Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota

Issues Advocacy: First Generation Initiative

Endorsement:

“After a series of conversations, we decided David Henderson was the best fit for us, and the one who saw and understood best what we needed to do.

We began working with David in January, and it has been a fast and furious pace since. What I can say in the short time that David has been with us is that he is bringing our organization to a level that, previously, we had only imagined. David’s understanding and approach has challenged us to think in new sorts of ways, and is helping a century old university convey in a powerful way who it is and how to most effectively achieve it’s dreams by communicating that in a way that works in our digital age.

Besides David’s extraordinary skill and precision in his craft, he is one of those rare human beings with a gift for connecting with that which is most important in people. By quickly finding the deepest aspiration in another, David has a unique ability to blend together these aspirations and harmonize them into an artistic symphony. This gift, of extraordinary value, has great power to change our world.”

~ Brother Ed Siderewicz, FSC, Special Assistant to the President, Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota.

Situation:

Screenshot: FirstGenerationStories.org

Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota in Winona, MN, may be not be one of the largest centers of higher education but the university is a creative powerhouse of exciting, ground-breaking programs that have far-reaching impact and value.

Best known, perhaps, is Fred de Sam Lazaro’s Under-Told Stories Project at St. Mary’s, a program that combines international journalism and teaching. His remarkable stories air regularly on PBS NewsHour.

Thus, when News Strategies LLC contacted by Lasallian Brother Ed Siderewicz to help enhance awareness for a new program using the approach of brand journalism, we immediately agreed.

Brother Ed – as he prefers to be called – is one of the visionary leaders of the pioneering First Generation Initiative (FGI) at Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota. It is a special program developed to help and empower youth who are financially disadvantaged with a chance at higher education. The program’s focus is to provide the academic support and mentoring they need to help make their dreams come true.

Saint Mary’s FGI is one of the nation’s most comprehensive solutions for first-generation students. What makes FGI unique – compared to other programs for economically disadvantaged learners – is that the program partners with multiple middle and high schools in low-income communities to create a seamless education from middle school to high school to college.

“The reality and potential is that it has a transformational effect on the families and communities that surround these children in the urban communities from which they come. We have watched it,” Brother Ed says.

Through discussion with Brother Ed and Dr. Jane Anderson, the distinguished academic director of the program, we developed consensus that a storytelling brand journalism website was the best direction. Not hard news stories but rather stories, openly and transparently told, about personal value and importance.

A few of the First Generation scholars ham it up for the camera.

In order to achieve the program’s outreach objectives as quickly as possible, we would bring alive the core value and purpose of First Generation Initiative through the faces, voices and stories of students who benefit from the program.

FirstGenerationStories.org has become our platform for the stories.

Strategy:

It was a contrarian journalistic approach to quickly building awareness and appealing. Rather than the typical, boring (and somewhat narcissistic) style of talking “about” a program, we asked students to share their personal stories – hardships, challenges, achievements and dreams. This credible approach … first-person storytelling … has catapulted awareness and interest for First Generation Initiative. Its value immediately shines.

Driven by the power of WordPress, using a custom theme by Solostream.com and design by TM Design, we built the site and published 12 stories within two weeks. What has happened since is pure magic – the site’s popularity and online ranking have taken off like a rocket!

            • U.S. online ranking of under 100,000, according to Alexa.com, within two weeks … and still climbing! That’s almost unheard-of.
            • Favorable and enhance nationwide funder support.
            • Greater awareness for First Generation Initiative before the media and among academic communities.

 

The lesson to be learned – if a variation on brand journalism works so effectively for this trend-setting university program, think how powerful it can be at other centers of higher education to underscore the critical importance of education in America.