COMLab gave students a chance to learn on the job, even in the middle of a pandemic

By Marc Chalufour

When COM’s faculty and staff pivoted to remote learning in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, shifting academic courses to Zoom wasn’t their only concern. Many students lost internships they had been counting on for valuable experience and to fulfill graduation requirements. By mid-May, COM was ready with an alternative: COMLab.

COMLab is a student-run multimedia start-up. Peer-led and peer-mentored teams imagine and produce advertising, public relations, film, and journalism campaigns—content development of all forms—all with the intent of gaining professional experience when such opportunities are scarce outside of the College. COMLab launched in May with support from COM Dean Mariette DiChristina (’86). “She was very generous to offer some budget,” says Dustin Supa, senior associate dean and associate professor of public relations. “It certainly wouldn’t have been possible without her leadership and forward-thinking.” Additional donors, including Nathaniel Dalton (LAW’91), a member of the BU Board of Trustees, also provided support for the program.

“We asked ourselves: What can we do to help? What can we do to provide a remote work experience that would help students not just to survive, but to thrive?” says DiChristina. “We wanted to, whenever possible, find ways to turn today’s challenges into learning opportunities.”

“The biggest challenge was convincing the students that this was their media start-up—to be what they wanted it to be.”
—Dustin Supa

More than 100 students, split into four divisions—news and information, entertainment and performance, enterprise communication and engagement and strategy—participated during the summer session. They met with Supa, DiChristina, and members of the COM staff once a week and were often joined by special guest speakers, including Nancy Dubuc (’91), CEO of Vice; Jay Roewe (’79), a senior vice president at HBO; and Steve Barrett, the US editor-in-chief of PRWeek. And outside of those sessions, COMLab operated as a true start-up company with the students in charge.

“The biggest challenge was convincing the students that this was their media start-up—to be what they wanted it to be,” says Supa, who had been imagining a version of COMLab for several years, to provide an a interdisciplinary hub for collaboration between COM’s independent media organizations, AdLab, BU News Service, BUTV10, PRLab and WTBU.

The first wave of projects were as varied as BU Thrive, a high school outreach program designed to connect with BIPOC (black, Indigenous and people or color) students in the Boston Public School system with students at BU, and an interactive online fiction game that plays out like a Choose Your Own Adventure novel. Other projects included podcasts, a news blog and a cooking show. “College students do amazing things when you take the constraints away from them,” Supa says. “People wanted to create things that had nothing to do with their majors. They went so far afield of their comfort zones, which I think is awesome.”

The initial session of COMLab produced 14 projects and, following the positive student response, will be offered again during the fall and spring semesters. Supa hopes the program continues to grow and, perhaps, eventually will turn into the interdisciplinary hub that he has long envisioned.

“We have all of these great independent media organizations within COM, which are really good training grounds for students to learn. They have their own histories and they win awards—but there’s nothing that brings them together to do it from a modern media business perspective,” Supa says. COMLab, he hopes, can fill that gap.

“Communication media have never been so integrated. The skills of being able to tell good stories using multiple platforms can be—and are—applied to multiple career options,” says DiChristina. “COMLab, as a student-run, start-up integrated media operation, has given students a chance to experiment and grow in ways that will give them a leg up after graduation.”

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