When Elexia Johnson ’18 cracked open her design portfolio, she was aiming for an internship as a designer on PLU’s Marketing & Communications (MarCom) team.
She didn’t expect the reaction she received from Executive Creative Director Simon Sung.
“When I first saw her portfolio, um, it wasn’t very good. It was bordering on really bad and I told her it was really bad,” said Sung.
But the interview wasn’t over quite yet.
“I asked her, ‘Do you have anything you can show me which you really like?’ and she showed me these illustrations she had done in her spare time — and they were beautiful.”
Sung spotted Johnson’s raw talent. All she needed was someone to help her realize her own potential.
Sung asked how she drew the illustrations.
“She said, ‘I listen to music,’ ” Sung recalled. “So, I said, ‘Lexi, if I hire you, can you find that music? Because that’s what I want.’”
The design team for PLU’s Marketing and Communications department includes Sung, two full-time designers, and usually one intern. The intern is part of the team that’s responsible for a lot of work — everything from university print publications like ResoLute to helping create a dynamic web presence. Sung also oversees the PLU Impact staff, a group of 10-12 students who create school posters, prints, and design projects on campus and off.
Usually Sung takes on a different intern each year. Over the years, there have been more than a dozen. But Johnson returned to the post three times.
“Yes, I hold the record and I’m proud of it,” she said. “I like to think it was my snickerdoodle muffins that convinced them to let me keep coming back. But in all honesty, it was definitely the team. Everyone there is so knowledgeable. I wanted to soak up as much knowledge as possible to become a great designer/artist.”
Today Johnson, who majored in communications studies with a minor in business marketing, applies the skills she learned in the classroom and at the elbow of Sung and his team to her work as a product designer at Knack Collective, a Seattle marketing agency.
Johnson said the internship taught her not only about the creative process and design, but also about life and what it’s like to work under a good leader.
“At PLU I was going through a really hard time, just dealing with a lot,” she recalled. “Having that office be my comfort zone honestly kept me at PLU. The field trip, lunch outings, TV show debates, and diversity was all just great. I honestly haven’t experienced anything like it since I’ve graduated.”
Sung believes mentorships happen effortlessly at PLU because the school is full of high achievers like Johnson who embrace learning. It’s one of his favorite things about his job.
“It goes beyond just learning about the student,” Sung said. “It’s being invited to have dinner with a family. Being able to talk to a mom or an aunt. That’s power. That’s beautiful. That’s why you keep living. That’s what it is about. You want to see these people succeed.”
Colton Walter ’19 will never forget his first day as a graphic design intern and the massive assignment dropped on his desk. Sung wanted him to design wraps for the PLU vans. He likes throwing interns straight into the fire to challenge them.
Walter, who studied strategic communications and business marketing, took a deep breath and got to work. The project took time to come to fruition after a series of meetings and revisions. It taught him patience and how the real world works with meetings and process.
“The vans were a great start and a great metaphor for my whole time at PLU of taking on a project that I wasn’t familiar with, but learning a lot in the process,” said Walter. “Seeing my work out there in the real world gave me a good feeling about it.”
Walter met Sung through another PLU mentor, Professor Emerita of Communications Joanne Lisosky.
“I’m really grateful that I was able to get an internship like this at PLU and I think it really was able to show me pathways I didn’t know existed,” Walter said. “I think it enabled me to tap into a creative side and look at different sources of inspiration.”
Now Walter applies many of the skills he learned at PLU in his job at the Washington Shoe Company in Kent, where he helps with branding, design, marketing, and more.
Graduate student Paulo Chikoti-Bandua ‘21 is the newest intern with the MarCom design team. He was born and raised in Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea, and spent time in Washington, D.C., and Tulsa, OK before moving to Tacoma to study marketing analytics.
“The people at MarCom have been nothing short of welcoming and generous. Having only moved here to Tacoma in August 2019 I have been made to feel as though I’ve always been part of the team,” Chikoti-Bandua said. “Additionally, MarCom is an incubator of creativity and humor, which together help to bring the best ideas to life.”
Sung is now one of his mentors, too.
“Simon makes time for short weekly one-on-one chats, which is pretty awesome given the many things he has going on in his position,” Chikoti-Bandua said. “We talk about a variety of things related to design, TV shows, goals and life,” he said. “As a designer he constantly wants to remain in touch with what’s new and looks to incorporate new technologies into our workflow. This vigor for self-development is contagious and positively affects those on his team.”
Connecting with students is Sung’s superpower. When COVID-19 struck and postponed May graduation, he stepped up with faculty members and volunteered to call students to congratulate them personally on behalf of PLU.
For a guy with a bubbly personality who makes conversation seem easy, his superpower almost failed him. Sung felt pangs of anxiety making calls.
“I was so nervous to cold-call four students I knew nothing about,” he said. “And I thought about it — ‘Why? Why do I struggle?’ And I think it kind of goes back in line with my belief in terms of how staff, or just how people should interact with people. You should know them. It should be authentic.”
The MarCom design internship has Chikoti-Bandua thinking about a career in design.
“Design is the way of the future for me,” he said. “I’ve previously thought of design as something only limited to commercial applications.”
But he now believes designers across the world will play a major role in the redesign of many of macro and micro interactions in global healthcare, government, big data, and the ways in which the private sector operates.
“That’s something that I want to be a part of,” he said.
Johnson plans to attend graduate school at the University of Roehampton in London to earn her MBA.
“PLU graduates are going to be change-makers. They are going to change this world in a great, positive way. And if you can help them in some small, tiny fashion, then, hey — do it!”
“Simon is an amazing leader and the best boss I’ve ever had,” she said. “He truly showed me what it means to be a leader, as well as how important it is to empower your teammates for a project’s success. He’s just an all-around great example of what leadership in the creative industry looks like.”
“I always appreciated that he challenged me to be better, and saw things in me that I couldn’t see in myself.” And today, her impressive portfolio is something she’s proud to open.
Once that mentor and mentee connection is made, it’s oftentimes lasting.
Even though she graduated, Johnson and Sung stay in touch.
That’s just how Sung — a leader who doesn’t mince words and gives students “tough love” to help them grow — likes it.
“PLU graduates are going to be change-makers. They are going to change this world in a great, positive way,” Sung said. “And if you can help them in some small, tiny fashion, then, hey — do it!”