Most undergraduate students would happily celebrate having one paper accepted at a national conference; they would view such an achievement as the pinnacle of academic success.
Imagine then, an undergraduate who has presented at three conferences.
Senior communications student Braden East did just that this academic year.
Most recently, East attended the Central States Communication Association conference in Milwaukee and presented “Prime Real Estate: Branding University Syllabi,” a study designed to help professors connect better with their students through course syllabi.
Particularly impressive, communications professor and division chair Dr. Vickie Ellis said, is that this paper was written in conjunction with his professors.
East, Ellis, communications professor Dr. Kaylene Barbe and adjunct professor of communications studies and language/literature Ann McNellis submitted the project as part of a professional competitive papers panel.
Collaboration with professors isn’t unheard of, but it is uncommon, as is the diverse approach to communication theory.
East’s work deals with political communication, family communication and public relations, and he is well-versed in all three.
“This is rare,” Ellis said. “In my career, I have never worked with an undergrad who committed to three unique areas and pursued original research in all three areas. Two of his studies were qualitative in nature and one was quantitative,” she said.
“OBU has had countless research successes; nevertheless, in my time as an undergraduate professor, I’ve never seen this level of national conference success. I’m honored to have had the opportunity to be a part of his OBU experience.”
That OBU experience has included courses and mentoring that East said was invaluable to his scholastic achievements.
“Dr. Barbe and Dr. Ellis instructed the two courses for which my first papers were written – that was in the Fall of 2016,” he said.
“I spent several long hours in each of their offices that semester, and they went out of their way to make sure I was fully equipped to produce stellar papers and present them to other scholars in our field,” he said.
“Dr. Ellis taught a course called Communication Research, without which I would have been completely helpless. I’ve had a huge number of faculty and students who really, deeply cared about my academic, professional and spiritual growth.”
Last year, East presented “Branding Trump: Fantasy Themes in Ads from the Clinton Campaign” at the same conference in a research poster session.
That study focused on campaign advertising, branding and rhetoric from the 2016 presidential election—topics that were highly relevant.
This was preceded by “Since When Have You Been Sick? Health Communication Between College Students and Their Families,” which he presented at the National Communication Association conference in Dallas in 2017.
Of the three projects, East said he enjoyed them equally, and found all had deeper educational implications.
“They were all so unique and valuable experiences,” he said. “You learn so much more with every study. The scientific process is always in a state of change and evolution as we try new ways to take our biases out of our research and expose how the world works behind the scenes. Great research is a blend of creativity and objectivity, which is somewhat like a big picture view of higher education itself.”
East said he did not set out to complete and present so many studies during the previous year.
In fact, he said he didn’t really have much interest in scientific research at all before coming to Bison Hill, and initially believed it was not a major component in communication studies.
“I couldn’t be more grateful that I was wrong,” he said. “My first conference was so fantastic, I decided I wanted to attend as many as possible before graduating – but that meant writing as many research studies as possible.”
Those research papers and conference experiences have provided valuable professional skills as well. And, he said he had to actively combat a form of senioritis as he prepared for his final year in college.
“Every senior experiences some kind of purpose ambiguity as they approach graduation,” he said.
“I went through the same thing. It was only this month that I decided to pursue graduate school, get a PhD, and eventually teach college. Now, I know how far behind I would be had I not invested everything into those research projects and classes. Academic research looks fantastic on any resume, but for me, it means I’ll be competent (or at least not incompetent) when I have to write a doctoral thesis or teach a class on research methods.”
Pushing through his “purpose ambiguity” has paid off; his analytical competency and research skills will serve him in future endeavors.
“Braden has already had a host of career opportunities come his way, even in the last few weeks,” Ellis said. “I have no doubt that no matter what he chooses to do, he will do the work joyfully and for God’s glory. I am so excited for him.“
East’s undergrad success may be exceptional, but he said he believes any student can excel with the right mindset.
“To quote Jordan B. Peterson,” he said, ‘stand up straight with your shoulders back.’ Be confident. People who believe they can learn anything, really can.”
He also encourages other students to engage their mind whenever possible.
“Read books. I’m like most students – it’s hard to read on my own time and I struggle with assigned readings. Instead, I listen to audiobooks (mostly nonfiction) on my commute and at the gym.”
In addition to mindset, East said he credits support from his family as a motivating factor.
“My wife [Natalie] is loving, supportive, and challenges me intellectually,” he said.
They are both working on completing their education— he at OBU and she at OU studying nursing.
Because they are both students, he said his wife understands the inherent stress in excelling in the classroom and maintaining positive relationships with professional mentors.
Natalie said she appreciates his accomplishments and credits OBU faculty with much of that success.
“I’m really proud of him and so thankful for his professors,” she said. “I love seeing them pour into him every day.”
Pouring into him means they recognize all of his strengths—not just the ones whom land him in multiple national conferences.
Ellis said she is proud of East, but not only for his intellectual prowess.
“I’m especially proud that through all of his scholarly successes, he has displayed a humble heart and a godly spirit,” she said.
“He consistently puts others ahead of himself. Because Braden has so thoughtfully and lovingly reflected Jesus, those who have had the opportunity to be around him have been inspired to be more caring and more curious. At every conference, Braden will go to support all of his peers and professors. He also encourages professors and peers from other institutions with his insightful questions and comments.”
Ellis said she also admires East’s professionalism and ability to synthesize complicated concepts while debating respectfully with scholars in those areas.
“At the last conference in Milwaukee, two of our OBU scholars were presenting on a competitive paper panel made up of six scholars,” Ellis said.
“At the end, when the panel opened for questions, two professors coming from opposite philosophical perspectives began to argue the merits of qualitative versus quantitative communication research. In a respectful, but assertive tone Braden looked at both of them and said, ‘We need both.’ At that, the professors in the back agreed and the firestorm was over.”
That clear sense of purpose and ability to articulate himself well can now serve other students; he offered current undergraduates some advice based on his own experiences on campus.
East said he encourages undergraduates to take advantage of the tools at their disposal in order to see the maximum benefit from their degree plan.
In general, he said, students should engage in their community and become involved in their field of study.
To that end, East has served as a tutor in the Student Success Center, officer of Lamba Pi Eta (Communication Studies National Honor Society) and as a student worker for the Division of Communication Arts.
He juggles these other responsibilities in addition to his coursework and family responsibilities, and he said that can be a challenge.
But he recognizes the need to take care of oneself in order to realize his or her full potential.
“I’ve learned that self-care is vital,” he said. “Physical health spills over into every other facet of health. Seriously. Good sleep and exercise were the only way I stayed sane and low-stress during especially difficult semesters.”
More specifically, he advises students to bolster their academic experience as much as they possibly can.
“Make the most of being on a campus like OBU,” he said. “Your professors are thrilled when you stop by their office or schedule an afternoon to get coffee with them, but you’re always getting the better end of the deal. These people are the ones who will stand out as glowing references on your resume. Never turn down an opportunity to listen to someone you respect, and ask a lot of questions.”
East also indicated undergrads need to use available tools, ask questions and plan ahead.
“There is a wealth of resources available to students that most don’t know about because they don’t ask,” he said. “This could be as simple as ‘What internships are available in my discipline?’ Ultimately, pray and think hard about your purpose, and write those thoughts down. What could you do and enjoy for the rest of your life? When you have a long-game mentality, it is 100 times easier to make sacrifices and difficult choices for that