UW News

December 4, 2008

Final for freshman event planning seminar is an event itself

For 21 UW freshmen, the culmination of one of their fall classes isn’t a final exam, but an event. They’re members of a freshman seminar devoted to the subject of event planning, and this week they presented two events that they conceived and planned from start to finish.

One team from the class manned a booth at the HUB, exhorting their peers to “Get Into Seattle,” while another team put on a Student Artist Showcase at the Burke Museum.

Freshman seminars such as this one — for which students earn two credits — are designed to give first-year students a chance to plunge deeply into a topic in a small class, as opposed to the large lecture classes that tend to dominate the first year at a university like the UW. The teacher of the event planning class, Courtney Russell, first thought of it as a session to be offered during Dawg Daze, the annual introductory event held for students at the beginning of fall quarter. But when she consulted staff at First Year Programs, they suggested that she consider doing a class.

“I shared with them that I’d taught similar classes in the past, and we thought, ‘Let’s give it a go,'” Russell said.

Registration opened and the class filled quickly. Student motivations for deciding to take it varied. Allyson Balansay, for example, had heard about the more glamorous side of event planning.

“My neighbor was telling me about his aunt, who is the event planner for Paul Allen,” Balansay said. “She is constantly given tickets to Seahawks and Mariners games and she gets to meet people like Elton John, who performs at Allen’s parties, and I wanted to learn about how in the world she got a job like that. It sounded interesting.”

Michelle Henley didn’t have anything quite so specific in mind. “The skills necessary to orchestrate an event are transferable to a number of fields,” she said. “Being able to act as a leader and paying close attention to details, things you learn when planning events, are essential skills for most careers.”

Russell is particularly qualified to teach the class, since in her day job she’s an events project manager for UW Marketing. Before coming to the UW, she managed student life programs and events at the International Academy of Design and Technology and also taught an event production class there.

The students, she said, have “really been excited and energized.” They spent the first half of the class learning about event planning by talking to people who are involved in various aspects of it. For example, the class visited Housing and Food Services’ Bay Laurel Catering and talked to event planners all over campus.

Then it was time to learn by doing. The class broke into teams to plan an actual event. Russell said she wanted them to have experience with some of the major categories of events — educational/outreach events, social events and meetings/conferences.

One team came up with the idea for Get Into Seattle, an outreach/educational event. They researched various places in Seattle that they thought students would be interested in visiting and created a series of informational flyers under particular topics, e.g., free venues, date night venues and so on. Then they staffed a booth at the HUB, talking to their peers and handing out flyers.

The other two teams joined forces to produce the Student Art Showcase (under meetings/conferences) and the reception following it (under social events). The idea was to bring together students who are interested in art and give them a chance to talk about it with other students.

“They have a small budget for their projects, and everything else they have to find sponsorships and donations for,” Russell said. “They go through the whole development process of planning an event. I step in with guidance and support as necessary — but really, I want to give them the chance to go through all the typical ups and downs on their own.”

That includes, Russell said, feelings of frustration that tend to develop as hoped-for contributions don’t come through and perfect venues show their flaws. “I assure them they’re on the right track, that’s exactly what the process is,” she said. “You have to go through the hard part to get to the exciting part that everyone sees when they come to an event.”

Not everyone who is taking the class wants to be an event planner, but most see it as connected in some way to their future careers. Henley, for example, is interested in filmmaking.

“I feel filmmaking runs parallel to event planning in many ways and that gaining experience in event planning will help condition me for work on large film projects,” she said.

She gained that knowledge the hard way, by attempting to make a film for the Seattle Great City Initiative last year and running into many obstacles because of a lack of planning.

“I hadn’t considered the necessity of filming permits for each location I would film,” she said. “I didn’t even come up with a concrete idea of what the film would be, rather just thought I’d be able to spontaneously compose a film. As a result the film turned out vacuous, devoid of the depth I had hoped would naturally reveal itself. The importance of developing a concrete plan to not even necessarily follow, but to act as a guide became apparent after my work on this film. Filmmaking is essentially an event that requires consideration of the details.”

That’s exactly the kind of thing Russell hopes the students will learn by planning an event of their own. And she, meanwhile, is having a great time teaching them.

“It’s been amazing. It’s invigorating,” she said. “If I’m having a really stressful day or week, it’s just a blast to go into the class and see these students and see how excited they are and how interested they are.”

Russell will be repeating the class next quarter — also for freshmen only.