‘Ad mom’: Assistant professor supports ‘real-life’ learning, professional development

Jess Collins poses for a headshot. Photo courtesy of Jess Collins

Emily Richardson, Staff Writer

Assistant professor of advertising, Jess Collins, wears many hats at VCU — not the least of which is running CreateAthon at VCU, an annual “creative sprint” event where teams of students develop branding materials or campaigns for local nonprofits, Collins said. 

Students enrolled in the elective course MASC 497 are part of the “core team” assigned to each nonprofit, and are supported with the help of volunteers during the event, Collins said. This year’s event concluded last Saturday morning.

“It’s insane, but it’s also just fun,” Collins said. “You’re doing it for nonprofits, so it feels good. It’s one of the biggest and longest-living events at this school.”

This is Collins’ fourth year teaching the CreateAthon course, she said, though she started teaching at VCU as an adjunct professor in the fall of 2015. 

Working in the advertising industry is “very competitive,” and it can be difficult to find a mentor, which is part of the reason she felt drawn to teaching, she said.

“So much about what you do in advertising isn’t even the work product, it’s the confidence, it’s the presence, feeling like you can command a room,” Collins said. “I found that early in my career I didn’t feel like I had that.”

Collins never thought she would be a professor, she said.

“I had never taught, I just thought this could be fun,” Collins said. “I just realized that I loved it so much.”

Hailey Fitzgerald, Ad Club’s account manager and teaching assistant to Collins’ CreateAthon class, said Collins’ students can count on her for support, affectionately calling her their “ad mom.”

“She’s one of the professors that definitely goes above and beyond for her students, like, she still has connections with people that graduated five years ago,” Fitzgerald said. “She’s just one of those people that’s gonna be somebody I can rely on.”

Collins also teaches a course called “Completeness,” a senior-level campaigns class where students compete for a single, “real-life” client. Her goal as a professor is to prepare students for work in the industry, Collins said.

“I teach mainly all real-life stuff, because you gotta practice,” Collins said. “I mean, I’m scary, but clients are scarier.”

Aside from teaching classes like CreateAthon and Completeness, Collins is also the Ad Club faculty advisor. Ad Club gives advertising students professional development opportunities like agency tours and guest speaker events, according to Collins.

Collins’ impact on students in the advertising program is “nothing short of inspirational,” according to Sarah Stork, Ad Club’s content manager.

“I’ve known multiple students who didn’t care about school until they took her ‘Awareness’ class, and then they were like, ‘Oh, this is a real thing, this is a moneymaker and this could matter,’” Stork said.

Collins has always had a productive, “zero or 180 miles per hour” mentality, she said.

“I just am better productive,” Collins said. “If you give me 30 tasks, I’ll complete them like a machine. If you give me two, I’ll wait until the very last minute to get them done.”

Collins said she feels lucky to be a professor and that there’s “nothing like” being on a college campus.

“People think I’m lying, but it keeps me youthful and energized,” Collins said. “Especially because I teach mainly seniors, even though everyone’s stressed out about finding jobs and all that. There’s an eternal optimism that I love.”

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