Donning full clown makeup and a vibrant costume, Ginni Jurkowski stepped into the center of an open-air mall in Ithaca. She pulled out a puppet and began to perform her rehearsed comedy routine.
Despite her quiet demeanor, Jurkowski drew a huge crowd of spectators. The lecturer of communication was employed in financial services at the time.
A light bulb went on for her at that particular clown conference in the 1980s, one of many she has attended. The instructor told Jurkowski that her puppet performance was successful because “'you didn't force yourself on people. You allowed people to have an interest and come to you,'” according to Jurkowski.
And with that she discovered new connections between entertaining people as a clown and teaching them new information.
“I'm a very introverted person, and I do not like being in front of people. But when I put on that clown makeup, when I put on the character, I could perform in front of other people,” she said. “That's when I realized that I could teach. That even though I don't prefer being in front of people for a period of time, when I have the knowledge that other people want, I definitely can.”
Jurkowski's true passion for learning and communicating with others is evident in her 20-year career as an educator and even as a nontraditional college student. Jurkowski attended college years after most students, gaining about 15 years of work experience in financial services and public relations beforehand. After receiving her undergraduate degree at St. John Fisher College, she immediately pursued her master's degree in communication from SUNY Brockport.
Jurkowski has taught at Geneseo for 15 years. She also teaches classes at St. John Fisher and Brockport. Although her first specialty was business, she is a currently spearheading online class format in public relations, online journalism and media writing.
“Radio, television, print, online and public relations are different ways of getting your messages out,” she said. “It's not that different from clowning. Whether you're actively communicating orally or you're communicating physically, it's the same type of thing.”
In addition to clowning professionally at parties and parades across the country, Jurkowski also started a group of puppeteers called Kids on the Block Rochester as a public relations move for a bank she was working for. The group has been performing informational skits on sensitive topics such as abuse and drugs for children for the past 30 years.
Jurkowski's role at the start of the company was to hire puppeteers, fundraise and locate the puppets, pulling from her group of clowning friends and local talent to staff the troupe. One of the original puppeteers is still with the nonprofit organization 30 years later.
The program has been so effective, Jurkowski said, that she had to bring counselors on board to assist children with serious issues that they confessed to the puppets in letters after the performances.
While Kids on the Block Rochester will have its final performance in early November, Jurkowski said the experience taught her the true reach of public relations.
“What started out as something that I was doing public relations for a financial services agency impacted people that weren't customers, weren't potential clients, but also shared something that was so important for us,” she said.
Jurkowski is constantly learning, journeying to conferences, classes and networking events across the country to cultivate her nearly endless list of personal hobbies and interests. It includes web journalism and public relations, cake decorating, candy making, motorcycles, dance classes, volunteer work, card making, board games and formal teas.
She goes through hobbies with a “kiss and go” approach, never learning the same thing twice or for too long. Learning for the sake of learning is her passion.
Jurkowski values these pursuits because of the things she takes away from communicating with others that she can carry into her own life.
“I think that perhaps we need to put learning on a pedestal, and we all need to strive for that whether we're an instructor or a student,” she said.