Maria Len-Rios, associate professor and associate dean for academic affairs in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, helps students learn how to strategically plan public relations campaigns and to understand how public relations relates to a business’s finances.
Where did you earn degrees and what are your current responsibilities at UGA?
I earned my bachelor’s degree in speech communication, Spanish literature and international studies from Macalester College, a private liberal arts college in St. Paul, Minnesota. My master’s degree is from UGA’s Grady College—where I now work, which was a really wise choice. My doctorate is from the School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. As a research assistant at MU, I worked on a research project sponsored by the Ford Foundation that cataloged the state of research on gender and racial equality in news content and representation in newsrooms. Since earning my Ph.D., I’ve worked at the University of Kansas and was at Missouri 10 years as a faculty member before joining UGA.
Presently, I am a public relations professor and the associate dean for academic affairs in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. I teach undergraduate courses in public relations as well as graduate seminars in health communication and courses related to public opinion. As associate dean I represent the Grady College on various campus committees, as well as oversee undergraduate curriculum, student services, accreditation, faculty development, diversity efforts and more.
When did you come to UGA and what brought you here?
As a former UGA student, I loved my time in Athens and at Grady College—it was a great program then and has only gotten stronger over the years with top-notch faculty, bright, motivated students, hardworking staff and superb leadership. So, when an opportunity opened up to join the public relations faculty in 2014, I jumped at the chance.
What are your favorite courses and why?
One of my favorite courses to teach is “Public Relations Administration.” Because the course content varies based on the current state of business and industry, the content is “hot off the press,” and we have great discussions. Students learn how to think through strategic planning for public relations campaigns, to understand the fundamentals of how public relations relates to a business’s finances, and to discuss how to develop the leadership skills needed to move into management PR positions. We track Fortune 500 companies and see how global, environmental, policy, economic and cultural trends affect businesses and their public relations and communication needs. Students tell me that they learn a lot about what aspects of public relations they like and learn a lot about themselves and how businesses work.
What are some highlights of your career at UGA?
I’m completing my fourth year on faculty at UGA, and it is always a highlight to receive a letter from a student through the Center for Teaching and Learning’s “Thank-a-Teacher” program. The letters arrive at times throughout the year, and it is wonderful to know that your class made a difference to students and changed the way they see their learning and their goals in life. Also, serving for my first time as our college’s Commencement marshal in spring 2016 was a definite positive experience. The pageantry, excitement and combined emotional energy of all our graduates and their families in Sanford Stadium were incredible. I felt their collective positive force—students anticipating their best futures equipped with what they’d learned during their time at UGA. It’s inspiring. And, of course, it’s topped off with great fireworks. This year, I’m part of the Women’s Leadership Fellows Program and am getting to know and learn from an accomplished group of leaders who care about higher education and its future. It’s an unmatched opportunity I know I will treasure.
How do you describe the scope and impact of your research or scholarship to people outside of your field?
This past year, I, along with several leaders in the field of journalism, got to share ideas from my co-edited book, “Cross-cultural Journalism: Communicating Strategically About Diversity,” with the public at the Miami Book Fair. The audience voiced their concerns about getting good information from news sources to help them know about their communities and to participate in public life. I hope my work with my colleagues not only addresses important issues for improving excellence in journalism practice but also provides audiences with ways to assess information. My work is intended to help audiences identify whether the information news provides them is an accurate map of their communities, our country and the world.
How does your research or scholarship inspire your teaching, and vice versa?
One branch of my research centers on inequalities in media representations and in health communication and how these representations and communications shape our opinions on the experiences of others. My research helps me demonstrate to students how images and message framing are used to change the way audiences see companies, organizations and individuals as well as how this framing leads to certain actions or inaction.
What do you hope students gain from their classroom experience with you?
Public relations shapes culture and society. Public relations efforts change government policy, support corporate actions, mobilize individual actions and draw attention to advocacy groups. So I hope that after taking my courses, students know how to responsibly use the promise of public relations to ethically promote the betterment of society.
Describe your ideal student.
My ideal student is kind to others and him/herself, has a “can-do” attitude, recognizes that improvement comes from hard work and sees possibilities where others see limitations.
Favorite place to be/thing to do on campus is …
I enjoy the stillness of campus during finals, visiting the Georgia Museum of Art, and walking through the chatter on North Campus during class changes. I love watching the Georgia Gymdogs compete at Stegeman Coliseum, attending Grady’s homecoming alumni gathering on the Grady lawn, and hopping the UGA bus with students when I have to get to a meeting on the other side of campus. Also, Cook’s Holiday. I love that UGA Dining Services creates a special event for the community and UGA families to enjoy as a beautifully decorated evening with a scrumptious Christmas/holiday buffet dinner.
Beyond the UGA campus, I like to …
I do things with my family—whether it’s a kid’s soccer match, basketball game, golf lesson, church group meeting, library event, school volunteer event or theater—we’re busy. I travel to explore national parks, rural small towns, beaches or international destinations; read mystery books and biographies; garden; exercise and hike; bake all kinds of scones, crêpes, crumb cakes and layer cakes; and experiment with new savory meals à la Giada De Laurentiis or Ina Garten.
Favorite book/movie (and why)?
One of my favorite books is Amy Tan’s “The Joy Luck Club.” I like the way Tan captures how our family history shapes who we become. She also adeptly reveals the complicated yet strong bond of mother-daughter relationships that can impact us in ways that we only understand as we age. I also adore “La vida es sueño” by Pedro Calderón de la Barca. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but in this classic Spanish play, the author questions “What is life?” and asks whether our life is simply a dream. It’s a fascinating questioning of the human existence.
The one UGA experience I will always remember will be …
One semester my “Public Relations Communications” students, a faculty member from the College of Pharmacy and I went with Archway Partnership staff to an elementary school health clinic in rural Georgia to do research for materials to promote the school’s telehealth services. The stories we heard from the school nurses and counselor about how much the area children relied on the school clinic for health services were eye-opening. What we learned together and what I learned from my students about their experiences growing up will stick with me forever. Those students were professional, asked excellent questions and made the effort to learn about what they were writing about. They came up with exceptional materials for the school. One of the students even went on to intern for the governor. I enjoyed getting to do something in a Georgia community with our campus partners and offer our students a unique learning opportunity.