Skip to main content
A photo of a residence in Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville taken by one of the students involved in the project, Lisa Leturno, an advertising major.
A photo of a residence in Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville taken by one of the students involved in the project, Lisa Leturno, an advertising major.

UT senior Gabby Miller has spent her summer using the public relations skills she’s learned in the classroom to help local adults affected by autism.

She and her seventeen classmates in in Associate Professor Courtney Childers’s capstone Campaigns course have been creating an integrated marketing communications strategy for Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville, a local autism support organization. The PR and advertising students’ goal is to raise awareness of the nonprofit in hopes of supporting a future fundraising campaign.

The project is an example of Experience Learning, the university’s new initiative that promotes experiential learning and encourages students to apply classroom learning to solve real-world problems. Experience Learning, which kicks off this fall, is the university’s new Quality Enhancement Plan for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools’ Commission on Colleges.

Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville provides residential services, in-home support, personal assistance, day activities, a therapeutic recreation program, job skill development, and social activities for youth and adults with autism. The organization also has built a neighborhood in South Knoxville that provides safe and economic housing to people with autism.

Instead of conducting their research from behind their desks, Miller and her classmates from the School of Advertising and Public Relations in the College of Communication and Information have been getting to know residents in Autism Breakthrough of Knoxville’s neighborhood and talking with the organizations’ executives. The students say this hands-on project is giving them experience they’ve never had before.

“This is giving me such a better look on the PR profession. It is giving us a look at what our lives can look like outside of school,” said Miller, who is majoring in PR. “With previous projects, we never seemed to get the full picture, but with this project it has been really interesting to immerse ourselves and feel a little more tied to it.”

She says the hands-on aspect of the assignment is providing students with a new prospective that will be immensely helpful in the creation of effective campaigns for the nonprofit.

“We are used to being like outsiders looking in while working on projects,” Miller said. “Being within gives you a different outlook. All of a sudden you are an insider and you have a totally different look on how the operation works.”

Childers has been pairing her students with community organizations since her arrival at UT in 2006. Working with real clients encourages students to exchange conversation and ideas during the campaign process.

“Students learn from the client; the client learns from the students,” Childers said. “It’s an invaluable experience that takes students well beyond a typical Microsoft Word case study document and into an actual real-world environment.”

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,