Developing a Meaningful Personal Portfolio in Strategic Communication

Dr. Mark Fackler is a Professor in the Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership online program where he teaches the 503: Communication as Vocation and Calling course. Graduates of the online Masters of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership (MSCL) program at Spring Arbor University are above all masters at communicating who and what companies and organizations are, expressing a brand’s messaging both within and beyond their organizations. The online MSCL program is the only program of its kind in the U.S. where mentors share valuable professional development tips, personalized support and insight throughout the program. Faculty member Dr. Mark Fackler evaluates mentors in the online master’s program. Known as a leading Christian communication scholar and author of books on ethics and intercultural communication, Dr. Fackler matches incoming students with a seasoned mentor who coaches them in navigating their chosen professions. The mentorship aspect of the online program has proven to be a game changer for Spring Arbor University’s online master’s students in communications.

The Value of Master’s Degree

“One of the things that a good master’s degree does is challenge you to take a bigger bite out of the world and test your skill sets in a larger arena,” says Dr. Fackler. He folds in critical elements of personal and spiritual integration to that vocational equation. “Young, mid-professionals and seasoned professionals have all accomplished things professionally because their lives require work, but the focus or internal commitment isn’t necessarily always there.” According to, while the biggest lure of a master’s degree is increased earning potential, in some fields work experience is given equal weight. They recommend spending a few years building up work experience and doing a master’s later in life to combine its value with that of job experience.

Developing Connection with Your Vocation as a Christian

Personal reflection plays a central role in Dr. Fackler’s “Communication as Vocation and Calling” course, which he designed and developed for the online MSCL program. In the course, which continues throughout each student’s master’s degree program, the professor seeks to provoke their experience of an “aha-moment” — a moment of recognition that excites students to make a contribution that will satisfy them as well as satisfy the world. In his course, Christian-based readings are assigned that explore the meaning of vocation in all areas of communication and leadership.

“If you’ve developed your personal portfolio wherever you’re working in a responsible and collegial way, then in your next job interview you’ll have something to talk about.” -Dr. Mark Fackler

How do communications leaders integrate personal and professional growth while seeking to make a difference and practice their faith in an observance of ambition over greed? Whether it’s in corporate work or in the non-profit sector, Dr. Fackler’s students are asked how they will best contribute to the world in meaningful ways. In his online course, students explore their career opportunities and vocational goals to develop a sustainable professional growth plan, with the help of mentors. Then their ambition is grounded in humility, stewardship and service. It’s a uniquely benevolent look at one’s calling and where students fit in to the working world that’s part of the Christian faith imbued in SAU programs. Dr. Fackler helps students reflect on why they’re doing what they’re doing and how the gospel of Christ makes an impact. He stresses the need for students to reflect the values of the scriptures in what they do. He selects a range of readings that include Christian authors as well as The New York Times best-selling authors. Then the professor asks them to dig deeper and reflect. “The purpose is for the student to consider and reflect on the values they already have rather than to study substantive communication theory,” Dr. Fackler explains.

Innovation and Inspiration in a Personal Communication Portfolio

Innovation is one of the ways Master of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership faculty encourage SAU’s online students to stretch further in developing a strong personal communication portfolio. In a list of top ten elements recommended for inclusion in a communicator’s portfolio, ends with “Inspirational Work”, following Lead-Generation Content, Pitch Deck, Interesting Bio, Informative Blog Post, Personal Blog Post, Sample of Research and Synthesis, Demonstration of Versatility, Bylined Article and News Release. An inspirational work takes audiences on a journey and engages them intellectually and emotionally. Dr. Fackler explains that the goal of public relations in corporate North America is finding ways to attract customers. In his example of entrepreneurial and creative thinking that focused on a non-profit initiative, he tells a story of how an outside-the-box thinker created a project intended to help others and bring good to the world, adding meaning and inspiration to a personal portfolio that students can develop. Dr. Fackler describes a situation where, in creating something new in a “Color Out the Darkness” project, someone took the risk of saying “I’m going to hang a shingle. I’ve got an idea for you. Let me present it. This is going to take some effort.” He describes the impact of this on a personal communication portfolio that can be presented at an interview. “It’s an example of trying something that has more risk in it. If you can get an innovation started, and sell it as helpful to the agency, imagine the confidence that comes to you if you have established something new in an organization that you had no prior stake in. If you’ve developed your personal portfolio wherever you’re working with responsibility and collegiality, then in your next job interview you’ll have something to talk about.”

Color Out the Darkness for Ronald McDonald House

Currently at a local Ronald McDonald House in Michigan, an artist is negotiating a room in the house to host a Color Out the Darkness event to provide families with access to a space where they can create something uplifting and beautiful. Color Out the Darkness offers workshops that enable people to create and display something beautiful to help them experience joy and meaning through coloring. “Ronald McDonald House has a constituency that’s built in. What do you do with them when they are in your house? There’s more to be done than clean the sheets,” Dr. Fackler adds. The Color Out the Darkness project for Ronald McDonald House is an example of an innovative, not-for-profit idea that someone has taken the initiative to try to communicate and sell to a corporation.

Conquering the Unfamiliar as a Strategic Communicator

To further help students gain confidence as communicators, Dr. Fackler incorporates into his curriculum obligatory meetings between students and corporate leaders that students themselves research, initiate and execute. Students in Dr. Fackler’s fourth-term course “Communication as Vocation and Calling” are faced with the challenge of contacting an outside company’s senior executive and conducting an audit of their communications products and strategies. They not only reach out to executive leadership and successfully convince them to reveal their corporate messaging in a discussion, they then critique the corporate brand or messaging and suggest ways it can be improved. The purpose, according to Dr. Fackler, is to instill self-confidence in master's students who will become empowered to lead as communicators."What is courage all about?” he asks. “You can lose your job over it. Or you can help mature the organization you work for." A mid-career student once responded to this by saying, “Whoa, what do you mean, do I have to go out and do a cold call and presume that I have something to offer?” It was clear the student was prepared to read the books, but lacked confidence. “Almost everybody has needs that are not met,” Dr. Fackler insists, “and they are usually communication related: selling the corporation or agency, budget tightness, thinking creatively about an old message or interpersonal challenges.”. “Go and meet somebody and establish enough rapport so they will share their brochures,” he instructs his students. “Then go back and offer suggestions for improvement. We’re going to presume you know a lot and have something to offer.” Students carry this out in conjunction with their assigned mentor. The mentor, an experienced professional in the field, helps students to think it through. After students get through it, they feel good about having learned and contributed something of value.

“What is courage all about? You can lose your job over it. Or you can help mature the organization you work for.” -Dr. Mark Fackler

Dr. Fackler describes an example of another student who is in the medical arm of the army — a structured organization with protocols — who is wondering whether this is her life’s calling. Mark’s course helps students examine why they’ve been doing what they’ve been doing and decide what’s in their heart to do. Through his course, they are asked, “How is your emotional life and self-confidence? Is it strong enough to make this happen?”

Strategic Communications in the Workplace

“The program doesn’t draw many students who have had corporate experience and want to move up the corporate ladder. The kind of student who tends to enroll at SAU doesn’t have AT&T in mind. If they did, they would likely pursue an MA in a program with East Coast prestige, where branding is key and where networking gets you in the door. At SAU, there’s a self-selection of students,” Dr. Fackler explains. Kristine Kuhl, one of the MCSL graduates who participated in the mentoring program, worked as a Quality Improvement/Quality Assurance Supervisor at a large prehospital care agency, overseeing the delivery of direct patient care by EMS professionals throughout many Michigan counties. Her transformation occurred through self-reflection and discussions of her professional direction with her mentor, Dr. David Rawson, whose professional insights and personalized support encouraged her to examine her true calling. “We do have students that have business experience, enough to know that working in large organizations gets complicated” Dr. Fackler adds. “Working in small organizations is also complicated, because human beings are complicated. But in small organizations you have more contact with people. In a large corporation, every layer is accountable to the layer up, so you have a lot of dynamics at play in corporate life that makes access to important players difficult.”

The Mentoring Program: Where Ambition and Excitement Meet Experience

Dr. Fackler and other faculty guide students in the practice of becoming a master in one’s vocation while being true to one’s faith and to oneself. In describing the value of the mentorship program, he adds, “A mentor doesn’t only advise students how they fit in with the working world; student retention has also been helped as a result. A master’s program is a skills acquisition and a mid-career check on where you are and where you want to go. SAU takes it a step further by hiring a mentor for each student. There’s no direct payback to the university in terms of a revenue stream.” He reflects that the mentoring aspect is a profound experience for students and many have commented about how deeply conversations with someone they respect, have caused them to make a turn and affected their lives. SAU chooses their mentors carefully; they are individuals who are continually growing and who help others to take the courage to grow a little too. Dr. Fackler describes the “Communication as Vocation and Calling” course he teaches as being one that instills that attitude and excites the ambitions of the students. “With the mentor, students can test their own ambitions against someone with a little experience who can give them some perspective. Whether that growth is in corporate — where you have to be mindful of many levels of people who are worried they might not get the next promotion — or in a non-profit, you’ve got to be ready to respond to those people with grace, magnanimity and charity. That’s part of being a Communications leader too.” The online Masters of Arts in Strategic Communication and Leadership program helps students reach that level and budget a next step.