For almost four decades, communicators in such fields as journalism, public relations, advertising, film and more, have arrived on campus to participate in a weeklong series of lectures, programs, viewings and receptions known as Comm Week.
The high-impact practice, part of a communications course in event planning, calls for students to handle all the details needed to produce a major event, from booking up to 80 speakers and arranging flights, hotel accommodations and event locations, to catering and promotion.
Faculty adviser Dennis Gashen oversaw the students’ work for 16 years, until his colleague Waleed Rashidi took over in 2012.
Students apply, are interviewed and selected by the instructor for such the positions as CEO, CFO and directors for logistics, scheduling and communications. At semester’s end, their grades are based on how well they performed their duties and peer evaluations.
“I remember one year I had a class of 19 students, and I was describing what it was going to be like to plan the week,” Gaschen said. “After I was finished, I took them over to the Titan Student Union where the event would be held and I lost eight students along the way!
“I guess they were scared off!” he laughed. “But students need to go into this with their eyes open. While the class has a reputation for being very time-consuming, if they want real-world experience, they’ll get it.”
In 2002, Michelle Barwick ’03 (B.A. communications-public relations) was Comm Week’s scheduling and logistics chair. She returned the next year as executive director.
“The experience I gained absolutely prepared me for my current role,” said Barwick, now alliance marketing special events manager at Disneyland Parks and Resorts. “In fact, one of the reasons I was hired at Disneyland was based on my Comm Week experience. I work on very large press events, where there may be as many as 1,000 media outlets present. Having scheduled hundreds of classes and speakers for Comm Week gave me the experience I needed for my role at Disney.”
This year’s Comm Week CEO, Zach Balich, a junior majoring in communications, also credits the program for providing him with valuable experience.
“It was a lot of work,” he said with a smile. “But the team was great. In a typical classroom, you’re talking to the person on your left and on your right. In this class, you’re talking to everyone. There’s real camaraderie.”
Balich also credits Rashidi for “mentally preparing” the students.
“He let us know right from the start how time-consuming and difficult this would be,” Balich said. “He’s great; he made sure we knew what to expect.”
“We focus more on process than product,” Gaschen said. “Planning an event of this size is something most students have never done. They not only have to learn time management, team work, planning and delivering on deadline, but also how to anticipate and adapt to problems as they arise, from traffic that blocks streets, to speakers who don’t show up and equipment malfunctions.
“Something always happens,” Gaschen said. “One year we had to evacuate the building because our popcorn machine malfunctioned. We were smoked out. The trick is to anticipate as many problems as possible and not to panic. … And don’t serve popcorn.”
“Each year has been different,” said Rashidi. “Some teams hit the ground running. Others take longer to get off the ground. But by the end of the semester, students know how to plan a major event.
“In fact, the entire campus teaches them,” Rashidi added. “If they make a mistake or miss a deadline, they discover the consequences. They have to make arrangements with parking, the Titan Student Union, catering, accounting, faculty, communications …
“I see myself as a coach,” Rashidi continued. “I help students address specific issues, but my theory is ‘train ’em and trust ’em.'”