Northern Michigan University Public Relations Professor Jessica Thompson's commitment to sustainability permeates the courses she teaches for the College of Business, her interdisciplinary research with colleagues to improve climate change communication and increase environmental awareness, and her service activities on campus and in the community. Thompson's achievements and positive impact on students have made her the 2023 recipient of the Stephen Young & Tricia Kinley Distinguished Faculty Award—NMU's top academic honor.
Thompson previously received the College of Business Outstanding Graduate Faculty Award in 2021 and NMU's Excellence in Online Teaching Award in 2022.
“Whether online or in the classroom, I try to make my courses as experiential as possible,” she said in describing her approach to teaching. “I like finding assignments and activities that people can safely struggle with figuring out—that's where the learning happens. I also make the work as project-based and practical as possible. That's what I love about PR.
“In one class, the first part of the semester focuses on the foundational tools of PR—writing, grammar, principles of design and Associated Press style. After spring break, we will operate like a professional firm. Every Monday there will be a new client and new assignment related to communication or design work that students have to complete by Wednesday. By the end of the semester, they leave with a substantial portfolio of work they can show prospective employers.”
Thompson was once an NMU student herself. She earned a bachelor's degree in communication studies and public relations in 2001. After venturing West for graduate school and a teaching fellowship at the University of Utah, where she focused on environmental communication and conflict resolution, she spent five years on the Colorado State University faculty. Thompson returned to her alma mater in 2012.
“I feel really connected to Marquette and Northern in particular,” she said. “I knew when I walked on campus as a freshman that this place was special. Both of my parents are public school teachers, so I thought I would follow that path. But when I went to Northern, I liked the college environment, the level of teaching and the cool books my professors were reading and the big ideas they were talking about. This was an inspired place. When I lived out West, I didn't think I'd ever come back this way; now I can't imagine being anywhere else.
“I get to address climate change with students who might come up with a business someday to solve problems related to that. At the graduate level, one of my students took a book about climate change to the general manager of her company to develop a program to make sustainability part of what they do. Being part of the ripple effect is rewarding. These aren't just ripples—they're waves. To feel I was part of someone's journey is an honor.”
Thompson directs NMU's Sustainability Hub for Innovation and Environment (SHINE) and is co-chair of NMU's interim strategic plan focus area of building a culture of sustainability on campus. Her research focuses on public understanding and communication about climate change adaptation and resilience. She is a nationally recognized scholar in this area and frequently invited to give keynote and panel presentations. Thompson was elected president of the National Communication Association's Environmental Communication Division for 2016-2017.
Her service beyond her academic discipline has also emphasized sustainability. Thompson was a member of the National Park Service Advisory Board's Education Committee, and the advisory board for the New England Aquarium's National Network of Oceans & Climate Change Interpretation project. She currently serves on the Michigan Energy Options Board of Directors. Locally, Thompson sits on the steering and membership committees of the Marquette Climate Adaptation Task Force, which she has been involved with since its inception in 2013.
In 2020, Thompson published America's Largest Classroom: What We Learn From Our National Parks, an edited collection of case studies of park-based learning. The book won the National Non-Fiction Award silver prize and the Stewart Udall Award from the Western National Parks Association.
NMU's highest faculty honor was endowed in 2021 by a major gift from NMU Board of Trustees Chair Steve Young and his wife, Tricia Kinley, of Lansing. Thompson will be honored at the Celebration of Excellence scheduled from 6-7:30 p.m. Thursday, April 6, in Ballroom IV of the Northern Center.
“This is pretty humbling because the people who nominated me and wrote glowing letters are the colleagues I look up to, respect and consider distinguished faculty members themselves,” she said. “It means a lot when your peers and boss see you that way, and that they took time from their busy schedules to demonstrate their support.”
Watch a TEDxNMU talk Thompson delivered titled “Let's Change the Way We Talk About Climate Change” here. The video has nearly 35,000 views.