Business students gain real-world experience helping with this year's Festival of Light

Business students gain real-world experience helping with this year's Festival of Light

The University of Science and Arts of Oklahoma takes immense pride in providing its students with an educational experience that not only equips them with the tools to think critically about ideas, but prepares them for the realities of the modern marketplace. Undergraduates at USAO not only receive rigorous instruction in the classroom, our local community offers them many valuable opportunities as interns or volunteers as well.

This fall, students taking Principles of Marketing from Christa Copeland, instructor in business, will be working with one of Chickasha’s most celebrated nonprofits, the Festival of Light.

“The class will be divided into teams and each team will present a marketing plan to the Festival of Light board of directors, pitching them ideas of how to continue the festival’s success with new events, programs or services,” said Copeland. “This is the first time each group will be working with an outside organization, so I am eager to see how it goes. I think it will be a huge success!”

Part of the required courses for business administration majors, Copeland’s students have in the past picked national brands to be mock-clients for their marketing projects. Last year, she worked with campus administrators to have her students create a plan for a new campuswide event, program or service. Seeing the energy and innovative ideas that her students came up with when plugged into their campus in a whole new way, Copeland was thrilled when Cassandra Ersland, USAO director of development, asked if she would like to involve her students in the Festival of Light.

“I jumped at the opportunity for my students to be more involved in the community!” said Copeland.

In September 2015, after starting her position at USAO, a friend recruited Ersland to serve on the Festival of Light board of directors. For the past three years, she has been the secretary and fundraising chair for the organization. She thinks that this project will be mutually beneficial to the university and the community.

“If we give USAO students an opportunity to get involved in what is a huge event for the Chickasha community, it allows them to form new connections with local businesses, churches, nonprofits and individuals,” said Ersland. “Festival of Light gets fresh marketing ideas from our bright young students, while these students get real-world experience and have a chance to form deeper bonds in the area.”

Each January, the Festival of Light’s board begins planning for the coming year. They meet every other week throughout the year to order replacement lights; solicit sponsorships; and plan for new displays, activities and vendors. Every weekend from late September until opening night in late November, board members and volunteers are in Shannon Springs Park setting up for the event. Almost all of the organization’s support comes from the Chickasha community. The sponsors and volunteers are local businesses, other nonprofits, churches and individuals.

Knowing what her students are capable of, Copeland has high expectations for both the actual work that they turn in as well as the broader lesson they take from the experience.

“The marketing plan is a significant part of their overall grade and each plan must include detailed market analyses, as well as objectives, strategies and details for implementation and evaluation,” said Copeland. “I expect they will present incredibly unique ideas that will be tangible enough for Festival of Light to pursue in the coming years.”

Ersland agrees that this opportunity will be something that helps these students for years to come. “They have the opportunity to create a marketing plan for an event that will reach hundreds of thousands of people. That’s a huge addition to a resume,” she said.

However, far from being just another class project or helpful entry on a resume, working with the Festival of Light will give these students a chance to learn first-hand about how the nonprofit sector operates and how important such organizations are within Oklahoma.

“Hopefully it educates them on the importance of philanthropy and giving back to their community,” said Ersland. “They will be able to see the small advertising budget we work with and how the whole festival is organized by a handful of volunteers who also have demanding full-time jobs. This will show them why it’s important to support non-profits wherever their future takes them.”

Copeland also hopes that her students gain more from this project than simply a good grade.

“I believe it is important for all people to volunteer because it allows us to gain a perspective we did not have previously,” said Copeland. “Helping those in need or providing a service to your community is an incredibly valuable lesson that cannot be taught in a classroom. I hope my students will see that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill assignment. I hope they truly understand the impact their ideas will have here. I hope when they complete the project they can look back on their hard work with a real sense of accomplishment.”

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