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Visual communications alumni maintain strong connections with students
Professor and three alumni meet

​“When our students land great internships and jobs, we all win,” says Visual Communications Prof. Bill Deering, pictured here with former students Jessie Harte, Eric Leighton and Michelle Lobien.

Imagine navigating the streets of Manhattan on a perfect autumn day, strolling from one hotshot advertising agency to the next, whizzing past security because you’re with Very Important People — art directors and graphic designers who work in the job of your dreams, all eager to share their insights, experience and advice in hopes that you, too, may someday open doors for students to follow.

For almost three decades, the University of Delaware’s Visual Communications (VC) program in the Department of Art and Design has brought current undergraduates, mostly juniors and seniors, to some of NYC's top design firms, where they meet and interact with dozens of prominent alumni.

Leaving Old College around 6:30 a.m., students spend a full day in the city, touring agencies, meeting Blue Hens and building their professional network well before graduation. And because love and loyalty for the VC program run so deep, it is not uncommon for alumni to return to campus to advise and mentor current students. This unique exchange is a hallmark of UD and the natural extension of a discipline where “who you know” relies primarily on talent.  

“A UD alumnus means that person has passed through the gauntlet, that their foundation is one of hard work, accountability and creativity,” said Larry Pipitone. Shortly after graduating in 2008, he and fellow Blue Hens Eric Collins and Joey Ellis co-founded Grand Army, a design firm that has done work for Nike, Beyoncé, Mountain Dew and Justin Timberlake. “The intensity of UD’s program mirrors the reality of this business. Just as this is a talent-based industry, VC is a talent-based program.”

It’s the kind of program “where you can get someone in a high place to pick up the phone,” Pipitone added. It’s how he got his first internship at Wieden+Kennedy, one of the largest advertising agencies in the world. Or how alumna Jessie Harte landed her first internship at Vogue.

“But I had to rebuild my entire portfolio before Bill [Deering, longtime director of the VC program] would even let me email the alum who worked at the publication,” she recalled.

“It’s all about strengthening portfolios and strengthening networks,” said Deering, beloved by his students for leading winter session trips to London and Paris, where the “New York day-trip” model is replicated over a month, with a focus on global brands and businesses.

“I’m competitive,” Deering said. “I like to win, and when our students land great internships and jobs, we all win.”

Group meeting in conference room

​UD alumni at global marketing agency Digitas speak to current students during their visit to the firm's offices in New York.

Case in point: After getting her first foot in the door, Harte, also class of 2008, moved onto global marketing agency Digitas, where, among her many accomplishments, she helped develop a mobile-ordering app for Taco Bell which increased average check totals by 25 percent. She also helped hire fellow Blue Hen Eric Leighton, class of 2014. In his most recent project for the company, Leighton helped rebrand the Jenn-Air product line, helping it transform from last place in a survey of luxury kitchen appliances to holding 60 percent of the brand voice.

“It was the most college-esque project I’ve worked on,” he told UD undergraduates during their New York visit. Leighton compared the process of creating logos, typefaces, digital interactions and other components to the various projects he was assigned as student — and to ones he would help assign as an alum.

Leighton, Harte and fellow alumna Michelle Lobien (class of 2013), ended their presentation by handing out a one-page case study to the UD juniors and seniors in attendance, tasking them with developing mobile-responsive websites for a variety of well-known brands, from Amtrak to the DMV.

A month later, on another perfect fall day, the three alumni returned to campus to critique the student presentations.

For two hours, the students shared the websites and apps they built, videos they created, and ideas they developed to help their brands stand out in a “sea of sameness.” For instance, students tasked with refreshing the website for The Olive Garden restaurant suggested a marketing stunt where the restaurant could cater a millennial’s Friendsgiving. Another group designed a mobile running app for Asics running shoes that prioritized women’s safety.

The alumni offered constructive feedback, and the students soaked it all in.

“We get tested and critiqued every day in class,” said senior Max Gold. “It’s the norm.”

Senior Sara Kuzmenka said similar messages from different kinds of people can matter.

“Hearing it from our professors is like hearing it from our parents,” Kuzmenka said. “Advice from alumni make it more real.”

Senior Sarah Muldoon said knowing that alumni had similar experiences helps with confidence.

“They’ve been where you’ve been, and they’ve made it out alive,” Muldoon said. “And they’re successful.”

Article by Artika Rangan Casini; photo by Kathy F. Atkinson

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Students in the Visual Communications program have the opportunity to meet and interact with alumni working at top design firms in New York and around the world.

Students in the Visual Communications program have the opportunity to meet and interact with alumni working at top design firms in New York and around the world.

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