Person looking at laptop computer with chart and four faces on the screen

New skills-building program prepares professionals to collaborate with, manage and lead diverse teams

Public relations and advertising master’s student Emily Chae is Korean American and her breakout room partner, communication management master’s student Jenisty Colon, is Latinx. Although they are in different academic programs, they met virtually during a conversation around the difficulties of growing up in the United States, where they feel their cultural identities aren't always fully embraced. 

“I’m not American enough,” Chae said. “Or I'm not Korean enough. “Through the character-building or problem-solving tasks, we were able to become personal with each other and share connections.”

This Fall, Chae is among the first master’s students in the Managing Complexity in Diverse Organizations (MCDO) program, a new online professional skills-building program at USC Annenberg that prepares future communications professionals to create and support inclusive environments, and to help advance equity and representation across the communication and media landscape.

“Being encouraged, but never pushed by our instructor, helped me to break out of the barriers that I was used to,” Chae said. “The whole structure of the class was to have everyone's voices be heard.”

This Fall, more than 100 students are taking the eight-week, learner-centered program that equips them with the skills to collaborate with, manage and lead across teams with diverse backgrounds and expertise. 

Working in small groups led by faculty facilitators, students explore topics such as fostering connection and inclusive cultures; managing implicit biases and power; understanding the impact of technology on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA); creating representative and inclusive content; and developing habits and strategies to effect lasting change. Participants also engage in relevant case studies, simulations and problem-solving activities that provide opportunities to apply new skills in the context of contemporary DEIA issues. 

“We developed the MCDO program to address a critical competency for 21st-century professionals: the ability to create, sustain and thrive within diverse work environments.,” said USC Annenberg Dean Willow Bay. “We believe this innovative curriculum will complement and enhance what students are learning in their degree programs.”

According to Suzanne Alcantara, assistant dean of student affairs, these skills are in high demand.

“We’re increasingly seeing ‘cultural sensitivity’ included as a required competency in job postings,” Alcantara said. ”Demonstrating those skills will be an important differentiator for our graduates.” 

Likewise, Chae recognizes the value the MCDO program has for herself personally and for her future employer. 

“I think specifically with our generation, we're moving toward a more diverse culture and so it's really important to implement those characteristics into the industries that we're going into,” Chae said. “We need to create this chain reaction within companies.”

More than a dozen USC Annenberg faculty members worked closely with Bay, school directors Hector Amaya and Gordon Stables, and the Minerva Project to develop the MCDO curriculum. Minerva’s learning management platform, Forum, is used to deliver a synchronous virtual classroom environment that facilitates active learning. 

“The active learning modality that’s front and center in MCDO is what makes this a unique experience for students,” said Laura Castañeda, professor of professional practice of journalism and MCDO academic lead. “In this live discussion format, students explore, connect and problem solve together in small groups.”

Earlier this year, 80 USC Annenberg students, faculty and alumni were invited to participate in MCDO’s pilot program to help test and refine the course’s scope and learning outcomes before its official launch this Fall. 

USC Annenberg Alumni Advisory Board members Hannah Vega and Marissa Borjon both completed the pilot program. Vega, who earned her bachelor’s in journalism in 2018, said the course provided her with an understanding of how to navigate existing power structures and help facilitate new pipelines.

“Everything is very significant and it builds; something you read two weeks before continues on” said Vega, a talent manager for Warner Bros. Discovery’s Magnolia Network. “I think this course really allows you to have a voice.”

Borjon, who earned her MA in strategic public relations in 2010, said USC Annenberg students preparing to take the course can look forward to a journey of self-growth. 

“The MCDO program is going to make even stronger and better agents of change coming out of USC Annenberg,” Borjon said. “Future leaders walk away from this course being more knowledgeable about what it means to lead with empathy, and what it means to be an attentive listener, to have a people-first mentality, and to encourage and foster collaboration, motivation and engagement.”

The MCDO program was recently piloted with a group of global communication executives in tech who reported a satisfaction rate of 95%. All respondents strongly agreed or agreed that they can use what they learned in the course in the future and that the course stimulated new ways of applying the skills and knowledge they learned. Similar data was collected following the initial April 2022 MCDO pilot in which 91% of USC Annenberg students reported they were satisfied or highly satisfied with the program.

“The consistency between the impact measurement data from our corporate and master’s student cohorts serves to further validate the impact and learners’ ability to immediately apply their new skill set,” said Abha Ahuja, academic program director at Minerva Project. 


The MCDO program is a core and mandatory experience for all graduate students in the School of Communication and the School of Journalism’s public relations and advertising program. 

The MCDO Curriculum Development Committee members include: Laura Castañeda (academic lead), Morten Bay, Clarissa Beyah, Melanie Cherry, Adam Day, Joseph Itaya, Elizabeth Luke, Freddy Tran Nager, Courtney Pade, Brad Shipley, Christopher H. Smith, Lindsay Stanton, Neil Teixeira, and Tina Vennegaard.