By Despina Williams Parker
Grace McDermott ’11 is both practical and a risk-taker. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a public relations concentration to make herself more employable in a competitive field, and jetted to Ireland for a life-changing semester abroad.
Upon graduating from New Paltz, McDermott earned a master’s degree in international tourism at the University of Limerick, where she studied abroad as an undergrad. After a stint as a staff writer for a travel magazine in Australia, she worked as a lecturer and teaching assistant at the University of Limerick. She has chosen to remain in Ireland to further her studies, and will transfer to Dublin City University this fall to pursue a Ph.D. in public relations.
Her research focuses on Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) women “bridge bloggers” of the Arab Spring who have reached a global audience through posts written primarily in English. Her dissertation will explore the new ways MENA women are getting involved in the global political conversation via social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
After a brief visit to New Paltz this summer, where she lunched with associate professor and mentor Donna Flayhan, McDermott took time to share her experiences at New Paltz and abroad.
You’ve helped students from New Paltz going to the University of Limerick for study abroad and master’s programs. How would you describe the importance of studying abroad to those who have never had the opportunity?
Hands down, it was the best decision of my life thus far, and I know if I hadn’t made that decision my life would be totally different now. As a result of my study abroad I made new friends as well as professional contacts and had experiences I really believe moulded me into a more confident, successful and more importantly, happy individual. Studying abroad absolutely changed my entire way of thinking and my perception of the world and myself. It most importantly showed me the value of taking risks. I loved the university I studied abroad at so much I decided to continue there, and do my master’s. I actually know of a few other SUNY New Paltz students who did the same at the University of Limerick.
You mentioned in your dissertation proposal that an examination of bridge bloggers through the lense of gender has not yet been undertaken. Why do you think such a focus is important and what do you hope to accomplish with your dissertation?
The Arab Spring has been a hot topic in the last few years on the news, in academia and on the political stage. The actual role or importance of social media is often emphasised in popular news but is actually a point of debate for many. My research focuses on female bridge bloggers. Bridge bloggers is a relatively new term which references bloggers who communicate across cultures. In my research, bridge bloggers references Middle Eastern and North Africa (MENA) women who use English as their primary form of communication on blogs, with the intention of communicating with audiences globally. This group of women is of particular importance because they are defying widespread stereotypes and ideologies of Arab women, and the Arab world. Blogs provide a unique look into the lives of many groups who have historically been marginalized and silenced. In order to fully understand the Arab Spring, we have to listen to men and women alike, which is what I am hoping my research may accomplish.
The public relations concentration has found a home in the newly created Communication Studies department at New Paltz. What do you think of the restructuring of the Communication Studies and Digital Media/Journalism into distinct departments?
The restructuring of the programs seems like a good idea to me. In my experience employers across the board were more interested in my P.R. knowledge than anything else. It is very important to be a good writer in any field, and I am not of the opinion that “journalism is dead,” but I do think that journalism is not what it once was. Especially through my research, it is clear to me that with the expansion of social networking, everyone is a journalist. This is not to undermine the importance of journalism, but to note that journalism is a difficult way for anyone to financially support themselves anymore. Having a degree in public relations seems like a practical, smart move for students. P.R. pays my bills, and on the side I work as a journalist to feed my passion. A public relations degree would get students jobs, and that’s the most important part of any degree.
You’ve kept in touch with New Paltz faculty and stress the importance of faculty mentors – both in college and beyond. How have Professor Flayhan and others helped guide you in your career path?
SUNY New Paltz is such a wonderful place, and I was so lucky to have been a student there. While at SUNY New Paltz, I had the fortune of coming in contact with numerous staff that really influenced my learning. Professor Flayhan, particularly, went out of her way to help me find my first, second and third internship. Years later, she wrote me recommendations for my first job, my Ph.D., and even for research grants. Throughout the years she has been my most important professional mentor and I go to her for advice regularly. She has been a major inspiration behind my decision to continue my studies, and the lessons I learned from her classes stick with me still. To any SUNY New Paltz student, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of making, and maintaining, contact with lecturers like I have with Professor Flayhan. Professionally and personally, mentors are essential, and New Paltz has so many great professors, it shouldn’t be hard to find a good one.
What’s next for you?
The next three years I will be working towards my Ph.D. in Ireland. I am presenting a paper at Oxford in September and am hoping to present at more conferences in the upcoming year. I am hoping when my Ph.D. is finished to write a book. I would also love to work for a company like Google or the United Nations, and maybe spend some more time lecturing in Europe. Long-term I hope to come back home to New York where my family, the beach, and my all-time favourite—Dunkin’ Doughnuts—are, but until then I am enjoying the ride that SUNY New Paltz started for me.