Online UT Grad Student Serves Her Country While Advancing Her Education 

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Category: Feature Story | Communication and Information, Strategic and Digital Communication (SDC)

Navigating coursework for any degree can be challenging for students, including those who are working full time in the National Guard or active-duty military.

ONLINE MASTER’S PROGRAM FITS ALL SCHEDULES

After working in several countries, including Germany, Guyana, Poland, Ukraine, and Romania, with the National Guard, Kealy Moriarty decided to pursue a master’s degree in Communications and Information with a concentration in Strategic and Digital Communication from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Kealy is a 10-year veteran with the Tennessee National Guard, six of which she spent serving as a public affairs officer.  

“Due to the nature of my job, I knew that I would not be able to commit to traditional, in-person classes. This program has allowed me to not only continue my career and education goals simultaneously, it has provided me with tools that I am able to apply in real time.”

— Kealy Moriarty, Online Student, Communications & Information, Strategic Digital Communication

Kealy currently works for the Tennessee National Guard as the deputy director for the Joint Public Affairs Office within the Tennessee Military Department. Following her first overseas mission in Romania, Kealy was offered a position as a public affairs officer. Following this, she worked with organizations such as the U.S. Army Europe Command and NATO. In addition, she has worked crisis communications for the Tennessee National Guard during multiple natural disaster relief operations. This path led her to pursue a master’s degree in Communications and Information with a concentration in Strategic and Digital Communication.  

“I received phenomenal support from my professors and advisors, such as swag care packages full of program-specific notebooks, cups, and coasters. It made me feel like I was really a part of the program and that they valued me as a student.”

— Kealy Moriarty, online graduate student

Kealy received her undergraduate degree in American History from Mississippi State University in 2016. She will earn her master’s degree in December 2022. 

Q&A with Kealy Moriarty on her experience as an online student

What are your career goals?

When I first joined the Tennessee National Guard, my goal was to deploy and then work full-time for the Guard. After my first overseas mission, I added to that goal because I found a passion in public relations. From there, I set a goal to still deploy but then work full-time in Nashville with the Joint Public Affairs Office (JPAO) at the Tennessee National Guard’s headquarters. After two years working for JPAO, I was promoted to the position of deputy director for the Tennessee National Guard’s Joint Public Affairs Office.  

Throughout my career so far, I have been able to travel, meet new people, gain incredible friendships, experience opportunities I never thought I would, and find my passion. I’ve been able to get in the weeds of the military and see how it feels to be on the front lines or behind enemy forces. All these experiences have collectively formed my new career goal, which is to pursue strategic communications at the highest level. 

What led you to pursue a master’s degree online? How has your experience been so far? 

Online learning provides the flexibility to continue working while advancing my academic goals. My job can be very unpredictable, and it often takes me all over the world. One day I might be in the office, and the next day, I am flying in a UH-60 Blackhawk to the Smoky Mountains to cover a story on our natural disaster response. Because of this, I could not commit to traditional, in-person classes.  

This program has enhanced my writing and communication capabilities, which is very useful for my career. This program has provided me with knowledge and tools that I can directly use in my full-time job. I especially liked that the program consists of asynchronous courses that can be selected from all four of the college’s schools, including courses in public relations, advertising, journalism and electronic media, communications studies, and information sciences. The staff and professors have been beyond helpful and very accommodating to my schedule. While pursuing my degree, I had multiple missions outside the state and country and worked crisis communication throughout the COVID-19 pandemic and several other natural disasters. I would not have been able to do all this and complete my degree without the flexibility of the program and the understanding of the faculty.  

Why did you choose to complete your master’s in strategic and digital communication? 

When I first joined, I knew I wanted to pursue a path in some sort of communications, and for me, that meant public affairs or civil affairs. The military offers a great program for public affairs where they train candidates in Fort Meade, Maryland, for anywhere from three to six months. Following this military school, I deployed to Ukraine in 2018 and then Poland in 2019, where I worked as a public affairs officer at two multinational bases. It was an incredible experience because I could tell the story of all the great things our men and women were doing. Additionally, I got to learn about every job there is and embed with them. Once I came back to the States in 2020, I began to work at the state office and worked for the Tennessee National Guard as a whole. As multiple natural disasters began to impact our state and nation, I realized I wanted to learn more about strategic communications and communication planning at a larger level. This led me to pursue my master’s in strategic and digital communication.  

What is a day in the life of a public affairs officer, and how have you been able to balance your career and educational pursuits?  

We operate similarly to a newsroom in that we have our community outreach team, journalists, photographers, and media relations. The only major difference is that we manage internal and external media relations. Our goal is to provide Tennesseans with fast and accurate information that could be useful to them in these situations while also keeping the public informed of our involvement. As the deputy director, I manage the office, assign assignments, develop communication strategies and advise leaders on internal and external communication. I also copyedit all of our digital and print products. If I am not too busy with office work or if we are low on journalists, I will go cover stories, particularly those that may be more national news. The balance can be tricky at times, especially if I am in a completely different time zone or without the internet. Luckily, my professors were more than accommodating and worked with me during those times.  

How did you know you wanted to be part of the National Guard? 

I come from a military family. My dad flew F-18 Fighter Jets in the Navy, and my grandfather is a retired rear admiral. I grew up with five siblings, played several sports, and always knew I wanted to work for an organization with a team mentality. While at Mississippi State University (MSU), I joined the Army ROTC program and immediately knew this was my path. The military is a unique community filled with talented people who serve one another and the community.  

What made you decide on the National Guard instead of active-duty military? 

I made this decision during my senior year at MSU. The National Guard appealed to me at the time because I could stay in Tennessee and serve my community. I knew I wanted to travel and work full time, and I could achieve both of these goals in the National Guard. I wanted to stay in Tennessee, decide where I wanted to live, and what career I wanted to pursue—not all of these are guaranteed in active duty. So far, I have greatly enjoyed my time in the Tennessee National Guard. Not only have I worked overseas, but I have been able to work during several domestic operations and partner with other agencies within the state.  

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