Working and Teaching – A Q&A with Adjunct Professor Olivia Armstrong (COM ’16)

Photo provided by Olivia Armstrong

Olivia Armstrong graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in public relations in 2016 and soon began working at Hencove as a marketing manager. Five years later, she expanded her career to include teaching the Writing for Communication course at Boston University. A natural wordsmith, dancer, and lover of dad jokes, Armstrong talked about her journey and the impact she wants BU professors to have on their students. 

Chiara Marshall: How did you become an adjunct professor at BU?

Olivia Armstrong: My boss [at Hencove] and I used to present in Professor Edward Downes’ class. He was one of my favorite professors [when I was at BU], and he was one of my advisors from when I was in the graduate PR program. After one of those classes, he said, “Both of you should teach!” and we thought, “Yeah, whatever.” Then Downes followed up and emailed Professor Dorothy Clark, telling her that he had two great candidates, and she said, “I had already planned to email Olivia and ask her if she wanted to teach one of the writing courses.” So we connected, and Professor Clark mentioned that there was a potential opening, and then there was one for spring 2020, so she asked me to come on, and that was it. It just kind of happened, which is pretty cool.

So what was it that made you want to get into teaching?

When Professor Clark asked me, you know, I said this was something I’ve never thought about. But I grew up being taught by [people who were] sticklers for writing, and I’ve always had an affinity for writing well and for grammar. So when Professor Clark said, “Do you want to do this?” I said, “Sure.” The class I teach is primarily focused on communication writing, and these are things that I do every day, so it seemed like a natural fit. And I enjoy teaching! I’ve also taught dance at my church and other places, and that’s always been fun for me. I like helping people learn about things – especially words. 

And all of the possible grammar jokes.

I know! There are so many!

And you also work as a marketing manager at Hencove, a business-to-business agency that specializes in the healthcare, technology, and finance fields. What initially drew you to that role?

After graduate school, I was looking for a job, as anybody else would. I was applying to the typical places that I knew Boston University had connections with. I had had an interview with one and an internship with another, and I just didn’t love them. I think they weren’t for me because they were only focused on PR, and I knew I wanted to do more than that. Then I stumbled upon Hencove, on LinkedIn actually, and I applied. I got an email that night saying, “Do you want to come in for an interview tomorrow?” and I said, “Sure!” That was a Friday, and I’m pretty sure I started Monday. It happened very fast. But I was drawn to Hencove because it was [a small agency], so I knew I would get to do more, as opposed to bigger agencies where it’s very hierarchical. And so far, that’s been true!

You definitely do a lot of work at Hencove and you also teach. How have you balanced those two jobs? Have there been any challenges you’ve had to overcome?

In terms of balancing, I have to set aside days where I’m preparing lessons or focused on grading, and interspersing that with work, and also making sure that there are days of self-care. As cheesy as that is, it’s definitely necessary. I would say the first semester was the hardest, just because I was getting my bearings and figuring out how I wanted to teach. It’s my third semester now, and it’s a lot easier, and all the students have been great so far. 

How has shifting to online learning impacted your teaching?

How has it not impacted all of us? My first semester was spring 2020, so I had the first six weeks in the classroom. Then we went completely online. That was a weird adjustment because I was trying to make sure I was providing the same value through the internet. You’re going to [lose some of the personal connection], but the students are still great. They’re trying to stay engaged and meet me part of the way, and I feel like that’s the only way we’re going to make it through these online semesters. 

Why do you think it’s so important for COM students to hear from professors like you, who are working in the industry?

I think the importance comes from not just having one professor, but having multiple, because you then get to see people in different industries. That’s where the real value comes in, just being able to see the places that you could go—seeing a professor that has their own agency that they’ve been running for 20 years, or one that has worked for an agency for five years. All the different perspectives that we can give are valuable, so students can visualize what they can do with their degrees. 

And what do you hope to leave your students with when they finish your class?

To understand that there’s more to communications than just PR or just advertising. I want people to recognize that they can gain the skills to write anything in the communications field, which is why we do so many [assignments] in this class. And learning to be a better writer. I think being an exquisite writer will take you so far, and not many people can do that. Being a great writer is a skill that applies to any discipline and any career. 

Chiara Marshall, Staff Writer

Born and raised in Bermuda, Chiara Marshall is a second-year in the College of Communications studying Advertising with a minor in Psychology. A life-long lover of storytelling, Chiara joined The COMmunicator to hone her skills in preparation for her future career. She looks forward to writing this semester. In her free time, Chiara can be found swimming, paddle boarding with friends, or baking.

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