Networking while lecturing

In a little office on the fourth floor of the School of Media and Public Affairs sits a man who has the ability to change students’ futures.

It looks like a pretty typical room – walls adorned with Yankees memorabilia and images of old colleagues, and windowsills overflowing with pictures of loved ones. But predictable flies out his window with a closer look.

The old colleagues are friends from the New York Times, all reputed journalists in their own right. The family photos are of his wife, famous journalist Cokie Roberts, known for her work on National Public Radio and ABC News, his two children, Lee and Rebecca, and six grandchildren.

He gets a little twinkle in his eye when he talks about playing grandpa recently while his daughter settles into life in the District, where she now hosts “The Intersection” for NPR. And when he explains the photos of the friends on his wall, he stops at one in particular.

“The grey-haired man in the middle, I’m standing over his left shoulder, is James Reston,” SMPA professor Steven Roberts said. “In his era, he was the most prominent journalist in America.”

And with that, Roberts begins to answer why he is the man he is today and why he is set on helping his students – all seniors who have to register for his classes with departmental permission – get a job post-graduation.

James “Scotty” Reston, the former bureau chief for the New York Times, mentored Roberts when he was a young reporter fresh out of college. But even as just a research intern, Roberts said he always felt like Reston was looking out for him.

“Even at the height of his power and influence, he had time for me, every day,” he said.

Ultimately, it was this example that prompted Roberts to mentor others he knows he can help. With 40 years as a successful journalist, the New York Times and U.S. News and World Report as previous employers and two acclaimed novels under his belt, he definitely has the experience to back up his advice.

After spending eight years as a guest lecturer at D.C.-area universities, Roberts decided slowing down his already accomplished professional life might be necessary if he wanted to pass along his gift. A holiday party run-in with University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg and a few only half-joking comments about teaching at the University led Roberts to where he is today – 16 years deep into a position as a full-time SMPA professor and the first Shapiro chair, an honor bestowed upon him by Maurice Shapiro, a benefactor to the University.

From the start, Roberts’ classes have been nothing short of memorable.

“The second night that I taught at GW was the first night of the First Persian Gulf War,” he said. “I walked into class and people were just rattled – they had no idea what war was like. And I asked them, ‘What do you want to do? You wanna get drunk, you wanna call your mothers, or you wanna talk about it?'”

The class responded with a desire to discuss the situation and this led to what Roberts considers the first bonding experience he had with that group.

Eventually, these political worries gave way to professional concerns, which Roberts was quick to answer. He didn’t hesitate to call up old friends to recommend outstanding students, and his students didn’t disappoint.

“Kids coming out of this program are so well-trained, so savvy, that any (employer) knows that if they’re getting one of our kids, they’re getting someone who is ready,” Roberts said.

Over a period of time, the students he’d helped started e-mailing him regarding open positions in their workplace, ready to be filled with more of Roberts’ finest. And that’s what led him to his current network of “a couple hundred” students with fields ranging from political consultancy to media relations.

“Whether it was just providing an atmosphere for me to think out all of my ideas, or to help me make those ideas into reality, he was always the first person I would think of to consult,” 2006 graduate Jessica DeSimone said. “No matter what field I was exploring at the time, he had names and places to refer me.”

To make best use of this network, Roberts realizes he can’t help each individual. His experiences, while inspiring, may not always be exactly the career path one of his students is considering. He’s got a solution for that too.

“I’m a 63-year-old guy sitting here in this office – I don’t know what life is like in a lot of these places, but I know who does,” he said.

And chances are, he can hook students up with that person who’s “living the life you want to live,” as he puts it. Due to Roberts’ explicitly stated mantra – “if something happens in my classroom that you appreciate, this help is not free. I expect only one thing in return and that is that you help someone else” – there’s a strong probability that these past students will be more than willing to help.

But career advice and job-hunting help isn’t the only thing Roberts has to offer his students. When the pressures shift from professional to personal, Roberts is once again willing to help. He’s officiated two of his students’ weddings and has counseled relationships based on the experiences he’s shared with Cokie over the last 40 years. And from his point of view, that may very well be one of the more rewarding things he does.

He said, “A big part of my job is helping young people become grown-ups.”

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