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The Communicator


Alumni credit capstone classroom project for helping jump-start their careers

Sustainable Communities Collaborative provided real-life experience and valuable opportunity

Photo of Marikit Mendiola and Sara Jacques
Alumni Marikit Mendiola (left) and Sara Jacques were part of an in-class effort the helped them get a strong start on their careers.

A lot of times college students are uncertain about what they want to do with their careers post-graduation. That was the case for two recent Penn State graduates, Marikit Mendiola and Sara Jacques, before a group project for the Sustainable Communities Collaborative (SCC) helped them connect with the Centre Region Council of Governments (CRCOG) to find opportunities and a new passion.

Jacques and Mendiola were both advertising and public relations majors taking their final capstone course, COMM 473, in the spring of 2020 before graduating that May. At the start of their final public relations course, neither Jacques nor Mendiola knew where they would end up after graduation, but that wouldn’t be the case for long.

The SCC is one of Penn State’s Sustainability Institute programs that is designed to facilitate engaged scholarship as part of the institute’s outreach mission. In their capstone course, Jacques and Mendiola were assigned a group project that closely modeled a public relations campaign. Their “client,” provided by the SCC, for the assignment was CRCOG.

“The campaign’s objective was to get residents to waste less food, and it was a lot of issue advocacy,” Jacques said. “Nobody really knows about food waste as an issue, so a lot of it was about raising awareness, which we did through a social media campaign, different in-person flyers, a website, and a lot of PR.”

Engaged scholarship refers to the integration of education and community development and is a key component of SCC. In return, engaged scholarship became a vital aspect of the campaign Jacques and Mendiola were working on, as they developed a partnership between SCC and the CRCOG to further sustainability efforts in the State College community.

There’s a lot of value in doing college work that’s actually relevant to the real world. I think engaged scholarship should be the future of academia because what use is knowledge if it is not working in our world?”

Sara Jacques

“There’s a lot of value in doing college work that’s actually relevant to the real world,” Jacques said. “I think engaged scholarship should be the future of academia because what use is knowledge if it is not working in our world?”

Jacques and Mendiola each found a post-graduate opportunity through their valuable work for SCC. Phood Solutions, a B2B company that sells software designed to prevent food waste, noticed the work Jacques, Mendiola, and COMM 473 were doing for the State College community’s sustainability efforts.

The class was able to get SCC and the CROG’s sustainability work picked up in the press, which then prompted Phood to reach out to Tara Wyckoff, the capstone’s professor, to ask if any of the graduating seniors would be interested in a PR position for the company.

Mendiola served as a public relations specialist for Phood Solutions until this past January, when she decided to focus on her Masters of Social Welfare, a program she is in at UCLA. Jacques began as a public relations specialist for Phood but was recently promoted to her current position, the head of marketing for the company. Jacques and Mendiola agreed that their work for SCC not only got them a job right out of college but contributed to their post-graduate success.

“You definitely learn more by doing,” Mendiola said. “As I started to do our project, I started to get really passionate about sustainability and social work. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do yet, but it was then that I started to get excited about UCLA’s program.”

“Learning about food waste through this project obviously put me on a career trajectory for the rest of my life,” Jacques said.

The benefits of their capstone work with engaged scholarship went beyond just securing Jacques and Mendiola their first careers.

“I feel like I became so passionate about doing something that is benefitting and changing the world because of that project,” Mendiola said. “Getting passionate about sustainability, and then social justice, tied back to social welfare, which is the program I am in now.”

“You think about the humanities, and it’s like thinking of concepts and systems and ideologies that nobody cares about, but all of these things have real-world implications, so how do you take that and do something with it?” Jacques said. “That’s something I was feeling really lost with my senior year of college, but engaged scholarship really helped me shape that career path.”

The SCC connects Penn State faculty, students, and staff with local communities to address sustainability challenges through an engaged, collaborative effort. Each project is facilitated and involves faculty expertise and students from across the academic spectrum, co-led by a key community leader and the University’s SCC staff, to help develop and support thriving, healthy communities and advance student learning about the scholarship of sustainability. Projects and partnerships are celebrated at the end of each semester with an Expo that brings together community, university, and students to share their experiences, opportunities, and sustainability achievements.