While he was an undergraduate student at Northern Michigan University, Tom Isaacson (‘96 BS) began to consider the idea of becoming a professor. After initially working for five years in the public relations field, including with the Chicago White Sox, he earned a master's and doctorate. Isaacson “hit a home run” by joining the Northern faculty in 2012, making his dream a reality. He is an associate professor of public relations in NMU's College of Business.
“Something I love about the field of PR is the fact that you can take this work into so many different directions,” said Isaacson. “I worked for professional baseball teams and a technology PR agency, before adding international experience when I returned to academia. All of these things are connected to my degree and major. Currently, I do consulting work for an engineering company in the western U.P.
“Our students get to develop their own career paths based on their passions and interests, and it often looks nothing like the route that I took. Learning skills that are transferable across a broad range of areas serves our students well in the modern workplace.”
Isaacson's former White Sox internship influences his research decades later. In sports PR, he has authored or co-authored three book chapters. A recent chapter, published in a book titled Reputational Challenges in Sport, is about the creative PR work behind the White Sox's rebuilding effort. With support from the College of Business, Isaacson presented his research related to the White Sox at two international conferences in the summer of 2021.
The faculty adviser of NMU's Public Relations Student Society of America (PRSSA) chapter, Isaacson has further utilized his White Sox connections by bringing PRSSA students to games and a White Sox staff meeting, as well as involving White Sox employees as guest speakers in his classes.
Isaacson's devotion to providing students with tangible PR experiences is vast in scope. He is known for interweaving classroom concepts with real-world application by providing students with opportunities to work with U.P. businesses, such as Velodrome Coffee, NestleDown Bed and Breakfast, the UP Regional Blood Center and Synergy Fitness.
One of Isaacson's passions is study abroad. For 12 years, he brought students to Rome, Italy, and Cannes, France, for a six-week advertising and PR study abroad program. He fondly recalled a unique travel experience when he was in Italy with students. After traveling with students to Paestum and Pompeii for a weekend trip, Isaacson took a train to Rome and then flew to London for an academic conference. From there, he flew to the south of France to meet students at the world's largest advertising festival in Cannes.
“That chain of travel and experiences, in the span of about seven days, was nothing I had ever imagined in my life growing up in the Western U.P.,” said Isaacson. “It all comes back to education. Education can change our students' lives; It undoubtedly has changed mine.
“It is so fun to have students who have, no kidding, gone around the world for their careers. It's stimulating to see their successes in Chicago, Portland, Washington, D.C., Norway and beyond. It is fascinating to see how well they've done and the different careers and fields they've chosen. It is fun to bring these alumni into the classroom and have them share career successes with our current students, too.”
Isaacson said that something he likes best about NMU is the way it sets itself apart from other universities by supporting undergraduate students. NMU and the College of Business support student travel to professional conferences, and faculty include students in their research projects. He has helped students expand class projects into peer-reviewed conference presentations that included travel to South Carolina and Bournemouth, England.
Outside of the classroom, you might spot Isaacson at the ski hill, mountain biking or hiking with his three children; on campus with his wife Heather, an assistant professor of Speech, Language and Hearing Sciences; or playing intramural softball with his PRSSA students in the Superior Dome. A fun fact about Isaacson: he was on championship intramural softball teams 20 years apart as both an NMU student and faculty member.
A native of the Upper Peninsula, Isaacson grew up in Mohawk in the Keweenaw Peninsula. As memories seemed to coalesce in his mind, he smiled as he shared that his role models are his grandfathers, who were both the sons of Finnish immigrants and residents of the western U.P.
“I often reflect back on what life was like for them growing up and how hard they worked to give my family opportunities. My grandfather Oscar was 14 years old when he started working in copper mines. He later ran a sawmill and was the owner of his own business. My grandfather Uno was logging and working on a farm at a young age.
“Like so many U.P. immigrants, they had to work so hard, at young ages, just to help their families. Each generation, however, benefits from that work with new opportunities. It is important to remember this and to recognize that somebody worked hard to provide us an opportunity.”
One of Isaacson's grandfathers was one of the very first people who encouraged him to attend college.
“When I reflect on my career, so far, much of it was unexpected. I met Henry Aaron twice, both while at work (Chicago White Sox and Marquette University); traveled on media tours with PR clients; and happened to be in England for a conference during soccer's World Cup. Every one of these experiences ties back to education. Had I not earned an education, none of it would have happened.”
From the way he talks passionately about the “creativity” and “flexibility” of PR in a global marketplace, to the way he lights up as he shares student success stories, Isaacson's passion for the field is truly infectious.
Prepared by NMU alumna Jill Vermeulen.