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Warren Roberts: Supporting Students Every Step of the Way

June 15, 2009

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UAlbany alumnus Daniel R. Koch and long-time mentor Warren Roberts in England.

UAlbany alumnus Daniel R. Koch and his long-time mentor Warren Roberts in England the day before Koch earned a doctorate from Oxford University. (Photo courtesy of Warren Roberts)

UAlbany alumnus Daniel R. Koch has come a long way since he first arrived on campus with an undeclared major in 1999, unsure of what his future would hold.

A few weeks ago, Koch earned his doctorate in history from Oxford University. The ceremony was in Latin at the Sheldonian Theatre, where Handel once performed.

UAlbany Distinguished Teaching Professor of History Warren Roberts and his wife Anne, flew to England to congratulate Koch on the day before his graduation a testament to a faculty-student mentoring relationship that has endured for a decade.

Koch, who graduated from UAlbany in 2002 with a bachelor's degree in history and French, credits Roberts with supporting him throughout his journey in higher education.

A native of Oneida, N.Y., Koch calls the day he registered for Roberts's class "one of the most important days in my life." He'd had a rough road getting to UAlbany after his father died in a car accident when Koch was in the tenth grade.  It was the offer of a Presidential Scholarship that led to his decision to study at the University.

"I came determined to succeed but with no idea which direction to take," wrote Koch in nominating Roberts for the American Historical Association's Nancy Lyman Roelker Mentorship Award. Earlier this year, Roberts became the first professor in the SUNY system to win the Roelker award, which honors teachers of history who taught, guided, and inspired their students in a way that changed their lives.

"The ideal mentor is forthright, supportive, and constructively critical, committed to the student as a person, regardless of age or career goals," wrote Department of History Chair Richard F. Hamm in an e-mail to the department, announcing the award. "I have read nomination materials and I assure you that Warren is the epitome of what a mentor should be."

After taking The French Revolution, Koch decided he wanted to be a historian like Roberts.

"Watching Professor Roberts teach was a revelation," said Koch. "I had never seen a man who seemed so happy in what he was doing. His love of teaching radiated forth. He was quick to smile, witty, hilarious, full of life, and utterly professional."

In collecting nomination materials, Koch eventually heard the stories of about 30 other UAlbany alumni whose lives were changed for the better by Roberts, who has been teaching for 46 years. Those alumni included Robert Lee, an African American student from Queens, N.Y., who today is a high school teacher. "It was the unwavering belief that this professor had in me that catapulted me to the next level as a student," wrote Lee in a nominating letter. "Professor Roberts is marvelous because he conveys this passion and belief without lowering his standards."

UAlbany's Warren Roberts

UAlbany's Warren Roberts is passionate about history and involved in mentoring his students. (Photo Mark Schmidt)

They also included Quinn Coffey, who earned his bachelor's and master's degrees at UAlbany, and was seeking a job as a high school social studies teacher when he died two years ago after suffering from muscular dystrophy. Roberts wrote a letter of condolence to Coffey's parents that so captured their son's personality and joy for life, it was read aloud at his funeral.

"Warren Roberts makes students feel that they deserve the highest and best things in life. He does not stop at telling them that they can reach their potential, but actively helps them to overcome their difficulties in any way that he can, sometimes going to lengths far beyond the limits of mere kindness," said Koch.

Roberts teaches without notes, and his enthusiasm for his subject is contagious. "I tell all my students to chase their star wherever it leads them," he said. "Do what you believe in."

The author of four books about French and English artists and writers of the 18th and 19th centuries is interested in the interplay between history and the arts. His classroom extends beyond the University, reaching out into the community. Roberts has long taught classes for adult audiences through OASIS, housed at UAlbany's Center for Excellence in Aging Services at the School of Social Welfare.

With a bachelor's, master's, and doctorate from the University of California, Berkeley, Roberts took a detour from the family building business to academia, where he found his true home. When he was a student at Berkeley, tuition was free for those who entered from the top 12 percent of their high school class. He is troubled by the idea that many students today work 50 or 60 hours a week while trying to maintain their academic standing.

Roberts's vast credits include:
Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, 1962-63
Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Teaching, 1973
Distinguished Teaching Professor, 1984
University Senate, 1986-88
University Honors Committee, 1987-88
Chair, Department of History, 1990-94
Collins Award, 1997

Among the many classes he has taught are Western Civilization, Europe, 1648-1789; Art, Music, and History; the French Revolution and Napoleon; and Culture and the French Revolution.

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