MJ Barnes

Faculty Spotlight: Melissa Jane "MJ" Barnes

Melissa Jane "MJ" Barnes with her dog Captain.
By Dalé

Melissa Jane "MJ" Barnes with her dog Captain.

Faculty Spotlight: Melissa Jane "MJ" Barnes

By Dalé
Life took many twists and turns to get MJ where she is today, but she wouldn’t change a thing.

MJ is the director of programs at the School of Communication and the managing director for the Orange Umbrella Student Consultancy.

1. What led you to becoming a professor?

As a second-semester sophomore, I took my first advertising class. On day one, my professor walked in and changed my life. Her zest, energy, engaging way of teaching, and passion for the subject matter lit a fire inside me. I knew right then and there that I wanted to be an advertising professor just like her.

Before going into teaching, I wanted to get real-world experience. My time as an account manager at CP+B Miami taught me so much and helped shape my perspective on advertising as a whole. 

Once my time at CP+B Miami had come to an end, I applied for a job at UM. My resume was being considered for an adjunct professor position in the School of Communication. When I came in for the interview, my heart literally skipped a beat, as this was something I had wanted to do since my sophomore year!

I started teaching Strategic Communication the spring of 2015 and was offered a full-time teaching position in 2016. It’s truly been a dream job ever since.

2. What drives you as a professor?

The communication field is a beautiful mix of creativity, innovation, research, culture, and technology. It’s full of unlimited possibilities, and frankly, the industry itself is a lot of fun. I loved working in the business full-time, and now it’s incredible to share that passion for the field with my students and watch them develop their own affinity for it. 

3. How did you develop your teaching philosophy?

My personal motto—both in and out of the classroom—is “kindness and collaboration.” In my experience, creatively driven solutions rarely happen overnight, and most importantly, they don’t happen alone. Since working at CP+B Miami to freelancing to building a student-run business at UM, I’ve seen the tremendous impact a kind and collaborative approach can have on those around you. Students thrive when they realize they are supported. Positive reinforcement breeds engagement, success, and momentum. So I do as much as I possibly can to foster a culture and a classroom filled with encouragement, appreciation, and engagement from everyone—no matter their role. I was taught at CP+B Miami that "great ideas can live anywhere." It means that we treat everyone with respect and with an open mind because you never know where the best idea will come from. 

Given my blended background in the industry and in education, I wholeheartedly believe that hands-on experience is the ultimate teacher. Even before I started working with Orange Umbrella, I infused real-world agency tactics and protocols into all my syllabi. I personally learned so much about my professional self the first few years on the job. It only felt right to give my students a leg up in the industry by teaching them those things early on—like how to write concise emails, how to meet strict deadlines, how to collaborate on a deck with your colleagues, how to present to large audiences, how to be interviewed in front of others, and so on.

Now that Orange Umbrella exists, we have an even greater opportunity for students across the entire campus to learn what the real world is like, but more importantly, for them to become confident professionals who can put their incredible skills to work. And then see that work exist out in the real world.

4. How do you engage your students in the classroom?

Well, first of all, I think I am hilarious. Just by saying that, I’m certain that I’m not. But I do try to keep things lighthearted and entertaining. In the end, this is just communication—not open-heart surgery. We take our work seriously, but we also have fun along the way.

Additionally, I actively support all of our students having a voice and a seat at our table. They all approach this differently and share unique pieces of themselves with us, but I believe by encouraging them to feel welcome, supported, and at home, they are more likely to find their niche, engage with the work, and feel comfortable in expressing their opinions. This only helps them thrive as professionals because they can then start their careers confident in who they are and what they have to say.

5. Why do you teach? 

There is no greater joy in my life other than to watch others thrive. To connect people and see their lives change for the better. To assist in the development of confidence and skills that enable them to overcome challenges. To witness personal successes. If I can have some small part in any of those things, I believe my life’s purpose is being fulfilled.

6. What class do you enjoy teaching the most?

Every class I’ve taught at UM has had an impact on me in the best way possible, particularly because of the students.

However, being part of building the Orange Umbrella business and its network is hands down the best experience of my life—both personally and professionally. To see something evolve from two students and myself at a table in January of 2017 to now 77 students, 5 departments, and a network of 240+ other students since then—it’s beyond rewarding.

The support we get from UM has driven much of our success. Alumni, clients, and UM professors all sit on our advisory board. Our clients mentor and hire our students. The relationships all intertwine and create this breeding ground that shapes and benefits students’ lives for the better in a capacity I could have never imagined. It’s the best job in the world, and I can’t imagine it being any more rewarding than it already is.

7. How do you help students understand your topic? 

I give a LOT of ownership to the students. I love to manage, but more specifically, I love to empower. When students are given responsibility, they step up and own the outcome. Even if it is uncomfortable initially, they always learn and grow from the experience. So whether it’s selling a client on our services or emailing an advisor they’ve never met before, students learn by doing—by owning—by growing into the role that’s been set before them.

8. What are your goals as a professor? 

For my students, I want to see them thrive in the real world and ultimately find their passions. I love to see them graduate and step into full-time employment or grad school with confidence in who they are and what they’re capable of accomplishing. 

When they start their first job, I want them to know the basics of the professional world and say, for example, “Oh, I already know how to update a Status Report or take a client call.” They’re already a step ahead, and because of that, they’re highly sought after and set apart from their peers.

For Orange Umbrella, I want to see our network continue to grow. I want to see us take on bigger clients and more expansive deliverables. I would love to see OU receive national press coverage for the incredible impact this teaching methodology is having on our students and for the pioneering work we’ve done in experiential education. But above all, I want Orange Umbrella to be the best possible business we can be, while still being a safe, supportive, and encouraging environment for our students.

9. What is the biggest piece of advice for someone thinking of going into this field of study?

Take an aptitude test. Whether you want to be a professor, a managing director of a business, or a student at Orange Umbrella, take steps in self-discovery to understand the things you do well, the things you’re passionate about, and the areas you should avoid. Those results will steer you in a direction that will give you motivation to work versus fighting the obligation to do work or get a degree just because that’s what all your friends are doing. In the end, the more you know about yourself, the more active you can be in setting up scenarios that ensure your success.

Get real-world experience and grow your network. Experience will look different for everyone, but it will enrich your passion and your confidence. Similarly, your network is your currency for opportunities. Your network is the richest territory to gain insight and opportunity into what it is you want to do with your life. The more you can grow meaningful connections around you, the greater chance you have of achieving your professional goals.

10. Do you believe that what you teach your students can relate to their everyday life?

Since the days when I was a teaching assistant, I’ve never seen anything from the classroom translate so well to the working world like the Orange Umbrella experience. OU truly transforms lives—not just professionally, but also personally. Our OU students become more confident, more inquisitive, more open, more collaborative, more supportive, and more sure of what they want. Employers tell me that OU students make great hires because they already know the basics of the working world, sometimes even skipping entry-level roles immediately after graduating.

Beyond that, the tactics and truths we live by in Orange Umbrella make our students better and stronger individuals. When students are pursuing their passions, putting their skills to work, seeing their creativity come to life, and are being challenged by those around them, they become the best version of themselves. I’ve seen it time and time again, and it’s why they leave OU better than when they started.

11. How does your teaching style differ from others?

You could say I’m an “unconventional” professor. I was unconventional even before I started with Orange Umbrella. The real world is my guidepost, and students are hungry for opportunity. I treat students as my equals, and I talk to them as my peers. I see it as my duty to usher in the ways of the real world—good and bad—to students while they’re still in a comfortable, safe learning environment.

By seeing how things operate early on, they can a) be prepared for what’s out there, but also b) find ways to innovate and optimize the traditional ways of doing things. They can disrupt the status quo and enact change early on.

This is why students at this level are so invaluable. They enthusiastically bring their brightest ideas to the table, without being jaded or hurt by the working world. So I approach each day as an opportunity to elicit the best from my students, in a way that balances friendliness, positivity, truth, and comfort with the highest levels of expectations.

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