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By: Stephanie Rodriguez ’20 and Jamie Giller

Built with the vision of increasing access for students into high-demand career fields, minutes from their classrooms, UCF Downtown is helping students like Despina McLaughlin ’10 do just that. Despina is a graduate student who enrolled in the communications program in 2021 while working full time with Orange County Government and Mayor Jerry Demings’ communications team. Despina is a senior public information officer who has been able to immerse herself in managing communication outreach between executive county leadership, community partners, and the media for the past two and a half years.

Before joining Orange County, McLaughlin put her UCF bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism to work as a sports reporter, anchor and multi-media journalist in Central Florida.

“After spending 10 years in local television, I felt strongly about making a career shift to serve my community in a larger capacity,” says McLaughlin. “At the time, I was re-aligning what was going to be most purposeful and fulfilling to me as a young professional. Fortunately, I had great mentors steer me to where I am today — a place full of opportunity, support and where I feel valued.”

Reflecting on her academic experience, McLaughlin says, “Going back to school was important to me. I want to be the best communicator. Then, when you add the ability to focus my studies on strategic political communication — that is a treat. It allows me to stay ahead of the ‘class’ and instantly implement teachings in my everyday role at the county.”

One of the biggest accomplishments for McLaughlin is her work on the Orange County #IGotMyShot Campaign in 2021. In the height of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, this integrated marketing initiative focused on informing minority residents of the safety, convenience and no cost of receiving the vaccine to reduce hesitation and increase Orange County’s vaccination rate.

“The overall experience opened my eyes to the county-wide collaboration opportunities and amount of research needed to make strategic communications decisions and plans come to life,” says McLaughlin. “I am proud to say that I led a local, state, and nationally awarded campaign to combat vaccine hesitancy and look forward to refining my tools at UCF, to enhance key county initiatives moving forward.”

McLaughlin has a diverse skillset ranging from experience in public and community relations, crisis communication management to strategic storytelling and on-camera reporting skills — all proficiencies she has been able to sharpen at UCF and put to work in her career.

“Most recently, I have had the pleasure of taking Pro-Seminar in Communication with Dr. Michael Strawser and felt that his energy and outlook was very inviting and allowed for the class to lean into the lessons — without any judgment,” she says. “Because most of my experience comes from real-world scenarios versus text, it felt a bit intimidating at first. But what unfolded was a sense of true community and I am thankful for Dr. Strawser for that.”

While McLaughlin has important work ahead, this Knight is still reaching for the stars for her long-term career goals. The Florida Public Relations Association Orlando Area Chapter recently named Despina as the 2022 ImPRess Award recipient for professional achievement. This award celebrates a trailblazer in the public relations profession who has achieved an unprecedented or extraordinary milestone in their career, or has left a lasting mark or impression on the Central Florida community. The Orange County Communications Team was also recognized by FPRA with the state’s highest recognition for PR strategy and execution—the Dick Pope All Florida Golden Image Award—for their work on the #IGotMyShot Initiative.

“I aspire to continue to work on meaningful, transformational communication campaigns that truly have the power to change and influence public opinion and make my community a better place to live,” she says. “I believe that I can lead a team of communicators to great success and look forward to seeing how opportunities present themselves in the future. From consulting, to assisting companies through crisis communications, to staying on the public side of things, I am not counting anything out.”

We love being able to see our #KnightsAtWorkDowntown in the City Beautiful. If you are also a UCF Downtown student working in Downtown Orlando, we want to share your story! All you have to do is send us an email at