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Fast Start: Telling stories of discovery at UR

Rochester Business Journal
October 26, 2012

"Rochester is the kind of place people can take their passions and interests and run with it, and the community is supportive of that," says Valerie Alhart.
 
She is sitting at a small table in the Panera Bread cafe at Twelve Corners and has just wrapped up an hourlong interview about her work and life. Alhart, who works in public relations at the University of Rochester, is not accustomed to being the focus of a story. But her enthusiasm for her adopted hometown-and her place in it-is evident.
 
As a press officer and broadcast media manager at UR, Alhart publicizes the work of professors and programs in the humanities. Sometimes her work is that of a translator, explaining research that at first glance may seem esoteric and irrelevant to issues and themes in the larger world.
 
"I like working with people that are creative and passionate-and telling people about those people and their work," Alhart says.
 
One of her favorite projects was publicizing UR's AIDS education poster collection, the largest in the world. She worked with collector Edward Atwater M.D. to interpret what the posters, amassed over three decades, say about cultural history-how different countries handled the AIDS crisis, for example, and how the educational message has evolved over time in tone and content.
 
"To be able to show people it's so much more than (posters) ..., that's what I like," she says.
 
Bringing a project or research from a professor's small office to the world stage means cultivating strong relationships with everyone in the chain-reporters, fellow press officers who can see an idea from a different angle, and the professors themselves. Alhart is equally intrigued by strategy. She likes planning and executing publicity that can make a professor's work part of the national conversation.
 
"It's always learning how to get people's attention in different ways," she says. "It's being promotional but also being informative and engaging."
 
When Alhart, 32, graduated from SUNY Binghamton in 2002, she faced a fork in the road. A Fox News internship during the summer before her senior year whetted her appetite for broadcasting. She liked the writing involved at the producer level.
 
But as an English major, she had a love for British literature. And she had been accepted into Binghamton's Ph.D. program-making her father proud, she says.
 
Clarity came the moment she realized she didn't want to teach, the natural path for doctoral graduates. She joined a colleague from her Fox internship as a producer at Capital News 9, now YNN Albany, a few months after graduation. She produced two shows a day. She went on to work for WSTM, an NBC affiliate in Syracuse, for two and a half years and worked as a freelance producer with WHEC-TV 10 for two years.
 
After almost seven years, she tired of stories about bad weather and car crashes, craving something more.
 
"I wanted to feel like I was making a difference. I wanted to be able to use my creativity," she says.
 
Alhart grew up in a liberal arts environment in the city of Albany, one of two daughters of special education teachers. They sent their girls at some sacrifice to Albany Academy for Girls through eighth grade. The school was small-some 20 students were in Alhart's class-and liberal arts, music and dance figured prominently. She danced from the age of 2 and loved to read. She says the environment fostered her natural competitiveness because students received so much individual attention.
 
"My parents were very laid back," she recalls. "I'm very type A. I put a lot of pressure on myself. We pushed ourselves, and they just tried to foster it-and drove us everywhere."
 
Alhart and her sister both graduated from Albany High School. Her favorite memories involve the city's Jewish Community Center. She spent her childhood there, attending the preschool Rompers program, swim classes, summer camp as a kid and a counselor, and a youth group.
 
Alhart says she is "blown away" by the community feeling and rich programming of Rochester's JCC. She started volunteering three years ago for the center's Lane Dworkin Jewish Book Festival. Now she is a board member and part of an effort to engage younger adults in the event.
 
One way to include a new generation is to offer more than author readings, she says. Programming has expanded this year to include events around the community. For example, the fest will celebrate Karen Bergreen's "Perfect Is Overrated" with a clothing drive and a fashion show presented by the organizers of Rochester Fashion Week Nov. 1 at Village Gate (and Bergreen has agreed to take a turn on the catwalk). A comedy event Oct. 29 at the Genesee Valley Club will feature two other visiting authors.
 
"They're really trying to engage the community more. It still has this Jewish identity, but it's really reaching out, which I like," Alhart says.
 
In her eagerness to support the JCC, Alhart also is heading the annual gala fundraiser with her husband, Jon Alhart. She also is on the board of Young Leaders @ UR and is taking classes toward a master's degree at Rochester Institute of Technology.
 
"Definitely I need to be going and doing something," she says, laughing. "I need to be busy. Even on vacation I need to be sightseeing."
 
To unwind she practices yoga and sleeps in on weekends. And she still loves to read-even though much of it these days is related to management coursework at RIT.
 
"I love Sylvia Plath," she says, when pressed for a favorite. "I know; that's really dark. It just sort of mesmerizes you. I'm a very empathetic person."
 
10/26/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email
service@rbj.net.


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