Julie Flory now works in the Office of Public Affairs at Washington University in St. Louis as associate vice chancellor for university communications—but when she first loaded up her car on the west coast and drove to Washington DC to take an internship at NBC News, she couldn’t have guessed that her journey would later bring her to St. Louis, a city almost perfectly equidistant from both coasts. She eventually worked her way into broadcast journalism as an on-air news reporter, moving closer to the middle and tackling smaller markets like Northbrook, Illinois, and Mishawaka, Indiana. She transitioned into communications in higher education at the University of Notre Dame before accepting her current position at WashU, where she has now been for nearly five years.
Alongside her work with the university’s communications, Flory decided to go back to school for a degree through WashU’s School of Continuing & Professional Studies (formerly University College). She graduated last year with a master’s in American Culture Studies, an area of rich subject matter which, as she says, also goes hand-in-hand with her public relations work. We spoke with Flory to learn more about her decision to go back to school and her experience.
Before we get into what led you to go back to school, I’d love to know what compelled you to transition from news reporting to public relations in higher education.
Sure—so, I really did love working as a journalist and local news reporter. Then I found that as you get into the bigger markets, the topics you report on become quite a bit more serious. When I was working in smaller cities, there was a lot less focus on crime and breaking news. We got to tell stories that really impacted the community and focus on human interest pieces. The focus on tragedy and ratings made it a lot less fun for me. However, I really can’t say enough about what an important, vital job journalism is—it just wasn’t for me.
I learned that public relations has so many positives in common with journalism: storytelling, writing, processing and communicating information in an interesting way but without having to be a reporter on a beat. And once I got into higher education, I just fell in love with it. I knew I never wanted to work anywhere else. There are so many interesting people who make up a university: faculty, staff, students and community members; people who come from all different walks of life from all over the world. It’s such a fun, stimulating place to be. I’m also very inspired by working around students. Their energy and enthusiasm is so amazing to me.
You mentioned earlier that you started out by taking a few classes for personal enrichment before launching into a full-fledged degree program. What sparked your interest, and how did it grow from there?
As cheesy as it sounds, I’m really a learner at heart. I want to know and understand more about everything around me. Plus, being in the higher-education environment, it’s the perfect place to explore your interests. The first class I took here was an exploration of global cinema. It was incredibly interesting to me and very challenging. That course also began when all the protests and activism happening in Ferguson was really at its peak in 2014. I’d just moved here to begin work at WashU, where I’d settled my family and three children. St. Louis is a city with so much deep complexity, and it’s such an incredible classroom. For my American Culture Studies major, there were classes where we’d literally get on a school bus and explore different neighborhoods, historical landmarks and parts of the city.
At first, I thought, “Am I going to enjoy it? And if I do, is it even feasible with a full-time job and a family?” My plan was to take a class and see how it went—and then I just kept going.
What was it about the American Culture Studies program that felt particularly relevant to your work?
The second class I took was cross-listed with American Culture Studies, which had a strong focus on cities, urban development and the way communities work. WashU is very much a part of the broader St. Louis community. It was an important way to understand in a deeper way, “Where can we fit in this community, and how can we make a positive contribution?” To do that, you have to understand the history and complexity of where you are. So, it really started as personal enrichment and wanting to take advantage of an opportunity to learn. The university also subsidized my tuition, as they do for all faculty and employees. But as I really got into it, I began realizing how incredibly valuable it was.
What does your work with the Office of Public Affairs entail, and how do you feel the university’s leadership fosters a strong relationship with the community?
I am responsible for leading much of the communications that go out at the university level. My main areas of focus are media relations and internal communications, and I also work closely with our social media and other communications channels. Most of it is a really fun opportunity to talk about all of the amazing developments that are happening here, in research, leadership, medicine, entrepreneurship and more—for example, we have students who are creating businesses and selling them before they even graduate. I’m always amazed by them.
Of course, there are also issues to manage as well—which is true of any large institution. Diversity and scholarships, for example, our leaders and administrators are absolutely committed to making the campus more diverse in every way possible, from race to socioeconomic background and more. They’ve been forthcoming about what we’re doing really well and where we can improve. We’ve seen tremendous results with that already, which makes my job so much easier. We have real developments to share and a really positive story to tell.
Note: this post was originally published with Alive Magazine.