The research of Aimée Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies, focuses on rhetoric and technology and digital composing. Like all faculty in the communication studies department, she is committed to digital innovation and civic engagement. Simply put, she specializes in how people communicate through words, images, sounds, or otherwise, online and on the page. The technologies that help people make connections drive the classes she teaches each semester.

In 2010, Knight saw an opportunity for her students to apply their coursework in social and civic media to help local nonprofits and community-based organizations develop their online communities. When students in a social media class started putting in extra hours outside of class and collaborating more effectively to guide their partner organizations, Knight realized the project could be more than an assignment. With the help of a few students, she founded Beautiful Social, a research center that offers local and national nonprofits free consulting to make their digital presence stronger and more effective. Today, SJU’s communication studies department directs it.

Students who work on Beautiful Social projects conduct research to help clients build sustainable social media strategies for a variety of platforms, including Facebook, Twitter, Flickr and blogs. Their client list now numbers 45, and includes the Chemical Heritage Society, Bartram’s Garden, Philly Sustainable Urban Development, the MS Society of the Greater Delaware Valley and the American Cancer Society Discovery Shop. At the end of the semester, students have a distinct portfolio of work that’s influenced how an organization communicates online, and can confidently add “social media consultant” to their resumes.

“Beautiful Social offers students a mix of theory and practice,” Knight says. “They have the opportunity to apply what we’re learning beyond the classroom walls in a way that focuses on civic engagement. Students work with established organizations to co-create online communication strategies while developing a specific skill set in community building.”

Laur Fiatoa ’14 wanted real-world experience that would position her to be competitive in a demanding job market. A communication studies major, she turned to Knight, her academic advisor, who suggested Fiatoa pursue an independent study to conduct advanced research in social media. This spring, her main project is planning Beautiful Social Community Day, an event inviting interested nonprofits to SJU’s campus for free social media evaluations.

The organizations that have benefitted from Beautiful Social’s initiatives are largely Philadelphia-based, but some have a national presence, giving students the opportunity to network with professionals like the communications manager of the Philadelphia Ronald McDonald House, Jennifer Shipman, who invited three student-consultants to planning meetings throughout the semester, including one with officials from Google+.

“When the organizations we’re working with take a special interest in their consultants, it adds to the students’ overall learning experience,” says Knight. “Some have turned their initial consulting opportunities into internships.”

Mike Lyons, Ph.D., assistant professor of communication studies and one of several faculty members devoted to the project in class and beyond, sees it as an evergreen opportunity for students to influence the community.

“Beautiful Social epitomizes what we’re trying to do in the communication studies department,” says Lyons. “Students go through a rigorous study of digital media theories and concepts, then they get out into the city and put them into practice. I’ve heard wonderful feedback from nonprofits that really got their outreach and communication strategies off the ground thanks to the work of our students.”