Alumni Spotlight: Stephen Roberts

Once a Teacher, Always a Teacher: A Conversation with Stephen Roberts (’68, ’71)

After retiring from a successful teaching career, Stephen Roberts (’68, ’71) now applies his talents to some equally rewarding opportunities in Washington, D.C.

By Nathalia Baum
Stephen Roberts

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), Washington, D.C.  A group of students scamper down a flight of stone steps, their teacher trailing behind. The fall air is crisp and city sounds only add to the boys’ and girls’ buzzing excitement. Field trip days are revered for the opportunity to learn outside the confines of a classroom. Today is no exception. Fortunately, the students’ guide was in a unique position to present the museum’s fascinating information. Not only is he trained with high standards as a SAAM docent, but he was also trained as an educator at Kirksville State Teachers College—now known as Truman State University.

Stephen Roberts has been retired from teaching for eight years now, but his love for education has never wavered. Raised in Lancaster, Mo., Roberts describes the amazing moment he realized he wanted to be a teacher. “I remember where I was sitting in my seventh-grade classroom when, like John Wesley, I was strangely warmed with the realization that I would someday be a public school teacher,” says Roberts. Given that all of his elementary and high school teachers were educated at Truman State University, it was the right place for him to enroll. The generous Regents Scholarship he was awarded also helped in his decision. 

During his time as a student at Truman, Roberts worked diligently toward becoming an educator and is grateful to those who helped him stay true to this path. As a student teacher at Kirksville Public Schools in 1968, Roberts encountered a challenging classroom that made him reconsider education. However, after confiding in Grace Reynolds, his advisor in elementary education, she adamantly told him he could not give up on teaching. “She replied, ‘Mr. Roberts, I know a teacher when I see one, and you are a teacher.’” She made him promise to agree to one year of teaching in his own classroom.

As a student teacher…Roberts encountered a challenging classroom that made him reconsider education.

After an amazing year of teaching language arts and science to eighth graders in Schuyler R-1 Schools, Roberts was hooked. For 30 years, he taught in Missouri public schools until he moved to Chicago, Ill., where he was a sixth-, fifth-, and third-grade classroom teacher for six years. In 2004, he was offered a position in Washington, D.C., a city he had dreamed about teaching in since 1968 due to his love for the nation’s capital. “It took me 36 years to get to D.C., but it was worth the wait,” says Roberts.

On Sunday afternoons, the SAAM courtyard became Roberts’s go-to spot for grading and writing lesson plans. When he eventually decided to retire after teaching for 42 years, he pondered how to use his time. His love for the SAAM led him to interview for a docent position. After the year-long training under high Smithsonian standards, he began giving tours two days a week.  Roberts is now going into his ninth year as a docent.

The SAAM isn’t his only position, though. Roberts also ushers at Washington Nationals Baseball Park, Ford’s Theatre (the site of Lincoln’s assassination), and gives tours at the Newseum (a museum that promotes, explains, and defends free expression). Teaching still plays an important part in life, as well. Sundays are spent teaching an adult Sunday school class at the largest United Methodist Church in Washington, D.C.

When asked what advice he would give to future educators, Roberts says, “Anyone entering the field does not need to have all the answers.  They do, however, need to know how to find those answers when necessary.” Respect is also important when interacting with students and parents. “When people believe you truly care about them, they will trust your professional judgment,” says Roberts. Even outside of a traditional classroom and technically retired from the profession, Roberts is still using these skills and carrying on his love for teaching.  As he says, “Once a teacher, always a teacher!”

Photo at top: Roberts serves as an usher at Washington Nationals Baseball Park.

Student Spotlight: Maya Kirk

Learning About Spanish Culture in Barcelona

Maya spent a semester in Barcelona, Spain, an immersion experience that truly impacted her time at Truman State University. A marketing major at Truman, Maya is also pursuing a minor in graphic design. In addition to making new friends from five different countries, Maya’s study-abroad experience gave her some fresh inspiration when it comes to her design work.

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Alumni Spotlight: Zac Burden

Teaching Outside the K-12 Classroom: Zac Burden

A love for learning and an opportunity to get involved with residence life on a college campus put an interesting twist in Zac Burden’s career path.

Zac Burden

By Nathalia Baum

Zac Burden grew up loving school. While other students looked forward to summer’s release from the classroom, Burden would lament the days he wouldn’t be able to learn and participate in lessons.  To cope, he would enlist others in “playing” school from June through August. It was to no one’s surprise then that Burden’s dream was to continue leading others in learning.  “I wanted to be a teacher for a really long time,” he confesses. “I loved school and civics…that sense of community engagement.” In fact, the Burden family was known as the “driveway people” in their neighborhood. Their time spent outside on the driveway, getting to know the members of their community, left an important impression on Burden that would shape his life for years to come.

For Burden, discovering Truman State University followed this same theme of community. An admired peer from his high school orchestra recommended Truman—a school from which her brother, a teacher, had just graduated. In the spring of 2003, Burden graduated with a bachelor’s in history. His was the last class to graduate under University President W. Jack Magruder.

As an undergraduate, Burden became involved with Residence Life as an SA for Dobson Hall, one of the residence halls on the Truman campus. During his senior year, he was hired as a community coordinator and transferred to Missouri Hall, another residence hall. Although it was difficult at first to shift his loyalties, he fell in love with being an administrator and “making a place feel like home.”

After his first semester as a Master of Arts in Education (MAE) student, his boss resigned and Burden took over as the Missouri Hall director in the spring of 2004. He continued his MAE studies part-time as he learned how to navigate this new position. “My parents started equating my work to that of a small-town mayor,” he chuckles. He is responsible for operations of the hall, such as the supervision of student advisors and community coordinator, administrative aspects like budgets and hiring, coordinating with other officials, and many more responsibilities. It is a demanding position, but one that Burden loves so much that he has “literal nightmares about leaving.”

“My parents started equating my work to that of a small-town mayor.”

When asked how he felt about not teaching in a traditional classroom, Burden smiles and responds, “Once I started as director, I realized I liked it too much. I was just going to do it until the renovation but then kept thinking, ‘Well maybe after this…well maybe after this…’” He refers to the Missouri Hall renovation of 2007, during which time he completed his student teaching in Novinger, Mo. “As sad as I was when MO closed, I loved student teaching,” he says. Recalling one of his favorite memories during this period, Burden recounts how he tried to truly understand his students. “I decided not to teach for a day and instead was a seventh grader with the rest of the kids.” With the help of his colleagues, he went through the day with his students, had them call him Zac, sat with them at their desks, and experienced the classroom as they did.

In 2009, Burden completed his MAE studies. A few years passed and with his provisional teaching certificate about to expire, he decided to apply for a traditional teaching position. This was a competitive time and when he learned he did not get the job he was actually relieved. “This is what I love,” he says simply. Every day he is able to implement MAE principles—from knowing how to execute quality planning to teaching objectives ahead of time. Burden especially values the lessons he received from former professors such as David Bethel and Jeff Gall. “They’re the bedrock of how I run things,” he states. Burden credits Bethel with teaching him the valuable triad of “state, teach/train, and assess.” Gall taught him how to establish classroom rapport and authentic trust—trust that he uses to motivate those he teaches and works with now.

As Missouri Hall’s director, Burden gives his students the respect, compassion, and empathy to grow into the best people they can be. When describing his personal teaching style, Burden says, “I come from a family of storytellers…I try to lead into things with people knowing there’s something cool around the corner. I try to have people think about the questions they want the answers to and eventually develop the power and confidence to teach themselves.”

Clearly, Burden shows us how an MAE education makes amazing teachers both in and outside of the classroom.

Photo at top: Missouri Hall, one of the residence halls on the Truman State University campus.

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Alumni Spotlight: John O’Brien

Combining a Practical Side with a Creative Side

Having a varied background led to some surprising connections that ultimately helped John O’Brien expand his career options after college.

John O'Brien
John O’Brien (’14)

During the summer of 2010, John O’Brien was getting ready to attend Truman State University in the fall where he had been thinking about pursuing a degree in biology. But as a naturally curious person with many interests, he had already frequently changed his mind when it came to potential careers. As his summer went along, he spent many nights at the Muny, an outdoor musical theater in St. Louis, where he became fascinated with how a theatre production all came together. That experience, combined with the wide opportunities students have to personalize their education at Truman, opened the door to a whole new world of career options he had not even considered.

Along with some friends, O’Brien would attend the midnight dress rehearsals at the Muny to catch a show before it officially opened. “We would grab snacks and sodas and settle into the box seats like we owned the place,” says O’Brien, who assumed the practice runs at the theater were open to the public. Later on, during a job interview at the Muny, he learned that the practices were in fact closed. “After I learned this during my interview, I immediately panicked and said ‘Oh…then forget I said that!’ and the person interviewing me laughed and said ‘No, I’m writing that down. That is my favorite part of this interview,’” says O’Brien, who got the job as an arts management intern.

John O'Brien with friends at the Muny
John O’Brien with friends at the Muny theatre in St. Louis

Personalizing the College Experience

Witnessing the creativity and structure that goes into a theatre production inspired O’Brien to consider college as a blank slate. Right before the start of classes at Truman, he opted to start out as an undeclared student because he wanted to be able to explore different options. After spending time learning about the fields he felt were the best match for his interests, he decided to major in music.

“At Truman, I was encouraged to explore any and all interests I had, even if they didn’t pertain to my major,” says O’Brien. “A lot of really incredible professors opened their doors to me, even when I wasn’t in their department because they saw I had an interest and wanted to learn.”

Taking courses outside his major gave O’Brien a chance to discover his true passion for the theatre world while also expanding his knowledge in many other areas. He also acquired experience and connections through his involvement in several organizations including the Index newspaper, Student Ambassadors, Phi Kappa Phi, National Society of Collegiate Scholars, Pi Kappa Lambda, Phi Mu Alpha, and Campus Pals.

“You never know when a college extracurricular or a seemingly random course will help you land a job or promotion,” O’Brien says. “Truman allowed me to study music, manage the student newspaper, run marketing for various organizations, serve on the executive board for a Greek organization, and take courses in music and history in Salzburg, Austria, among other things.”

Adapting to Different Roles

After graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in music in 2014, O’Brien packed a duffel bag and moved to New York City to begin his first post-grad internship with the New York Musical Theatre Festival. “I have always loved being creative but am a very business-minded individual who likes working behind the scenes,” O’Brien says. “Once I learned that there were jobs in the arts that combined business and creativity, there was no turning back.”

Over the next three years in New York, he worked a variety of jobs with commercial and nonprofit companies on and off Broadway to gain experience and build his resume. Working his way up to the position of company manager for the Roundabout Theatre Company, he ventured throughout New York working on shows. “One of the more exciting moments of my career was sitting in the audience at the Tony Awards when a show I worked on won the Tony for Best Play,” says O’ Brien. “The Humans was one of my first shows at Roundabout Theatre Company and was my first glimpse into the world of company management.”

Eventually, O’Brien decided to take his talents back to his hometown of St. Louis and work at the Fabulous Fox Theatre. He now serves as the director of programming at the Fabulous Fox where he never expects two days to be alike. “One day I could be negotiating contracts for upcoming shows or talking with booking agents about new shows to bring to St. Louis and the next I could be in NYC seeing a new Broadway show or sitting in a meeting to discuss new projects,” says O’Brien. “The biggest challenge (but also the most exciting part) is wearing many different hats and looking at a show from different perspectives,” O’Brien says.  At the end of the day, his goal is to bring the best of Broadway to St. Louis.

From traveling to New York to check out new shows, to organizing extravagant shows in St. Louis, O’Brien receives the most enjoyment from his audience and their reactions to the amazing shows that enter the Fabulous Fox Theatre.  “It is incredible to have a job that allows me to bring the shows I know and love from New York to the people I know and love in St. Louis,” says O’Brien.

More than having one specific set of skills, O’Brien feels the most essential qualities for a person who wants to work in the arts is having persistence, dedication, and flexibility. “Many of the skills related to working in arts management are learnable, so it is really about going into a position with positive energy and the desire to learn and succeed,” says O’Brien. “Working in theatre can be exhausting and frustrating but is incredibly rewarding if you are willing to dive in and get your hands dirty.”

As a careful planner who likes to always be three steps ahead, O’Brien says the hardest lesson he’s had to learn is that life (at least in the arts) can’t be micromanaged. “In theatre, opportunities come and go when you least expect them, and it’s about knowing when to jump,” says O’Brien. “I’ve had to let go of my micromanaging tendencies because as carefully as I plan there’s no predicting what will come.”

When asked what advice he would give to Truman students, O’Brien encourages students to try new things and explore anything and everything. “Create opportunities for yourself, take courses you know nothing about, join a variety of organizations, study in a country you’ve never been to,” says O’Brien. “I have a job I’ve always dreamed of, but I’ve gotten here on a path I could have never possibly predicted.”

Photo at top: John O’Brien and the cast of The Humans at the Roundabout Theatre Company in New York. John is on the back row, second from the left.

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Making Music Come Alive

Paul Niehaus IV: Making Music Come to Life

Paul has been busy putting his own stamp on the music industry as a performer, producer, audio engineer and record label owner. Tapping into his extraordinary musical talents and the practical skills gained through a liberal arts education, Paul used his understanding of the complex nature of the music world to build a successful career path.

Paul Niehaus IV

Paul Niehaus IV got bit by the music bug early on in life. It started with the little plastic recorder so many of us remember from music class in elementary school. That sowed the seeds for his interest in music, and he went on to master the guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. His musical repertoire also includes the harmonica, mandolin, French horn, trumpet and saxophone. Ever since he picked up his first instrument in the fourth grade, Niehaus has been pursuing his passion doing what he enjoys most ― making people happy through music.

One of Niehaus’ earliest musical heroes was B.B. King. “When I heard his album ‘Live at the Regal,’ I decided to learn the guitar because the expression it had was so extreme and emotional,” says Niehaus. When he started learning about producing, Oliver Sain, who was Saint Louis’ patriarch of recording and producing soul, blues, and R&B, had a huge influence on Niehaus. Another idol is Willie Mitchell, the producer/engineer behind Hi Records, the Memphis soul label most famous for producing Al Green. That soul sound, developed in places like Memphis, Muscle Shoals, Detroit, and more, became a sonic obsession to Niehaus.

Building a Music Career Step by Step

Niehaus came to Truman State University to develop his mastery of music theory and to strengthen his musical abilities earning a bachelor of arts in music in 2009. Intrigued by the connection between storytelling and blues music, he also pursued a minor in folklore. Fresh out of college, his first job was a five-month stint playing guitar on a cruise ship. After that, he toured with Rockin’ Jake, then with Matt Hill, and ultimately with John Nemeth playing in 45 states in about four years.

“Getting to see the country from a van was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything,” says Niehaus. “Playing on the road with John Nemeth was an honor because he’s a world-class entertainer, and he gave me such creative freedom playing with him ― he’s a creative genius, and I learned a lot from him.”

“Getting to see the country from a van was an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything.”

Eventually Niehaus began exploring new opportunities that led to working more and more on recording, producing, and engineering. “After a certain amount of time practicing the art, I became competent and confident I could offer value to artists looking to record, collaborate, and be creative, so I started seeking out more work of a wider variety,” says Niehaus.

Giving a Voice to Diamonds in the Rough

Paul Niehaus and Gene Jackson
Paul Niehaus IV (left) performing at the Big Muddy Blues Festival in St. Louis along with Gene Jackson, one of the artists on the Blue Lotus Recordings record label.

After years of doing recording for fun with friends, Niehaus took the plunge launching his own recording studio and record label named Blue Lotus Recordings. Located in St. Louis, Blue Lotus Recordings focuses on roots music, like soul, blues, and folk music.

The name came about from one of Niehaus’ mentors who suggested “lotus” because of its connotations in Eastern philosophy where it represents beauty springing forth from murky origins and “blue” because Niehaus does a lot of blues and blues-influenced music.

Since its start, Blue Lotus Recordings has had three releases, two of which were nominated for Blues Blast Music Awards. Presented by Blues Blast magazine, these awards honor contemporary blues artists and their recordings.

“Having the first two releases on my label both receive nominations in the Blues Blast Awards was a big honor because it legitimized what we were doing,” says Niehaus.

Niehaus also serves on the Board of Directors for the St. Louis Blues Society which produces an annual compilation album. Niehaus has produced three compilations for the group called 15 in 15, 16 in 16, and 17 in 17  which landed at the top of the charts for KDHX, St. Louis’ independent music station. He plans to continue the project until retiring it in 2020 with 20 in 20.

“The music business is rapidly evolving, and it’s somewhat enigmatic…”

As head of a record label, the most difficult days are the ones where Niehaus feels like nobody’s really listening to new music, even if it’s good, for a variety of market and sociological reasons. “The music business is rapidly evolving, and it’s somewhat enigmatic,” says Niehaus. “My goal is to just continue recording and writing good music and to gradually increase my audience and platform.”

Niehaus’ advice to students looking to forge a career in the music industry is to start recording on whatever gear they have. “Learn your instrument in and out, and then learn more instruments,” says Niehaus. “Network relentlessly with other musicians and bands, be a continual student of music, and seek out mentors and reciprocate in some way for the time and wisdom they offer.”

Most important to him is writing and producing quality records so he can give a voice to supremely talented individuals who haven’t had a break yet in their careers.  A lifelong learner, Niehaus plans to continue learning more skills to bring exponential growth to his business and brand.

Check out Niehaus’ website at

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Student Spotlight: Thilini

Accounting Student Embraces Opportunities That Launch Her Career

From getting involved with student organizations to participating in an Alternative Spring Break that led to a job offer, Thilini discovered opportunities at Truman State University that inspired her to pursue her dreams.

As Thilini Weerawarnasuriya prepared to graduate from the Master of Accountancy program at Truman State University with plans to begin her career at the Ernst and Young accounting firm, she reflected on how her experiences at Truman prepared her for the opportunity.

When Weerawarnasuriya, who was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, decided to leave her home in Colombo, Sri Lanka, to study in the United States, she was drawn to the small liberal and sciences university in northeast Missouri because of its reputation for affordability and consistent high rankings in national publications, such as U.S. News and World Report. She was also excited to learn that a small population from Sri Lanka also called Truman home.

Once she arrived in Kirksville, Mo., Weerawarnasuriya delved into campus life becoming a member of Beta Alpha Psi, Beta Gamma Sigma, and the Christian Campus Fellowship. She cites her Business Law class as of one of the first impactful experiences she had at Truman. She enjoyed working closely with her fellow students on projects such as role-playing as lawyers in mock court cases in class.

Learning Beyond the Classroom

Weerawarnasuriya also took advantage of opportunities outside the classroom to enhance her skills and practical experience. She found a campus job with the Center for International Students where she helped recruit other students from around the world. “It was so much fun and so very rewarding,” said Weerawarnasuriya.

After careful consideration, she decided to major in accounting because it opened up many opportunities for her. She earned her Bachelor’s degree from Truman in before entering the University’s Master of Accountancy program. “The best part is the great professors,” said Weerawarnasuriya. “I was initially surprised at the amount of writing that we were assigned, but I eventually learned that accounting really was about being able to analyze and translate numbers into logical facts.”

When Weerawarnasuriya signed up for Truman’s Alternative Spring Break did she know that the experience would ultimately lead to a job offer. During the break, she was placed to job shadow at Ernst and Young, a well-known accounting firm, and the following summer, she participated in Ernst and Young’s Emerging Leadership Program. She was invited back to intern at the accounting firm the following summer and was offered a full-time position starting in the fall.

Besides learning applicable technical skills as an intern, she also valued the experience she had improving and gaining confidence in interpersonal communication, which she acquired by working alongside full-time employees and communicating with actual clients. Weerawarnasuriya discovered that having the type of diverse pool of knowledge associated with a liberal arts education provided an advantage when working in the real world ― she found her Truman education helped her stay a step ahead because it touched on many different fields and disciplines.

As Weerawarnasuriya counted down the days before she began working full-time with Ernst and Young, she felt excited about everything the future has in store. No matter where life takes her, she plans to use her intellectual pursuits and her passions to make a difference in the world.

One day she hopes to own her own orphanage. “Sri Lanka is very much a third-world country, and I am willing to do whatever I can to help the burdened,” said Weerawarnasuriya. “I have learned that I have an innate love for children, and it would be a pleasure to do something like this.”

“I absolutely loved every minute of my time at Truman,” said Weerawarnasuriya. “There is not a thing I would change, and I would do it all over again if I could.”