29-year-old Manuelita Maldonado lived in Bogotá, Colombia her entire life, until in 2018, when she left to pursue a master’s degree in strategic public relations at USC - a leap of faith that would both test her resolve and eventually, pay off in a big way.

Two years later, Maldonado earned the degree and only two weeks ago, topped off the achievement by receiving the 2020 Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year Award from the Institute for Public Relations. Maldonado received the award for her thesis “The Rise of Intelligent Machines: How Artificial Intelligence is Transforming the PR Industry.”

Maldonado’s path to the degree and the award started with her decision to move past her old job as an English teacher in Colombia, a decision that according to her, was done out of necessity.

Maldonado comes from an educated family. Her father is a doctor and both of her sisters have masters degrees. The concept of being a first-generation college student was something that she had never heard of until she came to the United States. Maldonado said that as opposed to it being an optional choice, pursuing a master’s degree was primarily a means of navigating past the stifling condition of social mobility in Colombia.

Maldonado said that her previous employer was “absolutely not willing” to promote her unless she had a master’s degree. Soon enough, she found herself studying at USC and adapting to her new environment.

Two factors that helped Maldonado’s transition to the United States were the fact that she knew how to speak English and would now be in closer proximity to her boyfriend, Scott Kirk, with who she had maintained a long-distance relationship with for some time.

However, acclimating to her new life did not come without challenges.

The first few months were tough for Maldonado. She missed her family and although she was closer to Kirk, he was still a ways away, living in San Luis Obispo. Maldonado recalled feeling lonely and not having deep connections with the friends she made throughout the program. Even seeking help was a frustrating experience.

One day, after being anxious and upset over an incident that occurred at the house she was staying at, Maldonado spoke with a psychologist at USC. “They spoke English, and when you’re upset, the last thing you want to do is say what you’re feeling in a different language. It doesn’t come to you naturally,” she said.

Maldonado also grappled with cultural differences when she came to the United States, specifically ones rooted in race. She said “You have to adjust to the fact that, here you’re a person of color. I’ve never heard that in my life… I wasn’t a person of color in my country, I was just me.”

Being a person of color was an adjustment for Maldonado, who had to navigate tokenism in her field of work. She said “You’re also told: ‘Oh don’t worry, everybody will hire you because you’re a woman and you’re of color’… it’s a little odd.”

Maldonado was also tasked with searching for a job while she wrote her thesis. Finding work in the U.S. was particularly important for her, as the loans she has received are based in dollars. If she were to return home, the loans would multiply under the Colombian peso. Her job search was difficult, as some employers were skittish at the idea of sponsoring her and being required to pay for costs associated with her visa.

While acclimating to her new life in the U.S. and attempting to find a job, Maldonado still had to give special attention to her thesis.

Her thesis covers the intersection between public relations and how artificial intelligence can and has been used to measure communication effectiveness and collect insights into the nuances of the media landscape.

She started constructing the thesis early on in the two-year program and was already conducting research by her second semester.

Manuelita Maldonado won Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year
Manuelita Maldonado won Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year

“I wanted everything to be perfect and I just honestly, really enjoyed the topic,” Maldonado said. “I thought it was fascinating.” Maldonado recalled nights where her roommates would invite her out for drinks or the chance to go out and do something but Maldonado declined and stayed as committed to her work as she could.

Despite her early start to the thesis, the pandemic put an added amount of strain on Maldonado to complete her work. Maldonado had a number of classmates request extensions for their theses in light of COVID-19, but Maldonado did not have the same option. As an international student, Maldonado had strict restrictions on her visa and because of that, had to finish her thesis on time.

The thesis was received well by her professors and after it was submitted, Fred Cook, the director of the USC Center for Public Relations, told Maldonado to apply for the Makovsky Best Master’s Thesis of the Year Award. Maldonado ended up applying but not without a few hitches.

She applied a mere five minutes before the deadline and had doubts about whether or not she would actually win. Her doubts were made even stronger when she discovered a typo in her submission. “It was driving me nuts. I was like, oh my gosh of course they’re not gonna give me the award. I have a typo,” Maldonado said.

Maldonado’s work must have spoken for itself, as she won the award and the $2,000 grant that came with it. She said, “It was really good news to receive for sure, especially during this time.”

Maldonado credited her family, boyfriend and professors for their ongoing support during her academic journey.

Maldonado is now a technology intern at Golin, a public relations agency.

Correction: In a pervious version of this article, Fred Cook’s name was spelled incorrectly. Correction made 10/16 12:20 p.m.