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photoToday’s blog is a guest post by Kelly’s Phoenix PRSA mentee Emily Wininger, a senior at ASU. Emily takes us through her process of writing and defending her thesis to graduate from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University.

When I started out as a freshman at Arizona State University I was eager to learn, eager to challenge myself with classes outside of my comfort zone and eager to save the world from drug addicts. By the time I was a sophomore, those plans changed during a time I now refer to as my “mid-college crisis.” It was the end of my sophomore year and I had taken so many classes in psychology I could graduate an entire year early. There was just one little problem, I no longer wanted to be a psychologist.

Taking the advice from my friend, I arranged a meeting with an advisor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. By the time I left the meeting, I was already signed up for summer classes and on my way to becoming a journalism and mass communications major with an emphasis in public relations. Everything was in order again – well, until the start of senior year.

As a senior at Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University, I should have been well on my way to starting my thesis defense. Every student must complete an honors thesis or creative project to graduate from Barrett, which is usually done over the course of senior year. When I had been a psychology student only, I knew I was going to do the psychology honors sequence, have nearly my entire thesis planned for me and be done by winter break. My actual reality was: I had no thesis topic, no director and no second reader. In other words, I had nothing. I began to panic and actually considered dropping out of Barrett with only my thesis left to do. This was more than melodramatic looking back.

Thanks to a summer internship position I held and professors I had for class, I was able to develop a topic that actually ignited my passions and put together an academic committee that would complement my idea. In the spring of my junior year I had a multiple day conversation with The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas over Twitter and then again with the Bellagio that summer. I wondered if others felt the human connection I did when hotels and resorts tweeted to them or if hotels were even taking part in such exchanges. My curiosity lit the fuse and my thesis topic began developing.

The first semester of my senior year I dug through academic literature and industry research on this phenomenon. Due to my love of luxury, I decided to look specifically at luxury hotels and resorts that had AAA Five Diamond, Forbes Five Star ratings. By the time New Years was approaching I had probably read close to 40 scholarly articles on what I now understand is authentic dialogue and electronic word-of-mouth, both part of the larger context of user-generated content. I met with my director and we developed a more concise research plan for me to execute the upcoming (and final) semester.

For the entire month of February I looked at the Facebook, Twitter and TripAdvisor pages of six luxury hotels and resorts in the Southwestern United States. I looked at The Beverly Hills Hotel and Montage Beverly Hills in Beverly Hills, Calif. I looked at The Phoenician and The Canyon Suites at The Phoenician and Fairmont Scottsdale Princess in Scottsdale. I also looked at ARIA Resort & Casino and The Venetian in Las Vegas. All of the hotels I used had at minimum a AAA Five Diamond award of service. At the end of the month, I examined the Facebook and Twitter content I had tracked throughout February and coded it using an adapted version of Hvass and Munar’s (2012) User-Generated Content Promotions Marketing Mix. The data and results I found were startling.

Originally my team and I wondered whether I would have enough data and whether there would be any distinguishable pattern at all. My research had gone from a planned experiment to exploratory case studies. I am extremely pleased to say that our worries were misplaced because I was able to get data and distinguish distinct patterns amongst all of the hotels and in accordance to where they were located. The results and data was all there, now I just had to write the paper and do the presentation. Easier said than done.

Then, it came time to present. At this point, I was as ready as I would ever be, and I presented. After what felt like an eternity of doing this project, I was about to find out my fate.

I had passed. Not only had I passed, I had passed with flying colors. My academic committee thanked me – me – for allowing them the opportunity to work with me. They told me that I had been one of the best students to work with due to my willingness to take the initiative and they told me how my work rivaled masters students they had worked with.

After the room had cleared I was left alone staring at my academic team’s signatures justifying I had completed and passed my honors thesis process. I couldn’t believe that four years of my life and academic career were over that quickly. Looking back now, I am glad I waited as long as I did to start my thesis process – I needed the passion that would give me the strength and drive to make it through the hours I would need to finish my paper and presentation.

My honors thesis and the defense process taught me just how valuable it is to stay true to your passions, to follow your curiosity, to request the help from others because in the end you can learn about things that are absolutely life-changing. Even given the choice, I would do it again. In a heartbeat.

Kelly Potts
Kelly Potts
A former HMA Public Relations employee.

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