchio.
The advent of digital communication has made the workplace component less of a priority, but it is still important to a student’s growth, he said. “They can learn from a communications professional what they’re doing right, what their weaknesses are, what their strengths are, and suggested areas for more improvement and growth… You want a professional workplace so they can see how things work, they can get a sense of the interpersonal dynamics of a workplace.”
The program not only helps current undergraduates, but it helps attract new ones.
“When I talk to parents (and) when I talk to students, I explain the internship program. I explain how important the connections are,” Coppola said.
“It’s a tremendous boon to our program. I point that out and stress that to prospective students, and especially their parents. When you have the network that we have, it’s a phenomenal asset to the students,” added Coppola.
Working in The City
Through a competitive application process, St. Bonaventure selects the students who will receive the financial support to work at SiriusXM. This year, more than a dozen students applied and three journalism and mass communication majors were selected: Averi Ahsmann, ’11, ’12 (IMC); Emily Deragon, ’12; and Heather Grzasko, ’13.
Jim Meyer, president of sales and operations at SiriusXM since 2004, said, “I have to tell you, while I don’t pick them and the school does, every single intern from St. Bonaventure has exceeded what we expected.”
“SiriusXM is a very fun, vibrant media business, and headquartered in midtown Manhattan, it’s also a very exciting environment,” said Meyer.
Meyer graduated from St. Bonaventure with an economics degree in 1976 and a MBA in 1979, and has served on the University’s Board of Trustees since 2007. His wife, Nina (Koebel), graduated with a journalism degree in 1979.
Ahsmann is participating in her second internship at SiriusXM this summer.
“I wanted to intern (at SiriusXM) because one of my friends did it and had a great experience. I wanted to go into public relations and thought if I could get an internship at SiriusXM it would be a great experience,” she said.
One of the great advantages of working at an organization like SiriusXM is the variety of fields a student can work in.
In her first year, Ahsmann wrote blogs and maintained social media for “The Derek & Romaine Show” on OutQ (SiriusXM channel 108).
This summer, she’s working with the public relations team promoting talk and entertainment programming for SiriusXM.
“I’ve been helping write press releases and media alerts, as well as listening to interviews with celebrities and other notable guests and pulling quotes that are PR-worthy for the media. I have also been working with different events, ranging from Lady Gaga on Oprah Radio to OutQ’s coverage of marriage equality and gay rights," Ahsmann said.
Coppola said it made sense for SiriusXM to bring back interns.
“It’s a wonderful opportunity for the students and once they get there and prove that they can perform, then they apply again. It’s only human nature to say, ‘they did a pretty darn good job last time, let’s bring them back,’” he said.
It isn’t just the traditional broadcasting and public relations-related fields in which students can train. Deragon is working in the creative marketing branch, helping with the development of ad campaigns that reach millions of people.
“We are working on marketing the idea that SiriusXM is everywhere; not just in your car, but home radio systems, on the go, apps, and Internet radio. I’m creating copy and images for it,” Deragon said.
Along with exciting work opportunities, the interns learn other valuable skills while spending their summer in New York City.
The St. Bonaventure interns at SiriusXM have been from small towns and big cities alike, but they’ve all made the transition to New York City. According to Meyer, they have thrived.
“These kids learn how to manage living and working in New York City, the biggest city in the country, and I’ve been extremely impressed with how they deal with the fast pace,” Meyer said.
The success of previous St. Bonaventure interns allows each new group to join SiriusXM with confidence.
Grzasko, who is interning in music programming, didn’t have reservations about working in New York.
“I love it. The transition was exciting for me. I was more eager and excited than nervous,” said Grzasko, who is from Syracuse. “This experience has been so inspiring. It has raised the bar for where I want my professional career to go.”
Another point Meyer stresses is the number of connections working at a place like SiriusXM can provide.
“What students don’t understand when they’re 19-20-21 years old is how many résumés companies get,” he said. “What I want them to get out of this assignment in New York is a network of people they have worked with.
“The ability to stay in touch and network is crucial in today’s business world; a cold call is really hard to do. It’s so much easier to land a job when you have a note from a colleague that says, ‘Hey, this individual interned for me and did a very good job.’ It gives you an edge,” added Meyer.
“If you’re interning at SiriusXM and getting great reviews, as our students do, people at an operation like that are going to be willing to help these students out when they graduate and are looking for jobs. They might not necessarily land a job at SiriusXM, but they can contact people there and say, ‘Do you know anybody who might be willing to help me out?’ An internship like SiriusXM is really a tremendous opportunity for our students,” he said.
The relationship between SBU and SiriusXM is not coincidental.
While preparing for a lunch with Sr. Margaret Carney, O.S.F., early in her tenure as university president, Meyer was brushing up on some of her writings, trying to get a sense of the challenges facing his alma mater. One of his major goals was to find a way to support the students.
“My wife and I knew that living in New York during an internship at SiriusXM would be difficult for any college kid to shoulder,” said Meyer. “But we thought it would be good to take the economic pressure off the kids so they could take this opportunity to not just come to SiriusXM, but to work in New York City.”
Now, through scholarship funds donated specifically for this use, St. Bonaventure is able to provide selected students with money for housing and transportation to ensure that they can comfortably make the transition to a summer in the Big Apple.
Why St. Bonaventure University
Though St. Bonaventure journalism students come from different backgrounds with different career ambitions, Meyer was able to note a theme he has seen in his company’s interns from SBU.
“The common thread among these students is they come to work prepared with a solid ability to communicate clearly and effectively,” he said.
Not surprising to any St. Bonaventure journalism student, the strengths Meyer notes are honed since Day 1 on campus.
“We are so fundamentally focused on writing, and I don’t know how many other journalism or mass communication programs instill in their students during their beginning years the importance of using the English language properly. I think that’s what sets our intern applicants apart from others, their ability to write,” Coppola said.
At just a few weeks into her internship, Emily Deragon already saw her SBU training coming into effect.
“Bona’s drilled into my brain attention to detail. This is helping me really focus on the details of all pieces, and look for the flaws that might be in a piece. Even though this isn’t a ‘journalism’ internship, asking good questions is helping me learn so much more,” Deragon said.
Meyer concluded, “We hire a lot of interns, but we can’t slow down to teach basic skills. Happily, we don’t need to. St. Bonaventure students come well prepared.”
(Clarence Picard, ’05, is the admissions communications coordinator at the University and has coached SBU’s men’s rugby team since 2006.)