Story by Polly Irungu, photos courtesy of Ben Furr
Ben Furr, MS ’12, has learned that the journey to finding yourself and a career is not always a straight path. We spoke to Furr, who is a graduate of the UO School of Journalism and Communication Strategic Communication master’s program and is now a stakeholder communications manager at Cambia Health Solutions, to hear his unique story and the part the SOJC played.
Tell us about your background.
I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, then moved to Austin, Texas, where I studied political science, Spanish and sociology at University of Texas. During my undergrad years, I studied abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 2006, I returned to New York and worked for a literacy think tank at Teachers College, Columbia University. There I gained experience in education, event coordinating and strategic communications. After about two years, I was selected for the New York City Teaching Fellows, which is the equivalent of Teach for America. My teaching career, however, lasted all of eight days. Soon after I moved to Portland, Oregon, with about three months’ worth of savings and zero job prospects. That all said, I was really hungry for a career change.
Why did you choose to pursue a master’s in strategic communication at the SOJC?
It all happened kind of serendipitously. About a month after arriving in Portland, I found an executive assistant and board liaison position posted on Idealist.org. It was for a nonprofit then called the Portland Schools Foundation. I knew a background in events, communications and administration would be really helpful, so I applied and somehow got the job. That’s when things started making sense.
While taking minutes at one of our board meetings, a board member mentioned that the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication had recently started a graduate program for strategic communications in Portland. I made a mental note to check it out and then later sat in on a class, applied and was eventually accepted. It all felt very surreal. The Strat Comm program was the only one I applied to. I was able to work full time while going to school in the evenings, which was very helpful financially.
I saw the graduate program as a platform or stepping stone in the right direction — a tool I can leverage for other types of work. There was such a variety of focus areas, topics and content. It really provided a much larger framework. It was not solely focused on marketing or public relations, but on how to connect the dots in a much larger communications plan.
What impact has your SOJC education had on your life?
I couldn't have picked a better time to be in the Strategic Communication program. My employer at the time was going through a complete rebrand, with a new name and logo.
Soon after graduating and a little time off, I joined an agency called Gard Communications, which felt like a whole other graduate program — I learned a ton there and put my degree to work in a variety of ways. Later I changed jobs to be a content marketing manager at hubbub health, a subsidiary company of Cambia Health Solutions. After two years I found an opportunity to move from hubbub to Cambia’s strategic communications team, where I work today as a stakeholder communications manager.
I don’t believe any of that would have happened had I not pursued the master's degree.
What was the most important life lesson you learned from the program?
Be OK with uncertainty and not knowing. For communications, I don't care if you put the word “strategic” in front of it, it’s all encompassing. It can be very, very overwhelming, in any industry, whether it’s marketing or public relations or across the spectrum.
While I had several wonderful professors and experiences, my greatest influence in graduate school was my advisor, Tiffany Gallicano. She once told me, “Often the most worthwhile experiences and greatest accomplishments are found just outside of your comfort zone.” It was that kind of mentality — to just keep pushing, to keep exploring, to keep creating — that really inspired me.
What does your department at Cambia do?
It’s never boring.
The Strategic Communications Division at Cambia provides support with a wide variety of internal and external communications for business partners throughout our company’s four-state footprint — Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Utah. This includes everything from employee and executive communications and social channels to media and PR and consumer communications, to name just a few. My position is involved in any number of different projects. I’m fortunate to work with some truly impressive communication professionals every day.
What advice do you have for recent grads who are seeking jobs after graduation?
Never be afraid to reach out to people, even if it’s for an informational interview. I did quite a bit of that when I was in between jobs for almost six months. I used to joke with friends that I was doing three shows a day, four times a week. Every time you connect with someone, see if they’d be willing to connect you with two or three additional leads. Keep an open mind, a good attitude and a lot of flexibility. Just explore. And try to enjoy yourself.
I didn't know what I was going to do fours year ago, let alone now. I'm working on projects I never thought I would ever work on. It’s not like I woke up one day in high school saying, “I want to be a stakeholder communications manager, supporting our government programs and Medicare.” But it’s easily been the most rewarding and challenging job I’ve ever had. There's no right way to do it.
You also serve on the New Avenues for Youth Ambassador Board and Oregon Historical Society Cabinet, and you've been involved with Big Brothers Big Sisters as a mentor the last seven years. How do you balance it all?
I think it’s easy to fit other activities in your life that you enjoy and that feed your soul. Not to sound like a total cliché, but no matter how exhausting it is in the office, I find that it helps balance burnout by doing something that is really rewarding. All the activities I do just drive me. They give my work and day-to-day more purpose.
Polly Irungu is a multimedia journalist and social media strategist who plans to graduate from the SOJC with a degree in journalism this fall. She is currently working as a digital content creator for the SOJC’s Communications team, a campus editor-at-large at The Huffington Post and a freelance production assistant for the PAC-12 Networks, and she’s also been published on CNN, KVAL and YesJulz. A National Association of Black Journalists fellow in 2015 and 2016, she participated in the NABJ and National Association of Hispanic Journalists student newsroom to provide coverage of their historic joint convention for NABJ Monitor and Latino Reporter. She also worked in the Online News Association’s student newsroom Sept. 15-17, 2016. Previously, she has worked for TrackTown USA, Def Jam Records, Dell and Adobe. She made the 2013 and 2014 Daily Emerald Ducks Who Will Change the World list, and in May 2015, she was named the Women4Africa International Young Achiever of the Year. You can view her work at www.pollyirungu.com and follow her on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat @pollyirungu.