Faculty Focus: Kay O'Donnell, PhD

Posted on Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Kay O’ Donnell is a rarity in the communications business. She’s a journalist with a PhD, a veteran writer/editor/page designer/writing coach with stints at five newspapers since 1989.

 Dr. O'Donnell works with a student
 on the newspaper staff.

Look around the industry, at print, broadcast and digital media. Most full-time journalists have a bachelor’s degree. Few have a master’s. Almost no one has a PhD. ABC World News anchor Diane Sawyer doesn’t have a doctorate. Neither does NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams. Syndicated columnists Maureen Dowd and Leonard Pitts each have a Pulitzer Prize but no PhD.

Then there’s Dr. O’Donnell, with three degrees (the Triple Crown of higher ed) and a growing position of influence. She chairs the Mass Communication Department at Our Lady of the Lake University, teaches and serves as faculty advisor to The Lake Front, the university’s award-winning student newspaper. She also freelances for the San Antonio Express-News.

Mass Communication at OLLU
How did she wind up as a professor after years as a writer and editor? “That was always the plan,” she says.

Dr. O’Donnell grew up in Thibodaux, a small town east of New Orleans, the daughter of two educators. Her father taught high school and college English in Louisiana; her mother taught economics at universities in Louisiana and North Carolina.

She graduated from the University of Southwestern Louisiana with a bachelor’s in English and Journalism in 1987 and became a copy editor at the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “I loved journalism but hated the schedule,” Dr. O’Donnell says. “You worked a lot of holidays, nights and weekends.”

Soon, she began exploring the academic side of journalism. Dr. O’Donnell became a teaching assistant in a mass communications course at the University of New Orleans (UNO) while working at the Times-Picayune. Over the next several years, she earned a master’s in drama and communications at UNO, worked at small newspapers and became a news writing instructor at Louisiana State-Alexandria.

In 1994, she began work on her PhD in journalism at Southern Illinois University. A few years later, she moved to Texas and became a copy editor and features writer at the Express-News. A teaching job opened at OLLU in 2002. “I knew I had to go for it,” she says.

Today, one year after earning her PhD, she is moving the department forward. Under her guidance, The Lake Front won an unprecedented haul of awards in the spring. Students are securing internships and landing jobs. Dr. O’Donnell has transformed what was once known as “communication arts” into a more contemporary mass communication program.

“I don’t know if I could be as effective at a larger school,” Dr. O’Donnell says. “The small size of classes here is what I really like. I feel a connection with every class I have.”