UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a prospective student, Sydney Haykel accepted her offer of admission to Penn State sight unseen from her home in California. Even from afar, she felt a sense of community that swayed her decision — and that feeling was confirmed when she arrived on campus.
“It’s hard to describe, but the ‘We Are’ mentality comes through. It’s a culture thing,” she said. “Then, when we finally did end up visiting after I had accepted my offer it was clear.
“It’s a community and everyone wants to help each other. This isn’t me against you in class. And isn’t the point of learning helping each other to learn?”
Haykel and her classmates put that mentality into practice the past several months. Members of a 400-level public relations class were challenged to enter the nationally competitive Outstanding Student Award competition conducted by PRWeek.
Five national finalists, including three from Penn State — Haykel, Jenna Silverblatt and Yunjing Zhang — were selected from hundreds of applicants across the nation. All three make their final pitches for the competition this week, with a nationwide winner announced in the coming weeks.
“It’s certainly an honor,” said Jenna Silverblatt, who earned her bachelor’s degree in December and was part of the class with Haykel and Yunjing Zhang last fall. “It shows the strength of our public relations program in general, and especially shows the commitment of Tara Wyckoff, our professor.”
All three Penn State finalists said the peer-review part of the process was helpful and important. This is the first time Penn State has had three finalists for the award.
“I loved the work and loved the process,” Zhang said. “It’s so exciting that three of us are finalists. There was point where I thought about just doing a simple paper and not much more, but I wanted to do my best and I knew that wasn’t enough.”
The annual competition this year challenged students to create a campaign for a sustainable shoe that would be launched during fashion week in New York City. Written entries could be no more than six pages, along with supplemental material not to exceed two pages. Entrants were encouraged to include a 60-second video as well.
Silverblatt built a campaign, “Soles of the City,” that relied on brand activations centered around New York City healthcare workers and integrated the pandemic narrative into Fashion Week. She lives in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and has been working as a junior associate at Gregory FCA, Philadelphia’s largest public relations firm, since graduation.
“There was a lot to learn, a lot of work, to put together a campaign,” Silverblatt said. “Parts of it were new to me, but we were prepared well and encouraged throughout the process.”
Haykel’s campaign included influencers, gamification and art installations — showing a range of public relations strategy and tactics. Haykel serves as secretary of the Association for Women in Sports Media chapter on campus and is completing an internship with Penn State Athletics. She’s on track to graduate in May.
“My father asked me about this project, he knew it was completed in the fall, a couple days before I found out I was a finalist,” she said. “At the time, I told him there were hundreds of entries from across the country and it would be a surprise if mine advanced. But, surprise, it did.”
Zhang created a campaign, #NYFWInABox, that included activations and influencers to engage with the audience. An international student from China, she picked Penn State because of its apparent proximity to New York City (she has since learned it’s a little farther than it looks on the map) as well as the reputation of the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications.
Along with her classes this semester, Zhang is completing a virtual internship with the Houston-based firm Pierpont Communications. She also serves as diversity and inclusion chair for the Public Relations Students Society of America chapter on campus. She plans to graduate in May as well.
“It was a lot of work, creating and researching, and then putting it all together,” Zhang said. “Honestly, it was the first time I’d worked through the night on a project. I’m glad I did, though.”
Wyckoff, an assistant teaching professor, challenges her students with group projects each fall, and then follows up with the individual effort for the PRWeek award. She strives to help students become the kinds of potential employees she would hire — and the students appreciate the consistent challenges and encouragement.
“It’s encouraging to me, too,” Wyckoff said. “All of the students pulled together strong campaigns, and I’m happy for them. I’m excited to see what’s next.”