From newspapers to Nebraska Athletics, young graduates from the York College communication department are blazing new trails and finding career success in unexpected places. Here are a few of their stories.
The Newspaper Man
Zach Ahrens '01 got his start in the newspaper industry in York. He began work at the daily local paper, The York News-Times, soon after graduating with his communication degree from York College, working as a sales rep and helping to implement ‘new media’ technology that was just beginning to transform the whole business model. “I was part of the transition in the industry to online content, ads and news,” he said.
In this new digital landscape, he rapidly climbed the ranks, moving from paper to paper with increasing responsibility, from advertising director to general manager, to publisher, to vice president and then president of publishing groups, managing revenue streams at many papers. “My communication degree has helped me as the media industry is going through upheaval and disruption,” said Ahrens. It’s a challenging industry that’s being remade in this highly competitive marketplace, where everyone wants the latest news but few are willing to pay for quality journalism. It’s a 24/7 news cycle, which means there’s no rest for those in the newsroom. Journalists have to be more skilled than ever—they have to be great writers, but they also have to post to social media, modify their content across several platforms, and often be their own photographer and videographer as well.
On the other hand, the time has never been better for those in the news industry. “We have a larger reach than ever before. We have greater audience and greater content, and I can monetize both of those,” said Ahrens. It’s important work, as a strong media is vital to a strong democracy and to strong communities. “In so many ways we are the watchdog and the cheerleader for the communities we serve.”
Last November, Ahrens was featured in TK Business Magazine's "Top 20 Professionals Under 40" to recognize young professionals who are impacting the future of Topeka in a positive way. In May he accepted a new position as Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Midland Care in Topeka. "An education from YC prepares future professionals to be nimble in industries of disruption," he added.
As the director of the MBA program at Concordia University, Dr. Shannon (Sukraw) Leinen '07 has wide ranging responsibilities from hiring faculty to designing courses to teaching in- person and online. Her favorite part of the job? Working with adult learners, many of whom are looking for a new direction mid-career. “The material is so real-life applicable to them,” she said. “I’m helping them find greater life satisfaction because they gain a new skill set and the confidence to go out and apply for their dream job, or to start their own business.”
Leinen’s interests are varied, as evidenced by her eclectic educational background: she earned three master’s degrees and a PhD in communication, business, and instructional technology. All of those areas of study are combined in her current position, enabling her to touch the lives of her students and the companies they work for. She also runs an organizational development clinic in Lincoln, Nebraska, pairing her students with local entities that need help. “I recruit small businesses, non-profits, and entrepreneurs that are struggling or don’t know what to do next or need some advice but maybe can’t pay for it,” she said. From radio stations to restaurants, Leinen’s MBA students come alongside these struggling businesses to assist with marketing initiatives, copyright issues, grant writing, financial planning, and myriad other tasks.
If small businesses are the engine of growth for economies, the work Leinen is doing is vital to the health of the state and nation. “It’s wonderful to see these people and businesses making a difference here in Nebraska,” she said.
The Sports Media Manager
For John W. Baker '13, working in the Creative and Emerging Media department of Nebraska Athletics is a dream come true. Since Nebraska doesn’t have a professional sports team, working for Nebraska Athletics is the closest thing you can find in the state, he says. As a graphic designer on a team of communication professionals, he is responsible for managing social accounts during games and maintaining the visual brand of the department—a job that is important to recruiting players as well as fans. His job entails working with several teams, specifically Nebraska Football, to create content for print publications, social media, in- house uses, and custom graphics which are created specifically for recruits to use on their social media accounts and phone lock screens. He also serves as the main photographer for Nebraska Football’s recruiting efforts and practice content.
A lifetime sports fan, Baker is enthusiastic about this work. He played soccer at YC and later coached and recruited for the program, so he knows first hand the experience and needs of student athletes and coaches. He earned an MA with a specialization in Intercollegiate Athletics Administration from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in 2017. He was in the second cohort to go through the program, which pairs traditional MBA curriculum with athletics specific experiences and content.
The degree has exploded in popularity and is recognized as one of the best programs in the nation for this subject area. Baker’s experience also includes serving as the Director of Risk Management and Merchandise for Tour de Nebraska, a four- day, 248-mile bike ride through Nebraska that annually attracts over 500 cyclists. Baker ran social media for the event, created crisis plans and protocols, coordinated pre-race details, and collaborated on print materials. His team’s efforts increased merchandise sales by 500 percent over the previous year.
“It’s busy and there’s always a lot to do,” he said of his career, “but I love it.”
The Team Leader
Erinn (Bristol '02) Criner’s business communication degree has taken her to an unexpected place: prison.
As the human talent director for the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services, Criner oversees the onboarding, performance management, training and development of a workforce of 2,300 state employees, from corrections officers to administrative staff to educators.
Criner has held a variety of management and HR positions, but she got her start as a teller at Cornerstone Bank in York as a student. After graduating she went to work there full-time, learning the ropes in their HR department. She was heavily involved in the York College chapter of PBL (see page 12) as a student and credits that experience alongside her academic training for her career success. While she was a student, she also worked for several years for Women of Faith as a part-time merchandise manager, traveling to events nationwide on weekends to sell books and branded materials.
Her current work with the Department of Corrections is challenging and encouraging. “We are very focused on rehabilitation. Many of these people will be released someday and we help them to be prepared to be productive citizens,” she said. For many, prison may be the rock bottom place where they get their lives together. For all of the tragic stories, there are many inspiring ones as well, she says. Prison can be a place where healing occurs and lives are transformed, but it takes the right team of people with the best training to make that happen. That’s where Criner comes in. Managing a team in this high stress environment is not an easy job, but it is one she cherishes as it is a way to create safer communities and improve the lives of all who live there.
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