TCU Strategic Communication Students Participate in Challenge for Emerging Leaders

TCU students earned certifications for their training and competitive presentations during the Plank Center Leadership Challenge in November 2019. Standing with their professors, four seniors represented the Department of Strategic Communication: from left, Dr. Julie O’Neil, STCO seniors Regina Lewis, Liz Starr, Kelley Phillips, Sarah-Maria Johnson, and Dr. Jacque Lambiase. The competition was organized by the University of Alabama’s Plank Center and held at SMU. Other participating universities were SMU, UT Arlington, Baylor, and University of Oklahoma.


Four seniors from TCU’s Department of Strategic Communication participated along with 14 other public relations students in the fourth Challenge for Emerging Leaders, hosted by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, November 14-16. SMU hosted the event.

With the overall goal of developing and inspiring emerging leaders, the Challenge is an intensive, hands-on leadership workshop. Dr. Bruce Berger, program director for the Challenge and a Center board member, said, “Research reveals that experiences like the Challenge can energize young leaders, accelerate their development and inspire their vision for leadership.”

“Professionals in the field have access to many development programs,” Berger said, “but such opportunities are limited for students and young professionals.”

The Challenge brought together public relations seniors from Baylor University, Southern Methodist University, Texas Christian University, University of Oklahoma and University of Texas at Arlington. Students were selected by their department chairs based on their high-leadership potential, demonstrated academic achievements and diverse backgrounds and experiences. The overall goal is to develop and inspire these emerging leaders and enrich the profession’s future.

The Challenge participants were:

  • Brooke Burns, Baylor University
  • Chelsea Butler, University of Texas – Arlington
  • Jerry Crayton, Southern Methodist University
  • Melanie Ekizian, Southern Methodist University
  • Bonnie Fuelling, Baylor University
  • Sarah Maria Johnson, Texas Christian University
  • Meghan Krishnan, University of Oklahoma
  • Regina Lewis, Texas Christian University
  • Mary Cruz Nunez, University of Texas – Arlington
  • Kelley Phillips, Texas Christian University
  • Bri Rhodes, University of Oklahoma
  • Kieran Rye, University of Oklahoma
  • Brooke Sinek, Southern Methodist University
  • Abby Sowder, Baylor University
  • Liz Starr, Texas Christian University
  • Awa Sy, University of Texas – Arlington
  • Tatum Texada, University of Oklahoma
  • Robin Willis, University of Texas – Arlington

The program was delivered by Dr. Peter Hammerschmidt, president of Leadership Consulting Services and professor at Eckerd College, Florida. Students also had the opportunity to learn from some of the best professionals and academics in the industry, including:

  • Dr. Bruce Berger, professor emeritus of advertising and public relations at the University of Alabama and board member for the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations;
  • Keith Burton, chair of the Center’s Board of Advisors and principal of Grayson Emmett Partners;
  • Ron DeFeo, SVP of Global Engagement, American Airlines, and board member of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations;
  • Dr. Sandra Duhé, chair, corporate communication and public relations, and associate professor, Southern Methodist University;
  • Mark Harris, professor-in-residence, University of Alabama; vice president, Global Business Services, IBM (Emeritus); and board member of the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations;
  • Taylor L. Cole Longacre, APR, TV Host, Producer and Travel Expert;
  • Amber Seikaly, VP of Corporate Communications, Neiman Marcus; and
  • Scott Vazin, Group VP and CCO, Toyota Motor North America.

The Challenge emphasized advancement in four key competencies: deepen understanding of leadership; enrich leadership values and beliefs; expand leadership skills and capacity; and model appropriate behaviors. These competencies were addressed through activities and assessments drawn from eight core development areas: self-awareness, listening skills, conflict management, organizational dynamics, business acumen, critical thinking, team leadership and ethical orientation.

Along with the activities and assessments, students were divided into teams to work through a diversity case study. Each group was assigned an industry advisor to motivate, encourage and provide feedback. The advisors were Katie Gatti, UX writer and marketing strategist at Southwest Airlines; Maret Montanari, communications specialist at Jackson Spalding; Olivia Ortiz, marketing and operations associate at Legends; and Taylor Shelnutt, account supervisor at Fleishman Hillard.

On the last day, teams presented their case study findings and were awarded a Certificate of Leadership Achievement. The winning team, including TCU senior Liz Starr, received the Betsy Plank Diversity Case Study Award.

The workshop would not have been possible without the generous support of Toyota Motor North America, Keith Burton and Ron DeFeo.

For more information on the Challenge for Emerging Leaders, go to

About the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations

The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations is the leading international resource for practitioners, educators and students who are passionate about advancing their careers and the public relations profession. Led by a national advisory board of leading educators and practitioners, the Center develops and recognizes outstanding diverse public relations leaders, role models and mentors to advance ethical public relations in an evolving, global society. Founded in 2005, the Center is named after Betsy Plank, the first lady of PR. Betsy’s legacy and vision continues on in the Center’s programs and initiatives to advance the profession and public relations education. For more information, please visit