Ai Addyson-Zhang

By Jenna Ranieri

After noticing very few people in the Public Relations and Media space look or thought like her, Dr. Ai Addyson-Zhang decided to “walk-the-talk” and disrupt the flow of the industry. At the time, she was a professor of Public Relations and social media at Stockton University. The longer she taught, the more she noticed a serious problem with the current education system.

“The question I heard a lot was ‘will this be on the exam,’ but I became a teacher for the sake of intellectual discussions, not to teach off an exam,” Addyson-Zhang said. “Nobody was really interested in learning for the sake of learning.”

Addyson-Zhang remembers these difficult years as she struggled to engage students, as she cried about how helpless it all seemed and as she searched for a different way to connect with the students she cared so deeply for. It grew time to completely disrupt the system. The change started three years ago when she began a live-streaming show that kicked off the #ClassroomWithoutWalls. This hashtag would grow into her very own company.

“My goal was to have students not only learning from me but from industry professionals,” Addyson-Zhang said. “My other motivation was, as a minority, to encourage more minorities like me to embrace the online space because it is a place for everyone.”

Classroom Without Walls focuses on the disruptive technique of learning which encourages students to experience the world outside the classroom and gain skills necessary for working life. Her approach is a degree does not adequately give students skills necessary for success. In her experience, skills such as copywriting and media posts were sub-par by students she worked with. The lack of these basic communicating skills costs companies’ money and resources as they untrain current habits and retrain new hires to think in a more media-focused way.

Her program at Classroom Without Walls is hybrid, partially online and partially in-person. With this model, students from around the globe interact with one another to find commonalities and learn from one another things they would not be able to in a typical classroom. Pre-COVID, her students were encouraged to take their education into the world, to travel and soak up as much as possible.

Diversity takes another key role at Classroom Without Walls as “digital mentors” from around the world take part in the intellectual process to meet (now virtually) and have real discussions with the students. Along the way, Addyson-Zhang learned from a peer the idea diversity is innovation. “I live by that. I want to innovate, and diversity will challenge you to think differently,” she said.

Thinking different is just the beginning of how Addyson-Zhang sees the future workplace. She envisions the slow demise of the 9-to-5 workday and the embrace of a gig-economy. She recognizes the importance of flexibility in one’s job to accommodate for life. This applies to both choosing one’s working hours as well as from where one works. By creating a more flexible workplace, we are allowing more diverse people to work. This is essential to improving the state of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the industry.

With all these new voices appearing and speaking up and creating, social media has become a place for everyone. However, with this expansion, it may be difficult for students to stand out and make themselves heard. Addyson-Zhang’s advice for this is to first get as much experience as possible and use social media.

“If you want to have your own voice heard, you need to learn how to use social media to create. Not be a lurker or consumer but become one of that 1% of internet users who create,” Addyson-Zhang said.

The ability to create is on the curriculum at Classroom Without Walls but the specifics of how it is learned is left to the students. One of the major problems in schools Addyson-Zhang found was the creation of the curriculum without input from children. This disconnect makes students feel lost. It leaves them without passion and disconnected from happiness.

“I want to send a message to the students, they just have so little confidence they feel lost in life, it is because their heart is asleep. And if I can really awaken it, I have a remarkable job.” Addyson-Zhang said.

An awakened heart we will all have as we learn from Addyson-Zhang and spread passion to those around us.

Jenna Ranieri received her undergraduate degree in journalism from DePaul University where she is now enrolled in the graduate public relations and advertising program with expected graduation in 2021. This is the fourth in a series of DE&I interviews with PR professionals.