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Chicago firm creates opportunities for FHSU students
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A group of 25 Fort Hays State University graphic design students listen to Ellsworth native Kerri Soukup, now with a Chicago advertising firm.

HAYS – Her message was simple, but inspiring nonetheless. 

“This year is about meaningful impact,” Kerri Soukup told a group of 25 Fort Hays State University graphic design students setting up their portfolios in the Robbins Center. 

Soukup was one of three advertising executives from Leo Burnett Worldwide in Chicago on campus for the day to review the students’ portfolios. 

The grand prize for all those days – and nights – of hard work for the students was twofold: the possibility of winning scholarship money and a chance at earning a summer internship at the one the largest ad agencies in the world. 

Soukup, who grew up in Ellsworth and graduated from FHSU in 1997, spoke from experience about the meaningful impact the university’s graphic arts program had on her journey. 

As a student taking general education classes at Hutchinson Community College, Soukup took a lettering class as an elective one semester. 

That decision ultimately changed her life. 

During that class, the instructor took her students to an American Institute of Graphic Arts portfolio review in Wichita. 

“I saw all these tables of Fort Hays State students’ work, and they really stood out,” Soukup said. “I knew right then that’s what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go to school.” 

FHSU students have been impressing Leo Burnett executives for a quarter of a century. 

This marks the 25th anniversary of Leo Burnett Portfolio Review and scholarship awards. During the first few years of the awards, students sent their portfolios to Chicago for review. Soukup, who was recruited from FHSU to work at Leo Burnett shortly after graduation, has been coming to the Fort Hays State campus with other Leo Burnett representatives for nearly 20 years. 

“One of the most fulfilling and rewarding things is to give back to these students,” she said, “to give back to a program that gave so much to me. It’s awesome to come here and scout interns and to give out scholarships.” 

In an effort “to really make a difference in the students’ lives,” Soukup was instrumental in helping start the “Pencil Project” last year where students were given the challenge to “Create It. Write It. Be it.” 

“We wanted to see a collection of their work, their story,” she said. 

Twelve students applied and sent their work to Chicago for that project. Soukup and co-workers Tuan Huynh and Tracie Roberson evaluate the projects for about a week, then make their final decision during the reviews Monday. 

“We had an idea of about five or so from their submissions before we came,” Soukup said. “But we wanted to see the ‘Be it.’ and how their presence embodied their work.” 

Rayvon Lewis, a junior from Blue Springs, Mo., went away the big winner – earning a $10,000 award for his Pencil Project. But Soukup told all the students she wanted them “all to find your unique story and find your super power.” 

“No matter what you’re working on, always ask ‘What’s more?’ ” Soukup said. 

Soukup told the story of how, following graduation from FHSU, she had taken a job as a waitress at a restaurant while awaiting acceptance to graduate school. 

“I thought I didn’t want to do advertising, and I didn’t want to live in Chicago,” she said. “I wanted to be at a small design firm and change the world.” 

“Have any of you ever passed up an opportunity because you were afraid of the outcome?” Soukup asked. “I almost did that. I want everyone to be able to see that your path can be whatever you make it.” 

After landing the job as an associate art director back in 1998, it didn’t take Soukup long to advance quickly in the company, and she now bears the titles of executive creative director and executive vice president. 

There are about 6,000 applicants for internships each year at Leo Burnett for only 40 spots. Of those 6,000, about 1,000 applicants are in the creative department, and only 15 are chosen. Because of the relationship between Leo Burnett Worldwide and FHSU, they reserve two of those 15 spots for FHSU students. 

“This is such a wonderful opportunity for our students,” said Karrie Simpson Voth, chair of the Department of Art and Design and professor of graphic design. “It’s also great for recruitment.” 

Simpson Voth was one of the first recipients of a Leo Burnett scholarship back in 1994. The following year, she received an interview and offer to work for the company, but she had already committed to going to graduate school. When the opportunity came around again for another offer, she had just accepted a position at FHSU, teaching graphic design. 

“The time and energy Kerri, Tuan, and Tracie put into these students during their one-on-one reviews is invaluable,” Simpson Voth said. “The students never get more thoughtful feedback anywhere else they present their work, and that is because of the relationship we have built over the years and the students who go on to work for them. They want to pass on that impact to the upcoming students.” 

The morning presentation by the Leo Burnett trio was followed by six-plus hours of personal reviews with all the students, making for a long day. 

But Simpson Voth said that it’s important for the students to hear validation of their work, concepts and skills as well as constructive criticism on how to improve upon what they have. 

“They hear it from Chaiwat (Thumsujarit) and me all the time, but the input from Kerri, Tuan and Tracie adds the voice of industry, which is powerful,” she said. 

It was an even more challenging day for Hill City sophomore Annalise Albrecht. She tripped over her dog’s chain on the stairs and sprained her ankle on her way to the evening scholarship presentation and had to call a friend to help her get to the Robbins Center in time. 

It was worth the extra effort for Albrecht, one of the nine students awarded a $250 Leo B. scholarship. Four larger scholarships were awarded to two seniors and two juniors for first- and second-place overall portfolios. 

Albrecht, a graphic design and photography major, said she first got into art because of her mom and is glad she chose Fort Hays State to continue her education after high school. 

“My mom is an artist and always inspired me and encouraged me,” Albrecht said, “and this is a great program.”