Bobby Makar, a name remembered fondly by students and faculty in the School of Media and Journalism (MDJ), was a storyteller, a compassionate friend and inspiring teacher.
He died unexpectedly in November 2020, and since then, more than 100 donations have been made to establish memorial scholarship in his name.
Makar earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from MDJ. He went on to become a cherished adjunct faculty member in the digital media production major and made significant contributions to the curriculum.
Emeritus Associate Professor David Smeltzer, who knew Makar as both a student and faculty colleague, has been a driving force behind establishing the Bobby Makar Memorial Scholarship. Supporters have raised slightly over $20,000 for the scholarship. The goal is to raise $25,000+ so that it can become an endowed fund and awarded annually. It will be awarded to a digital media production student(s).
Learn more about the scholarship and make a gift
“Bobby was in one of my first classes, and this kid was just so creative, so talented, so positive, and really had an infectious personality that he was a significant person to me, and certainly made teaching more fun,” Smeltzer said.
Makar took pride in the “nerd” stereotype, loved Halloween, his life partner June Kucalaba and teaching his students.
“I probably learned as much from him as I did teaching him,” Smeltzer said. “He's the kind of professor the students just loved because he's always really curious about what their projects were, what they were working on and seeing when they needed some help. And he was always there to listen.”
Kucalaba said Makar was everything to her, and she hopes the scholarship will create opportunities and inspire hope in people who receive it.
“We met at Kent State, so Kent State has a big place in my heart,” she said. “We were just two peas in a pod. I think I fell in love with his enthusiasm ... It was inspiring. So, he always kept my interest. He was just this kindest soul, and so much fun.”
She said Makar put a lot of thought into his lessons and his students.
“I've heard countless stories of, you know, Bobby going above and beyond for his students, and I know that he loved them,” she said.
“He just wanted to help them in any way he could, with their dreams and aspirations. So, I know he would be ecstatic to know that he was able to do that, and in this way now.”
The annual Robert G. McGruder Distinguished Lecture and Awards Program honors and celebrates two individuals who express a passion and do above-and-beyond work to exemplify diversity in the journalism field.
Named after Robert G. McGruder, a Kent State alumnus and trailblazer in diversifying journalism, the event returned after a pandemic hiatus on Oct. 12, 2022, and honored two distinguished professionals in the field.
Maurice Newman, president of NorthCoast Media and FilmGroup Inc., received the Diversity in Media Distinguished Leadership Award.
Newman has frequently partnered with Media and Journalism Professors Thor Wasbotten and Eugene Shelton to introduce high school students in underserved communities to journalism, guiding them to an understanding of what they can do in their current schools and beyond.
“This generation, if given the tools, is the generation that I think will probably end things like poverty, illiteracy, racism and climate (injustice),” Newman said.
WKYC’s Director of Advocacy and Community Initiatives Margaret Bernstein received the 2022 McGruder Distinguished Lecture Award and delivered the keynote speech.
“When I got the email that I had won this award, I was flabbergasted,” Bernstein said. “But I immediately typed into my reply, ‘I stand for diversity.’ I know Bob McGruder and I know his quote. I am very clear on the fact that I’m walking in the footsteps of a giant.”
Robert McGruder, the namesake of the awards program and lecture series, has a rich legacy that includes being the first Black editor of the Daily Kent Stater, the first Black reporter at the Plain Dealer, the first Black president of the Associated Press Managing Editors Group and the first Black Executive editor at the Detroit Free Press. He died in 2002.
Bernstein worked at the Plain Dealer three years after McGruder left to go work for the Detroit Free Press. She knows his famous quote by heart and recited it to the audience to emphasize the meaning of his legacy.
“Please know that I stand for diversity,” McGruder said. “I represent diversity. I am the messenger and the message of diversity.”
Before coming to WKYC-TV, Bernstein worked for the L.A. Times in the circulation department, asking people to sign up for subscriptions.
“I remember being instructed by the bosses that if anyone called from the ZIP code 90220, that we were to tell them we did not offer delivery to that ZIP code,” Bernstein said. “90220 was and still is the ZIP code for Compton, a black and largely poor community southeast of Los Angeles.”
While her family didn’t live in Compton, her dad worked there, and Bernstein said the L.A. Times couldn’t have had a more loyal reader than her father.
“The L.A. Times was a big part of our ritual as a family, as a Black family,” Bernstein said. “I’m sure it’s the big reason why I allowed myself to dream of a career in this field.”
Bernstein said it took her years to find her voice to challenge the policies based in systemic racism. In her speech, she spoke of the act of journalism in May 2020 by Darnella Frazier, who filmed George Floyd’s murder by Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin.
“(Frazier) uploaded it to Facebook, and our world changed,” Bernstein said. “Let’s just spend a moment thinking about all the social change that has happened as a result of this 17-year-old’s act of journalism.”
In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Black-owned businesses became an “unexpected trend” in media coverage. Bernstein spoke of a Black entrepreneur in Salt Lake City, known for her art and Baklava, who saw a “tidal wave” of interest in her shop.
The baker was featured in her local media, and then NPR’s Marketplace picked up the story and she received orders from all around the country.
“That is the power we wield in this field,” Bernstein said. “My journey in journalism has always pointed me in the direction of diversity, equity and inclusion — I’m sure a lot of it had to do with me starting out my career at a Black newspaper.”
Public relations major Kristyn Hibbett, ‘23, recently earned a scholarship to attend a national summit on diversity, equity and inclusion in public relations in Chicago.
The 2022 Plank Center Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) Summit and Milestones in Mentoring Gala took place on Nov. 3, 2022, and Hibbett was one of 18 scholarship recipients from across the country who attended.
There, she got to network with public relations corporations, companies and executives. She also attended four sessions that focused on the progression of public relations and how far the industry has come in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion.
Hibbett said she learned many things at the summit, but one of her main takeaways was the reminder to always be an advocate for herself in all aspects: as a woman, as an African American, as a human being. She stressed the importance of advocating for others as well.
“It means nothing if you get somebody of minority or somebody of color in a job, but you're not taking into consideration what they have to say,” she said. “This is a reminder to continue to be a voice in the positions that I’m in, and to speak up for those who really don’t feel as if they can speak up for themselves.”
Hibbett shared that her own cultural identity includes being a woman, African American, a member of Gen Z, a Christian and more. Over the summer, she completed an internship at Adidas’s headquarters in Portland, Ore., and found that she was able to contribute ideas in brainstorming sessions, “because I was able to fully show up and be confident in who I am as an individual.”
She would one day like to be a director of communications for an NBA team, and by doing that, break glass ceilings and be a role model and representation for females and African Americans.
“There are so many different brands in the world, when it comes to public relations, you can’t cater to the brand one type of way... because there's such a diverse background in people, brands, and organizations, you need diversity within the public relations,” Hibbett said. “It can be hard to relate to a company or relate to a brand or a person if you don't have something in common.”
Kent State’s Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA Kent) Chapter won three national awards, including the prestigious Dr. F.H. Teahan Award for University Service. The national award was announced during the Awards Ceremony Brunch at the International Public Relations Student Society Conference in Dallas on Nov. 14, 2022.
Kent State won the University Service award for the second time in Chapter history. The University Service award recognizes voluntary projects PRSSA Kent initiated during the 2021-2022 school year that benefited the university and regional community, including:
- Campus collaborations with Kent State Women’s Center, Student Multicultural Center and First Star Academy
- Peer mentoring program to guide younger students studying public relations
- Partnership with Akron PRSA on hosting the YouToo Digital Strategy Conference
- Participation in the PRSSA Bateman Case Study Competition to build awareness for Lymphoma Research Foundation
- High school student outreach to give students a glimpse into the Kent State college experience
“This national recognition speaks to the caliber of our students’ leadership and talent,” said Michele Ewing, faculty adviser for PRSSA Kent and professor in the School of Media and Journalism. “Earning recognition in the service category also shines a light on our students’ genuine commitment to collaborate and serve others. We’re so proud of these PRSSA students and alumni.”
PRSSA Kent was also recognized as a Star Chapter for outstanding leadership and programming. This is the 11th consecutive year PRSSA Kent has earned this designation. Public relations major and Chapter President Kayla Polansky, '23, emphasized how nice it was to receive the award in person.
“We are so elated to receive this year’s University Service Award from the 2022 ICON PRSSA Conference,” she said. “This award shows the hard work and dedication of our previous members who continue to inspire our current students to constantly strive for better.”
Alongside the Chapter winning a National Award, alumnus and former PRSSA President Zachary Zdanowicz, '22, won the National Gold Key Award, PRSSA’s highest individual honor. The National Gold Key Award recognizes students with outstanding leadership qualities and academic excellence in public relations within their PRSSA Chapter.
“I am honored to be recognized through PRSSA by earning the National Gold Key award,” Zdanowicz said. “This organization provided me so many tools and resources that not only helped me through my academic career, but have helped me in the professional world. If it weren’t for PRSSA, I don’t believe I would be where I am today, and for that, I am proud to hold this award.”
The Kent State Chapter of the Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA Kent) was established in 1968 as one of the 14 original Alpha Chapters of PRSSA. The student-run organization collaborates with its parent chapter, the PRSA Akron Area Chapter, to coordinate meetings and events that offer professional development and networking opportunities to Kent State students interested in the public relations and communications industry. The PRSSA Kent Chapter and the students who participate consistently win national awards, placing the Chapter in the top tier nationwide. For more information about PRSSA Kent, visit www.prssakent.com.
Managing Post-Pandemic Disengagement*
Headlines in recent months have said it all: “A ‘Stunning’ Level of Student Disconnection.” “The Great Faculty Disengagement.” “An Epidemic of Student Disengagement.” The world has changed a lot in the last two and half years, and we still haven’t sorted through all the implications.
A few things, however, are quite clear: We see our students – even the best among them – struggling to meet deadlines. We see events that may have drawn large crowds in the past now attracting little more than passing interest. And sadly, we see some of the most vulnerable, least connected students melting away altogether. Meanwhile, on the faculty side, we see many of our fellow educators around the country -- and perhaps even ourselves -- struggling to maintain earlier levels of enthusiasm. We see colleagues seeking ways to continue working from home – or from the road or wherever – rather than seeking to reconnect on campus. And we find many of our past strategies for engaging and motivating and encouraging students to be frustratingly ineffective.
The pandemic years left us feeling powerless in many contexts, but there are, in fact, many things that remain under our control.
In our courses, we have the power to exercise flexibility. All of us here at the School of Media and Journalism (MDJ) have long met students halfway. Can we do more? This doesn’t mean lowering expectations or waiving assignments or relieving students of the responsibility to show up and do the work. But it may mean showing some grace. It may mean adjusting deadlines. It may mean developing alternative mechanisms for students to demonstrate their mastery of course content. The students in our classes today aren’t the same kinds of students we had 20, 10, 5 or even 2 years ago. We need to adapt to this reality. Pining for the old days isn’t going to change the ground truth today.
In our work lives we have the power to demonstrate leadership. In recent years it’s been fashionable to lament the lack of grit among our students. Now that we’re all living through difficult times, this is our opportunity to show students what perseverance looks like. When we’re struggling, there’s no shame in acknowledging it. We can let them know how we’re pushing through. We can use these experiences as teachable moments. We have an opportunity to model responsible adult behavior for our students. And we’d do well to remember that sometimes we may be the only people in their lives who are doing that.
As human beings, we seek and thrive on connections. Pandemic disruptions interrupted – and even destroyed – many forms of connection. All of us -- including our students -- are hungry for new ways to connect. To feel that we belong. To nurture ties that tether us to others. We need to show our students how it’s done. We need to share with them opportunities for connecting with others in our school, community, professional network and beyond. We need to tell our stories about how we connect and then point them toward a path forward.
We’re in the business of educating students. But we’re also committed to ensuring that students feel welcomed, supported, and included. That can be hard when we’re struggling with a lot of pressures ourselves. There’s no doubt that everything is just harder now than it was before. But as I’ve told friends and colleagues around the country over the last two and a half years, I’ve never seen a more committed and caring faculty than I have at this School. Our students our lucky to have them. And we’re all lucky to have the support of the broader MDJ community of alumni and friends. Thank you for all you do to help us do what we do.
*Portions of this essay appeared in the July 2022 Teaching Tips column for the AEJMC Newsletter.
Ten years ago, if someone had asked Brandi Neloms, ‘09, where she’d be in 2022, she would have responded that she was on her way to sitting next to journalist/anchor Romona Robinson in a Cleveland newsroom.
Neloms attended the 2008 Robert G. McGruder Distinguished Lecture and Awards Program which celebrates media diversity, where Robinson was honored, and was inspired by her accomplishments.
Today, the public relations alumna is a senior business development manager in Amazon’s Special Projects organization. She says her position gives her the “privilege of working on big ideas and initiatives that are aimed at bettering the world.”
With 13 years of experience in strategic communication roles, she says she’s developed quite a bit of business acumen. Whether she was trying to understand her clients better or working to become a better leader at an in-house company, she found her experience guided her.
“I always found that my effectiveness as a communicator and marketer was better when backed by strategic business skills,” Neloms said.
These skills include organizational knowledge, ability to navigate ambiguity, financial literacy and market awareness.
“These skills and my experience as entrepreneur and intrapreneur, allowed me to reply with a quick ‘yes’ when approached about a business development role that aligned with many of my passions and proficiencies,” she said.
McKinsey & Company’s “Women in the Workplace 2022” study found that Black women are less likely to feel supported by their managers or have strong allies on their team. As a Black woman in business, Neloms agrees and has had to overcome challenges that others in her field may not have.
“It’s important for women to hold leadership roles in corporate and social spaces because there is truth to the phrase ‘representation matters,’” Neloms said. “Sometimes, you need to see something to know that it’s possible to attain and surpass it.”
Neloms added, “juggling traits like being competent and confident with also being likable — especially at the intersection of race and gender as a Black woman — can be exhausting. I’ve simply decided to no longer be tired.”
In addition to their job responsibilities, Neloms says Black leaders have the opportunity to use their authority to cultivate an office culture with greater empathy, greater acceptance and greater innovation.
“Black men and women in leadership positions represent huge strides in closing the wealth gap and dismantling systemic inequities embedded in the structure of organizations,” she said.
Neloms says she finds inspiration in places and moments that bring her joy and peace — such as reading a good book, standing on top of a mountain after a hike or sipping coffee with her grandma on Saturday mornings.
Her love of coffee and passion for racial equity unite in her role as Chief Strategy Officer and co-owner of Sipping Black Only, a business dedicated to driving equity for Black founders in the beverage industry. Recently, Sipping Black Only provided 1,124 cases of water from a Black-owned brand to Jackson, Mississippi, residents who were living through a water crisis during summer 2022. The business pledges 5 percent of its annual profits to be given as a cash grant to an emerging Black beverage brand owner who exhibits the potential to grow into a sustaining brand.
“We’ve launched this grant to provide financial assistance, increased exposure and long-term support for Black-owned small businesses,” Neloms said.
Thinking back to her time as a Kent State undergraduate, Neloms says her academic and personal achievements led her to build a solid foundation to enter the workforce.
In 2009, she was one of seven students who won a Public Relations Society of America East Central District Diamond Award for their work on a public service campaign with Donate Life Ohio.
The campaign promoted the need for organ donation, and this hit home for Neloms.
“My paternal grandfather passed away in 2006. At the time of his passing, he needed a kidney transplant,” she said. “Working on that campaign, and winning both the competition and the PRSA award, just three years later honored his life and legacy.”
She remains grateful for that experience and for everything else her Kent State education provided her.
“In addition to business philosophies and industry knowledge, I learned valuable hard and soft skills,” Neloms says. “Even still, the best part of my time at Kent State is the network of peers and professors that I am fortunate to call friends and mentors today.”
When Caty Payette, ’20, began working for Student Media, she didn’t imagine she’d one day work for a member of Congress. Yet since graduation, the journalism major has worked for three different U.S. Representatives, representing Ohio, Wisconsin and Alabama.
She is currently the communications director for U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH), whose term is set to expire Jan. 3, 2023.
“Because I am so opinionated and so vocal, I wanted to operate within the communication sphere, where I get to directly talk to people and help people in a way that allowed me to shape the difference that I wanted to make,” Payette said.
Ohio’s 13th District, which Rep. Ryan has represented since 2003, includes Kent State University; because of this, Payette attributes the opportunity to work in the district as another great experience she obtained because of her undergraduate experience.
Payette became interested in journalism when she was a sophomore in high school. She hadn’t heard of Kent State and was set on going to the Ohio State University before meeting her mentor at WBNS-TV in Columbus: Karina Nova, a fellow Golden Flash.
“That caused me to look into the (School of Media and Journalism) and then actually visit campus and from there, I fell in love,” Payette said. “Especially all of the extracurricular activities you can really get into.”
Student Media played a large role in preparing her for her current career — even though she doesn’t work in journalism.
“For me, it was TV2 and KentWired and the student news publications that really were the things to prepare me for my job now,” Payette said.
In TV2, she rose through the leadership ranks, starting as an anchor, then moving up to a multimedia journalist, then news director and finally, general manager.
“All of that went hand in hand with the phenomenal, incredible teachers and educators I had there,” Payette said. “They were my professors and my teachers at the time, but now they’re people who I can call friends.”
It was an advantage having professors who have been in the field, she said, and that they were able to speak about overcoming challenges firsthand in the journalism world.
Payette’s first encounter with political communications came when she interned with C-SPAN during summer 2019.
“I was an intern on the program called Washington Journal,” she said. “I was able to help book members of Congress, national reporters and a large swath of people in the Washington sphere.”
This internship ignited Payette’s interest in politics, and she said she wouldn’t be in the position she’s in today without it. Her journalistic background gave her an insight to the political spectrum that was unusual in the field.
“Had I not had the experience of being a journalist and understanding how assignments work … just having that inherent knowledge, I don’t think I could have been as successful as I am today,” Payette said.
Developing connections and relationships with people is what makes Washington work, she says. The crossover of journalism and politics, and her time at Kent, led Payette to see how important developing these connections are.
“The journalism program (at Kent) was able to connect me to my internship and provide me that real-life, hands-on experience that I needed to be successful where I am today,” Payette said.