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A History of Success, A Future of Promise

This year Truman celebrates a quarter of a century as the No. 1 public school in the Midwest Region. Its actions during the pandemic are proof that success is well earned and the University’s future remains bright.

Greek philosopher Heraclitus is credited with the maxim, “the only constant is change,” and the living embodiment of that quote has been on display for nearly two years. So many aspects of life have been disrupted during the pandemic it can be easy to forget what things were like before it began. There is also an old adage that the more things change, the more they remain the same. It is fair to say Truman exemplifies both schools of thought. The University is constantly adapting to best meet the needs of the students, and the results have culminated in the same No. 1 ranking for 25 years in a row.

At the onset of the current academic year, Truman celebrated its silver anniversary as the No. 1 public school in the Midwest Region according to U.S. News & World Report. In the 2022 Best Colleges rankings, Truman came in at No. 6 overall among both public and private institutions in the region, an improvement of one spot from the previous year.

That level of sustained success becomes all the more impressive when put into historical context. It started before most of the current students were even born. In fact, some graduates who attended near the beginning of the streak are now the parents of currently enrolled students. The run accounts for more than 15% of the University’s total time in existence – and every year, so far, under the name Truman. Five of the school’s 17 presidents have served during Truman’s reign at the top, and most of them would credit their predecessors for making it possible.

“Decades of hard work by countless individuals led the University to that initial ranking, and continued devotion has allowed us to stay at the top for 25 years,” University President Susan L. Thomas said. “Truman has consistently provided an exceptional educational experience for our students. No matter what challenges we have faced, we have adapted to meet their needs and prepare our graduates for success in a complex and rapidly changing world.”

Ask anyone familiar with the University what makes it special, and the answer usually includes something along the lines of “great school, great price.” While that explanation is a bit of an oversimplification, it is, in essence, why Truman excels in multiple rankings. With roots as a teachers’ college and a regional university, Truman is founded on the ideas of empowerment through education and serving the public good. To do that effectively means having resources in place for students, both financially and academically. It means qualified faculty members are able to work closely with students, enhancing their education. It means students graduate and do so without accruing monumental amounts of debt. These are the true markers of a successful university, and they are all things Truman does well.

“Truman provides a remarkable education that prepares our students to thrive both professionally and personally,” Thomas said. “Our students graduate at high rates, with low debt, ready to make a profound impact on the world. We have consistently ensured our students realize the full promise of higher education.”

A closer look at the U.S. News & World Report rankings shows Truman excels in a number of areas. On supplemental lists, Truman was No. 1 on the Best Value Schools rankings. Among both public and private schools in the Midwest Region, Truman was the best in terms of affordability. It was the only Missouri public school included in the top 50 spots.

Truman was again recognized on the list of Best Undergraduate Teaching, coming in as the No. 1 public university, No. 8 overall, in the Midwest Region. Of the 24 schools listed, Truman was the only Missouri institution, and the highest ranked of the four public schools to be honored.

On the list of Most Innovative Schools in the Midwest Region, which recognizes institutions making improvements toward curriculum, faculty, students, campus life, technology and facilities, Truman was the lone Missouri university among the 17 included schools, and one of only two public institutions.

While the U.S. News & World Report rankings may be the most widely known, Truman also performs well in a number of other publications, most notably Washington Monthly. Truman improved six spots in the most recent rankings by the nonprofit magazine, coming in as the No. 6 master’s university in the nation.

The Washington Monthly rankings are unique in that they place an importance on social mobility, research and promoting public service. Along with traditional benchmarks such as graduation rates and costs, schools are rewarded for criteria including the number of first-generation students enrolled and the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants or participating in ROTC. Of the 616 schools included on the list, Truman was the only Missouri public university among the top 275 spots.

“In many ways, the Washington Monthly rankings recognize Truman’s successful realization of essential components of our mission,” Thomas said. “We have proven time and again that student success is our highest priority and our graduates are endowed with the skills and knowledge to lead and to develop creative solutions for local, state, national and global issues. To be acknowledged as one of the best universities in the nation is quite an accomplishment, and it is gratifying to have our sustained efforts and impact recognized.”

If nothing else, the past two years have given the University a chance to prove it can be adaptive and meet the needs of students. When classes dismissed for spring break in March 2020, no one had any idea it would be the last in-person experience for months.

“I felt very isolated without my friends who had lived right next to me in the dorms,” said student Leah Caputo. “My friends were like my family in college, and going back home to complete schoolwork completely online without much social interaction was very difficult.”

Running a university in the best of times has complexities of its own, but during a pandemic each day is a minefield of new challenges. Quarantine, isolation, vaccination, contact tracing – in 2019 those terms would best be associated with a dystopian sci-fi movie. In 2022, colleges and universities have plans in place for each. In many cases, policies have been written, torn up and revised several times over depending on whatever new wrinkle has developed. The general public had never heard the term “social distancing” before the pandemic. Now it is ubiquitous, and the reason why some classes only met in-person on certain days, or why a school that normally conducts one commencement ceremony had to plan for seven.

“There has been no blueprint for how to operate under the conditions we have experienced for the last two years,” Thomas said. “But we believe strongly in the Ray Davis quotation, ‘A challenge only becomes an obstacle when you bow to it,’ and we never let the multitude of challenges become obstacles.”

The pandemic hit in full force when Truman was on spring break. An original one-week extension of break was soon converted to an online-only format for the remainder of the semester, and students were encouraged to stay at their permanent residence. In the immediate aftermath of pandemic, Truman prorated housing and meal plans for the semester. Since campus was essentially closed, work obligations were waived for scholarship requirements, and students were allowed to retain the entirety of their awards. Academically, the University eased normal requirements, extending the final drop date for classes and allowing students to convert any course to pass/fall grading through mid-May. For the semester, a grade of “pass” was also acceptable to fulfill prerequisites, and inclusion on honors’ lists were determined based on recorded grades prior to any conversions. Truman also maintained flexibility in terms of its approach to academic standards appeals, as well as federal and Truman financial aid appeals.

“We understood it might be difficult for students to balance academics with everything else during the pandemic. To make it easier, Truman emphasized flexibility and grace in the context of our routine,” said Janet Gooch, executive vice president for academic affairs and provost. “Learning continued uninterrupted, perhaps through different modes of delivery and in different places, but it continued nonetheless. Students, faculty and staff worked collaboratively and cooperatively to deliver the quality education and high-impact experiences that are the hallmark of Truman, in spite of the pandemic.”

By June, the decision to return for in-person classes in the fall was announced, but what that might look like was still unknown. Truman consulted public health professionals, the guidance of the CDC and plans from other universities, in addition to input from students, faculty and staff, in devising a return to in-person learning.

“Truman navigated the 2020-21 school year without any COVID-related stoppages because of proper planning and so many people working together.” Thomas said. “Our faculty, staff and students made choices that supported a safe community, and together we achieved what many thought would be impossible. As we looked forward to the new school year, we needed to draw on that same sense of community. To ensure another successful school year, we had to continue to work together to make informed individual and collective decisions.”

Ultimately, Truman developed a plan to return to campus while mitigating the risks associated with the virus. Classes were offered in a variety of methods including in-person, online asynchronously, online synchronously and hybrid formats. This allowed for those who were ready for in-person classes to return, while at the same time accommodating high-risk individuals and those who did not feel comfortable with face-to-face classes. The schedule was condensed to limit travel to and from campus. Students worked through the normal Labor Day and midterm breaks so they could leave for the semester at Thanksgiving without returning to Kirksville. Truman also developed its own contact tracing program, overseen by Nancy Daley-Moore, associate professor of health science, with the help of a full-time student worker and 20 health science students.

“Having your own contact tracing team allows for a quicker and more seamless response on campus. It makes it easier to contact people and connect people with resources because we know where to go for information,” Daley-Moore said. “Having our own contact tracing was beneficial in that it helped us manage our case load, minimize potential spread and keep us on campus.”

With a variety of mitigation methods in place, Truman was able to conduct an entire academic year without any COVID-related stoppages. By the end of the spring semester, the number of active cases had decreased significantly. The vaccines were widely available in Kirksville, and the University even conducted some on-campus clinics.

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If there is a particular time period that fully demonstrates the University’s flexibility throughout the pandemic, it is summer 2021. As it began, things were looking great for the fall semester. Truman ended the year with zero active cases. Vaccines were prevalent. Truman announced classrooms would return to their normal capacities for the fall, and the mask policy was lifted in July for anyone who was fully vaccinated. “Normal” was finally in sight for the fall semester.

Then came the Delta variant. Cases ticked back up. Adair County, like so many other parts of the state and country, was listed as an area of “high transmission,” and CDC guidelines were revised to recommend masks in public indoor settings. Although classrooms would still return to pre-pandemic conditions, the University mask policy was reinstated in August.

“When the previous school year ended, conditions surrounding the pandemic showed signs of progress, and all of us hoped for a fall semester that resembled pre-pandemic times,” Thomas said. “Unfortunately, the positive trajectory did not continue throughout the summer, and in light of all of the factors we had considered since the beginning of the pandemic, we made the decision to require masks indoors while returning to pre-pandemic activities. Our low case counts throughout the semester validated this decision.”

Although the pandemic was still very much a factor during the fall semester, many campus norms did return. Organizations were again able to meet in person and host events. Fans were present at athletic events. Family Day and Homecoming resumed.

“Returning in fall ’21 was much easier because life was much more normal,” said student Tessa Gisi. “With the exception of wearing masks, campus events were back in full swing, and my campus activities were much more normal.”

The University still had COVID-19 cases, but for most of the semester they occurred at a far less frequent rate than the previous year. By the end of finals in December, Truman had experienced roughly 80 cases among students and employees during the fall 2021 semester, compared to more than 300 the previous year.

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For nearly two years, the pandemic has affected everyone’s life, regardless of their personal opinions about it. Loved ones have been lost, lives and livelihoods disrupted, and social norms altered. At this point, the only positive takeaway is the proof that society can adjust and lessons can be learned.

In education circles, perhaps the most revealing aspect of the pandemic is that in-person instruction remains valuable and is here to stay. For years, prognosticators have foreshadowed an era on the horizon when everything can be learned online and on one’s own timetable – brick-and-mortar schools would disappear like brick-and-mortar businesses have for years. The pandemic proved those predictions wrong.

“Our students wanted to be on campus and surrounded by classmates,” Gooch said. “They realized there is real value in being part of a learning community, both in and out of the classroom.”

At the same time, the pandemic demonstrated technological advances are an asset that perhaps were underutilized for years. Some courses do have value in alternate formats, whether they are online or hybrid. Distance is no longer a roadblock, and additional avenues have opened for students. Study aboard and internships do not have to mean missing out on other classes for a semester, and special circumstances can be remedied with technology rather than a total withdrawal from school.

“Education evolves just like everything else, and we’ve learned technology can enhance the student experience without replacing it,” Gooch said. “Offering multiple options for course delivery can empower our students, allowing them agency in how and where to focus their efforts.”

For Truman specifically, the last two years have been a case study in the value of the liberal arts. Intangible qualities, like critical thinking and problem-solving skills, have been put to the test, and time and again they have proven their worth. Whatever challenges arrived, they were evaluated, and solutions – sometimes imperfect, but always thoughtful – were developed to meet the moment.

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All good things must come to an end. At some point, Truman will lose its No. 1 ranking, likely either because the methodology changes or circumstances beyond University control will lead to skewed statistics in a particular category. When that day comes, Truman will still be fine.

“We are not great because we are on these lists, we are on these lists because we do great things for our students,” Thomas said. “Any recognition we get is a result of that, not the motivation for it. We will continue to be purposeful and innovative and stay true to our vision of producing graduates who, as our mission states, ‘will be citizen-leaders committed to service; globally competitive; able to thrive in the complexities of an advanced, technical and multicultural world; and inspired to live healthy and meaningful lives.’ As long as we do that, we will be No. 1 in every way that counts, regardless of where we may fall on any ranking list.”


Expanded Services Part of a Strong Focus on Mental Health

For several years, Truman has been taking steps to expand its resources to better meet the growing need for mental health services.

One of the most notable adjustments has been partnering with a third-party provider to oversee the Student Health Center and University Counseling Services. Since February 2021, Complete Family Medicine has overseen daily operations of both entities. A subsidiary of Hannibal Regional Healthcare System, this nonprofit agency has the capacity to provide additional resources to students, including expanded hours, increased access to a physician and access to off-site providers when needed.

The Student Health Center and University Counseling Services remain on campus, housed in the McKinney Center. Services are accessible year around, with additional hours of operation during the school year. Available staff during the academic year includes four full-time on-campus counselors, two part-time on-campus counselors and three virtual counselors.

“The goal is to be a premiere student health center and student counseling center that other universities look to because we’ve implemented models and processes of care that are making our students as healthy as possible so they can be successful in and out of the classroom,” said Dr. Jordan Palmer, a Truman alumnus and the medical director overseeing both clinics.

The past year also saw Truman begin a partnership with emotional well-being provider LifeWorks, which offers access to resources specifically for students in higher education. Through its My Student Support Program (My SSP), students can seek resources in a variety of platforms, including live online chats and video counseling.

The My SSP app offers free and confidential short-term, solution-focused counseling delivered by degree-qualified clinicians on a 24/7 basis. In addition, students can access self-directed resources, including videos and articles on topics such as: scholarly stress; combating homesickness or feelings of isolation; relationship tension or challenges with family or friends; creating balance between personal and academic priorities; and thriving as a student. If a student is in need of additional support, My SSP can help refer them to the proper resource.

Students who make a connection with a My SSP counselor may maintain that relationship, unless the counselor feels a referral is more beneficial. Students can also request to speak with a counselor in a variety of languages, including 24-hour access to counselors who speak English, French, Spanish, Cantonese or Mandarin. Other languages are available upon request.

“My SSP is a new and additional resource for students who may not have previously sought out mental health supports,” said Janna Stoskopf, dean of student life. “The app is a quick, convenient and more private way for students to reach out for help. Students most frequently reach out to a counselor for the first time through the chat function. That tells us that we are creating a way for students who may have needed help, but were reluctant to connect with UCS, to get assistance.”

Other measures the University implemented include the creation of the Truman Wellness website, available at wellness.truman.edu. The site serves as a resource for communicating a campus-wide commitment to wellness and a culture of caring.

Faculty members have played key roles in the strategic planning of the University’s wellness approach. Many have participated in workshops and other developmental opportunities for mental health and well-being. A faculty fellows position was created for mental health, as well as a student award for faculty members who are champions of mental health.

Truman also adjusted policies around dropping and adding courses to help alleviate student stress. The leave of absence policy was altered to provide students with the opportunity to be absent from the University for up to two full semesters while retaining their status as students, minimizing the impact on any Truman-funded financial assistance the student may receive.

The University recently completed a four-year JED Campus program to help prioritize student mental health and well-being through strategic interventions. Due to its participation in the program, Truman now has access to its Learning Community, the JED Campus Playbook, JED Campus and Campus Professionals webinars, newsletters, JED connection calls, the online forum and listserv, and other JED communications and opportunities.


New Recruitment Strategies to Aide Enrollment 

Simply put, this is not a golden age for college admissions, especially in the Midwest. According to the Coordinating Board for Higher Education, college enrollment for Missouri high school graduates declined 18.5% from 2010 to 2020. Results of that decrease can be seen throughout the state. From 2015-2020 every Missouri public four-year institution saw at least one year of negative enrollment growth, with most experiencing the trend for multiple years. In total, 10 of the 13 state universities saw an overall decrease in enrollment during that time, and projections for the state and the region show signs of drastic decreases for the next 15 years. While Truman has fared better than some other state schools, it has not been immune to enrollment issues.

“Enrollment declines were expected based on demographics and the number of high school graduates,” said Tyana Lange, vice president of enrollment management and marketing. “The reality is, we have to do a better job of selling the excellence and value of a Truman degree.”

In addition to bleak high school data, another factor specific to Truman could have to do with how college students make their choice. A 2016 study commissioned by the American Council on Education revealed a majority of students attending four-year colleges and universities enroll within 50 miles of their home. It also found the farther away a college is, the less likely the student is to attend. Historical enrollment data from Truman would support the theory that current students have a different view of going off to college than those in previous eras. From 1986-90, out-of-state students accounted for an average of 30% of the incoming class. Between 2016-20, that number dipped to 15.2%.

“Fewer students are going to college, and the ones that do are staying closer to home than they did in previous years,” Lange said. “For years we have relied on cost to attract students. We have to tell our story and make sure prospective students, parents and families understand how amazing the Truman experience is and how successful our alumni are so they can picture themselves as part of the Bulldog family.”

In recent years, the Office of Admission has enhanced its enrollment strategies. First among them is to communicate with prospective students earlier in the recruitment cycle. At the same time, Truman has moved up the scholarship process so students get their best offer first, rather than an initial merit scholarship followed by a competitive-based offer. This also allows students and their families to have all the information they need to compare Truman against offers from competing schools. Disruptions to standardized tests also resulted in the University piloting a test-flexible option for admission, which now puts Truman on par with hundreds of colleges and universities that already implemented the practice.

The new strategies are still in the early phases, but they have already shown promise, even as the pandemic has hindered the University’s ability to participate at in-person college fairs and high school visits. Although the number of first-time freshmen was down for the current school year, Truman saw gains in other areas. New student enrollment – first-time freshmen combined with new graduate, transfer and international students – was up compared to the start of the previous fall semester.

“Recruiting for all colleges and universities has changed,” Lange said. “We’ve worked to ensure we are connecting with students earlier in the cycle, providing the type of information they are interested in hearing and delivering it when they need it. We are doing whatever we can to make the process easier and more transparent”

Part of the reason for the increase in graduate students is the addition of new programs. Since 2020 Truman has added five new graduate programs, including master’s degrees in: gifted education; mental health counseling; school counseling; and data science and analytical storytelling; as well as a graduate certificate in data science. To prepare for long-term growth with multiple segments of potential students, the Office of Admission has added designated counselors for graduate and transfer students. In a collaborative endeavor, the admission team now works closely with the Center for International Students to strategically recruit that pool of potential applicants.

Truman has taken additional steps to support long-term growth. The Division of Enrollment Management was expanded to become Enrollment Management and Marketing, with proactive recruitment measures conducted in collaboration with the Office of Admission. The University also added a coordinator of marketing position, as well as a director of retention to support students after they are enrolled.

Another positive sign for future recruitment efforts came in the form of summer academy enrollment (see page 5). For 2021, summer programs saw participation levels at or exceeding pre-pandemic numbers. The Joseph Baldwin Academy in particular is an effective feeder program for eventual Truman students, and the increase in enrollment shows promise for future entering classes.

Throughout Missouri’s decade-long downturn in high school graduates who enroll in college, the University has maintained its identity. The retention rate has increased after a downturn that lasted for years, and Truman still has the highest graduation rate among the state’s four-year institutions.   

Alumni and friends can play an important role in recruitment by referring a prospective student. Referrals can be made at truman.edu/alumni-donors/refer-a-student. Visits to campus can be arranged Monday through Friday. The University hosts open Saturday group visits, as well as Saturday Showcase Events, during the academic year. More information about visits can be found at truman.edu/admission-cost/visit-truman or by calling (660) 785-4114. Applications can be found at truman.edu/admission-cost/apply-to-truman.

The Inadvertent Artist

An experience in the Peace Corps inspired Lindsey Dunnagan to a career as an artist. 

Lindsey Dunnagan uses her art to explore human interactions with the natural environment. Whether the medium is pencils, paint or Plexiglas, she has always been creative, but it was her life-altering time in the Peace Corps that ultimately pointed her toward a career in art.

An altruistic nature and a love of new experiences led Dunnagan to her two years of service in Morocco. Armed with an education in business and architecture, she soon realized the local artisans already knew their market and did not really need her assistance in those areas. Dunnagan found other ways to be of service, but she also learned some valuable personal lessons, like how to survive with less personal comfort than she was used to, including going through a snowy winter without heat.

“The people I lived with were more resourceful than anyone I had met before,” she said. “That deeply affected me. Now, when I am in situations that are uncomfortable, I seem to be fine and can usually figure out how to get what I need.”

The toughness she picked up also encouraged Dunnagan to explore a career as an artist. After originally attending Texas A&M University with the intent to become an architect, she changed her plans and decided to utilize her creative talents for her livelihood.

“Living in rural Morocco and learning a new language taught me about grit, and I thought I could handle the insecurities that may come with entering a field that was unfamiliar to me,” she said.

Dunnagan learned she specifically enjoyed working with college students after teaching a watercolor class in graduate school at Texas Women’s University. She came to Truman in 2016 after being offered a tenure-track position and the opportunity to run the Painting Department.

“I really liked the school and the students and faculty that I met when I came to visit. Altogether, it seemed like a great fit,” she said.

As an assistant professor of art, Dunnagan teaches courses in painting, drawing and watercolors, as well as a junior interdisciplinary seminar and capstone classes for BFA and BA students. The last two years have reaffirmed the value of in-person learning.

“The pandemic proved that online learning is not the best fit for all students, educators and fields of study,” Dunnagan said. “When I am with students in painting classes, I can see right away if the reason they can’t get a certain effect is because of the way they are holding their paint brush. That kind of simple technique correction can’t really happen in an online environment. The nuance of learning directly from peers and professors is much more difficult when it comes to hand skills. Many students more quickly advance when studio classes are in person.”

The pandemic also spoiled a return trip to Morocco for Dunnagan. She had planned to take students on a study abroad experience in 2020. While that trip did not work out, she hopes to venture there with students at some point.

With more free time than usual during the pandemic, Dunnagan was able to finally work on a project she has dreamed about since childhood. She wrote and illustrated a children’s book, “The Best Cheese,” about a chef who decides to send cows to the moon to make cheese. It can be found on barnesandnoble.com.

Dunnagan is already working on her second book, and given her creative nature, there is no end to the list of possible projects she may one day pursue. A key component to her success might be her outlook on failure, especially important for anyone working in a creative field and something she tries to relate to students.

“It is ok to fail,” she said. “Failure is a part of life. Failing something gives you information on what needs to change in your life. It does not mean that you are unworthy or that you are not enough. It is so important to remember that even though you may not do well in an area – or many areas – it does not mean you have less value as a person. It is an opportunity to take a step back and reassess.”

Challenge Accepted

Kathy Otero is no stranger to stepping outside of her comfort zone, and she wants students to do the same.

Even though she teaches managerial accounting courses for upperclassmen and graduate students, Kathy Otero advocates for her students to take classes outside of the major.

“You’d be surprised how much this will broaden your thinking,” she said.

Otero also encourages her students not to be afraid of challenges, as well as to focus on learning, not on a particular letter grade. That advice is less about being a free spirit and comes more from a place of practicality.

“Once you’re working, it’s your job performance, not your college grades, that will matter,” she said.

As an associate professor of accounting, now in her 10th year at Truman, Otero is used to being in charge of the classroom. Yet, she still feels she has a lot in common with her students.

“We are students all our lives, and our purpose is to learn and grow,” she said. “In order to grow, we should embrace challenges that move us beyond our comfort zones.”

Otero practices what she preaches, and it is fair to say she is comfortable being uncomfortable. A self-described introvert, she is not particularly comfortable around new people, but she’s learned to hide it well. Demands of the pandemic also put her in some unfamiliar territory.

“I was forced out of my low-tech comfort zone into a higher-tech environment,” Otero said. “While it would be way off base to say I’m great with technology, I am getting better, and I’m less afraid to try new things. Technology has improved my ability to spend more class time doing rather than lecturing.”

Otero is not afraid to branch out spatially as well. After earning all three of her degrees from the University of Texas at El Paso, and lecturing there for multiple years while completing her Ph.D., she made the move to Missouri and Truman’s School of Business. She and her husband were looking for a rural area to accommodate their horses and dogs, and because she enjoyed her interactions with students, Otero was seeking an institution that put student learning first.

“Truman fit the wish list on both counts,” she said. “I work with the greatest group of people ever. We’re all focused on student learning and improving our programs, and the students are very interested in learning, which expands what I can teach.”

Ironically, teaching was never on Otero’s radar. While working toward her master’s in accounting, she landed a teaching assistant job with the chair of the department. When an adjunct position came open in mid-semester, she was thrust into the role.

“I was terrified and excited at the same time, but it was a great opportunity, and I discovered I liked teaching and loved the lightbulb moments students had,” she said. “I was hooked.”

Otero’s appreciation for those moments is what she likes best about her work at Truman, and she hopes those epiphanies do not stop when students complete her class.

“I love the mutual satisfaction both my students and I get when a concept gels for them. I also really like those moments when students look at something we’re doing from a different perspective and come up with ideas and questions that make me stop and think,” she said. “When a student leaves my course, I want them to feel they know more, can do more and can continue to learn more than they realized.”

Beyond the Classroom

In addition to preparing physical education teachers to enter the profession, Julene Ensign sets them up for a long and successful career.

It’s rare to find Julene Ensign in a classroom, but that doesn’t mean she’s resting on her laurels. As an assistant professor of exercise science, Ensign primarily teaches courses related to Truman’s MAE physical education, meaning she spends a lot of time in the field helping her students become professional educators. Her “classroom” might be a gym, a track, or on some occasions, a lake.

“Most of my classes are experiential in nature, so I’m not in a traditional classroom setting very often,” she said.

Ensign’s job may be to train tomorrow’s teachers, but she is also part myth buster. She wants people to know being a physical educator involves more than rolling out balls and spending the day in sweatpants. Just like their colleagues, physical educators have to create lesson plans, maximize time on task, provide quality feedback and meet the needs of diverse learners, all while students are in constant motion around a large space.

“The amount of planning before the lesson, attention to detail during the lesson and reflection required after the lesson puts physical educators in an elite category in terms of pedagogical practices,” Ensign said. “The reality is that most physical educators are drawn to the field because they want a career that allows them to continue to be physically active. I love the value that it adds to my quality of life and am passionate about helping others discover their own pathway to being physically active for a lifetime.”

Any novice teacher, regardless of their area of concentration, could learn a thing or two from Ensign’s research. Although specific to physical educators, she focuses on the socialization, efficacy and teaching performance of beginning instructors.

“If a beginning teacher is struggling to fit in with coworkers or manage groups of students, their perception of their ability to teach effectively will decrease,” Ensign said. “In general, we all tend to stay engaged in activities where we have a high degree of efficacy or confidence in our abilities to make a difference. The bottom line is it’s really important these beginning teachers get started with all of the right types of support in place.”

When it comes to advising new teachers, Ensign has a wealth of life experience from which to draw. After completing her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Illinois, she originally worked as a personal trainer and in a sport management setting. She took a job as an adjunct faculty member when her children were younger in order to have a more regular schedule, and her time in the classroom sparked something. Ensign went back to school for her teaching licensure and a Ph.D. from her alma mater.

“It took three really tough years of working full-time, taking classes full-time, commuting three hours to take classes and juggling being a wife and mother to successfully defend my dissertation and earn my doctorate,” she said.

After studying at a large university and teaching at a smaller one, Truman is “just right” and the lifetime Illinois native feels at home since coming to the University in 2019.

“We’re in the business of creating a ‘family tree’ of physical educators who are willing to stand in the gap for students. It’s sort of a grassroots approach, but it’s what makes the hard work of teaching worth the effort,” Ensign said. “Knowing that my candidates and graduates are moving the needle in a positive way for their students is important to me.”

Something for Everyone

Kelly Walter uses her love of horses to strengthen the Truman equine program and give students real-world experiences.

Some students might be surprised to learn Truman has a University Farm located southwest of campus, and those who do know about it might think it is only for agriculture students. Kelly Walter, associate professor of agriculture science, would like to change that.

“There is something for everyone out at the farm,” she said. “There are beginning horsemanship courses and an equestrian team that requires no previous experience. Students can also enjoy the scenery and just visit the farm.”

For someone like Walter, it’s difficult to image a day without working with animals, whether it is at the University Farm or at home on her family’s farm in Putnam County.

“I have loved horses as long as I can remember,” she said. “My first experiences with horses were through our area 4-H program, and with that came exposure to the University of Georgia animal science program. When I realized I could incorporate my love of horses and my interest in science into a long-term involvement in animal science, there was no turning back.”

While earning her master’s and Ph.D. at Texas A&M University, Walter’s research included nutrient requirements of weanling Quarter Horses and later fetal programming. Her dissertation looked at the influence of maternal nutrition on the resulting foal. Fittingly, of the 18 different courses she has taught since coming to Truman in 2012, many have dealt with animal reproduction and nutrition, and her favorite course to teach is Equine Reproduction Practicum.

“My teaching philosophy is to keep it simple and focus on animal examples and case studies. In many of my classes we cover complex subjects, but when it is applied to a real-life example using animals, it becomes much easier for students to follow,” she said.

Walter has a number of goals to improve the quality of the horses produced at the University Farm, including producing prospects for western performance horse events, identifying high-quality performance stallion options to use from the area equine industry to replace University-raised stallions, and establishing a plan for selling Truman horses as weanlings and yearlings at auction to the general public. Her approach has already started to see results. Over the past two years, she orchestrated the sale of nine horses, ranging from weanlings to two-year-olds, netting the equine program $30,000 to use toward purchase of replacement horses in the future.

“It is important to raise quality foals that are in demand by the horse industry in order to model successful equine business practices to our students,” Walter said. “My primary goal is to teach students the science of reproduction while applying that knowledge to real-life scenarios.”

Over the next few years, Walter hopes to have mares with strong performance records of their own to use for breeding. Additionally, she would like to use the generated income to purchase fully trained riding horses for the horsemanship courses and equestrian team.

All of Walter’s equine science courses and research are technically open to any major and do not require any existing horse riding experience. Some courses would require other prerequisites in order to participate, but there is not a requirement for any pre-existing horse experience.

Connecting the Dots

Through his research, Anton Daughters sees similar patterns across humanity, from fishing communities in Chile to his adopted home in the Midwest.

Following a five-year stint in the Army, Anton Daughters kept one overarching factor in mind when making his college choice – he wanted to go somewhere sunny. After loading up the car, he drove from Alaska to Albuquerque where he enrolled at the University of New Mexico.

To be fair, Daughters knew what he was passionate about, he just didn’t yet know he could study it for a living. The son of an American father and a Chilean mother, he spent ages 10-14 living abroad in Chile. His service in the Army also enabled him to see the world and gain an appreciation of other cultures. After a little research, it seemed natural to pursue a degree in cultural anthropology.

“I didn’t even know that was a thing until I started looking at majors,” he said. “Anthropology is always asking you to take this broad view of who we are. It’s asking you to step back a little bit from the present, or at least understand how the present fits into this larger picture, and I love topics that force you to take this broad view.”

After earning an undergraduate degree from UNM, a Ph.D. from the University of Arizona and completing a two-year post-doctoral program at Cornell College in Iowa, Daughters came to Truman in 2012. The University’s liberal arts mission aligns well with his career goals.   

“The job has the right balance of teaching and research,” he said. “I got into this line of work mainly because I like to teach, but I also didn’t want to disavow research entirely, and they give you the space to do research here.”

Research is a labor of love for Daughters, who has been studying the Archipelago of Chiloé for more than 20 years in his childhood home of Chile. Historically a rural outpost of seafarers and indigenous farmers, the area has seen a transformational shift toward a global economy as major fishing companies moved into the region. Although his research deals with something 6,300 miles away, Daughters sees similarities not far from home.

“It’s a transformation that isn’t foreign to people here where we are in the Midwest,” he said. “It’s a fairly universal process of transition, and you can think of it really as an extension of the industrial revolution reaching increasingly rural parts of the world.”

Daughters has been documenting the changes in Chiloé since the early 2000s, visiting the region every two or three years, and at one point living there for an entire year. In 2019, he published “Memories of Earth and Sea,” a comprehensive examination of the islands’ history.

Another transition Daughters is excited about is the one back to the classroom. After of a year of teaching virtually, he resumed in-person classes for the current academic year.

“On the whole, I missed person-to-person contact and teaching,” he said. “Now that I’ve gone back to in-person teaching, I really enjoy it. If there’s a silver lining, it’s that it made me appreciate, again, how fun it is to teach and be in a classroom interacting with students.”

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson and Anton Daughters in 2018

A popular instructor, students are no doubt happy to be back in his classroom as well. In addition to earning the Governor’s Award for Excellence in Education in 2018, Daughters was named Truman’s Educator of the Year in 2017.

“That’s a student-initiated award,” he said. “To me it felt like a really meaningful recognition.”

Yeoman’s Work

By participating in nearly 100 humanitarian mission trips, pediatric emergency medicine physician Jeff Kempf dedicated his career to providing as many services as possible to children around the globe. 

photo by Ted Stevens

As a kid, Jeff Kempf was given a book about Tom Dooley, an American physician who was known for providing humanitarian care, primarily in Southeast Asia prior to the Vietnam War. The book so impacted Kempf that he knew he wanted to be a doctor. After graduating from the University in 1978 with a degree in biology, he stayed in town, earning a medical degree from A.T. Still University-KCOM. In a career spanning five decades, he has followed in the footsteps of Dooley, offering care to countless children in the U.S. and abroad.

After completing an internship and general pediatric residency, Kempf took a public health position in Florida, primarily to alleviate the debt from his education. His job put him in close proximity with indigent patients, giving him insight into the pitfalls of the medical establishment.

“I found it to be an incredibly fulfilling job,” he said. “It opened my eyes to how health care is very unevenly distributed in our country.”

After marrying Ellen, his wife of 37 years and a fellow pediatrician, Kempf relocated to Ohio to pursue a subspecialty in emergency medicine. He went on to serve for 30 years in the emergency department at Akron Children’s Hospital. Kempf did not confine his medical talents to the Buckeye State. He and Ellen devoted their time to medical mission trips around the world, including Kenya, Belize, Ethiopia and Haiti. In total, Kempf estimates he has participated in some capacity on nearly 100 humanitarian efforts.

“I do believe that health care should be a human right, for every human, not only in the United States, but in the world,” he said. “That should be a universal goal for all of us.”

In 2012, Kempf was approached by Gift of Life Northeast Ohio, a nonprofit organization that serves children and their families from developing nations who do not have access to cardiac care. Kempf’s desire to provide health care to all those who need it, along with his experience on medical mission trips, gelled nicely with the goals of the organization. Together, they looked to not only provide services in developing areas, but also create an infrastructure that would eventually allow those destinations to be self-sufficient.

Last year, Kempf’s efforts received recognition in the documentary film “Open Hearts,” which tracked a mission trip to Haiti. The finished product, both uplifting and agonizing, showcased an international team of doctors choosing from hundreds of potential patients a dozen who would receive lifesaving care.

“There are kids who are going to die before we come back. That’s the reality of it,” Kempf said. “At the end of the day, our job is to provide help for those that we can and have a little bit of faith that we make the right choices.”

Kempf’s role on the trips, and well documented in the film, is to coordinate the many moving parts involved in bringing an international team together for a relatively short time period to treat critically ill patients. He also managed to sneak in a game of Candyland with one of the children. For his efforts, the film – available at openheartsfilm.com – cites Kempf as a producer, something that came as a surprise to him.

“I certainly wasn’t a film producer, other than I showed up,” he said.

After his retirement, Kempf planned to volunteer his medical expertise, however, a recent ailment has him on immunosuppressant medication, limiting his potential avenues of service during the pandemic. He still volunteers in other ways, and he plans to one day return to mission trips and other medical service.

“I’m still incredibly hopeful that someday I will get back,” he said. “The way we get better, the way our country can really make life better for all of us, is to raise all of us up together. To have community involvement and civic improvement starts at the bottom up.”

Alumni Reunite to Help Global Vaccine Efforts

Truman has been the home of the bulldogs for more than 100 years. In 1915, the mascot was selected by students to represent the school because of its perseverance and ability to hold on and fight until the very end. With that in mind, it makes perfect sense that two Bulldogs are currently leading the effort to help the nation – and the world – defeat a pandemic.

Rachel Humphrey (’95) and Bryan Heartsfield (’92) are two key players in the fight against the coronavirus. Humphrey, an Army Colonel, is the Chief of Plans for the COVID-19 Countermeasures Acceleration Group. Through his role with the Health and Human Services Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response, Heartsfield is the Strategic National Stockpile lead public health advisor. In short, the two are working together out of Washington, D.C., to make sure everyone on the planet has access to a vaccine.

Truman ROTC was the first outfit to bring the duo together. Heartsfield was a senior cadet when Humphrey came in as a freshman. Their time at the University only overlapped one year, but their paths crossed again when their military careers had them both in Kuwait in 1999. They have remained friends ever since, but neither was prepared to see them brought together for the biggest global health initiative in a generation.

“I was briefing during a morning ‘stand-up’ national coordination call from the Vaccine and Therapeutics Operations Center where all of the leaders on site gather and update federal partners across the nation using a conference line,” Heartsfield said. “She was standing in the room. What a small world. To both be assigned to a national-level response out of a certain room in a certain building in Washington, D.C., was just shocking.”

Fate had reunited the Truman alumni. Heartsfield, who started working for the CDC after a decorated career as a Medical Service Corps officer in the Army, was selected for his role because of his experience leading national-level responses such as Ebola outbreaks in Africa, Zika in Puerto Rico and numerous hurricanes in the United States. Humphrey was rotated in to relieve the previous Department of Defense team. As the Chief of Plans, she synchronizes planning efforts across multiple Department of HHS agencies, White House staff, jurisdictions and federal entities to ensure a fully integrated operation, which makes the former freshman cadet the boss of her friend and senior cadet.

“Who would have thought that two Truman alumni would be leading the way during one of the most important public health response efforts in history?” Humphrey said. “It’s a credit to the types of people that Truman graduates.”

The Strategic National Stockpile purchases the materials to create and assemble kits with all the components needed to provide the COVID-19 vaccination. The kits are then distributed throughout the country in order to stem the tide of the virus. Since the inception of Operation Warp Speed and now the follow-on operation called the Countermeasures Acceleration Group, more than 600 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine have been delivered to the American public since Dec. 14, 2020 when the first delivery was made. In addition, nearly 72% of all adults are fully vaccinated, more than 47 million booster doses have been administered and more than 6.3 million pediatric doses have been administered.

“Vaccines can take anywhere from three to five years from inception to approval,” Heartsfield said. “We did it in just over a year, and even though it felt slow, today you can get a vaccine just by walking into most pharmacy stores.”

As the vaccine has become readily available in the U.S., Humphrey’s and Heartsfield’s team has started to spread its efforts across the globe. As of December 2021, 101 countries have received more than 146 million doses from the U.S. to help get their populations vaccinated.

“It is truly rewarding to support those in need regardless of where they live,” Humphrey said. “Not since the Spanish Flu of 1918 has the world suffered from such a deadly pandemic. That death toll was estimated to between 20 million to 50 million people, and to be able to be a part of the national, now global, effort to keep that from repeating is intense, unrelenting and more than anything, humbling.”

Truman’s vision statement calls for its graduates to be “citizen-leaders committed to service” who can “offer creative solutions to local, state, national and global problems.” Humphrey and Heartsfield are the living embodiment of that sentiment. Their work evokes pride in the University’s alumni base, and the collaboration of the civilian and military fields to serve humankind across the world emboldens a sense of patriotism on a level unseen in decades.

“Not since WWII, has the industrial base of the United States mobilized under a common goal at this scale, and we, the United States of America, really are sharing with the world,” Heartsfield said. “Other nations are also benefiting from industry, medical and other professions that supported this effort. What we are living in right now is, in fact, history. Our grandchildren and their children will study this moment in time and ask us what it was like.”

With the vaccine accessible to anyone age five and up that wants one, the team has turned its focus on development, manufacturing and distribution of therapeutics. The Countermeasures Acceleration Group has delivered upwards of 3.6 million courses and continues to add new therapeutics to the lineup as they get the required FDA and CDC approval.

Preparation to Podium

In his role as lead strength and conditioning coach, Ambrose Serrano helps American athletes reach their full potential.

When the Winter Olympics kick off in Beijing, Ambrose Serrano can be forgiven if he has some sleepless nights. As lead strength and conditioning coach for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC), he oversees training plans for as many as 40 athletes, primarily in the winter sports of biathlon, bobsled, luge and skeleton. Working with individuals day in, day out for years to help them reach their goals can be particularly nerve-racking when the only thing left to do is compete.

“Coaching is a personal relationship with athletes, and we are proud, nervous, excited, anxious and any other normal emotion that comes with competition,” he said. “The biggest reward as a coach is when an athlete is able to achieve the goals they set for themselves.”

After working with athletes for more than a decade from his post at the Lake Placid Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in New York, Serrano has helped countless athletes in pursuit of their dreams.

“This is the most enjoyable part of my role as a strength and conditioning coach,” he said. “The on-the-floor coaching and personal communication I have with the athletes is an irreplaceable aspect of my role with the USOPC.”

To do his job effectively, Serrano not only trains with athletes five to six days per week, he also stays current on the most up-to-date research in the field and collaborates with other coaches and colleagues to promote sport-science initiatives that support athlete wellness and performance. He also takes into account they are individuals with their own lives and needs.

“Programming training plans and coaching athletes requires consistent and frequent communication between coach and athlete to determine what the best approach for each athlete may be as an individual,” Serrano said. “All areas of an athlete’s life need to be considered when optimizing their training. This may include the specifics of what they are doing in the weight room or on the track, but also what their work schedule looks like, their commute to/from training, or any other activity that would not normally be under the umbrella of training.”

Another aspect of the job is travel, particularly to World Cups, the World Championships and the Olympic Games. Serrano’s role shifts a little by the time the team arrives to compete.

“Once the athletes are preparing to compete, it is just that: preparing to compete. There is no more development,” he said. “The Olympics is an all-hands-on-deck mentality. Any capacity in which I can assist athletes, coaches or Team USA, I will be available to assist.”

It was at this time during the 2018 Olympics in South Korea when Serrano had one of the most memorable moments of his career. After helping an athlete warm up for the men’s luge event, he went on to take silver, the first medal in the event in the history of USA Luge.

“It was a big one. I sprinted down the mountain to get to the bottom to be a part of all this excitement,” he said. “It was quite the experience.”

Excitement over the luge is something Serrano never expected while growing up in Carlinville, Illinois. He knew he wanted to work with top athletes, and after completing his degree in exercise physiology from Truman in 2009, he went on to earn a master’s degree in sport physiology and performance from East Tennessee State University. He then worked his way up from a USOPC intern into his current position as lead strength and conditioning coach.

“I grew up in the Midwest, so the winter sports were less popular since I was surrounded by corn fields, not mountains,” Serrano said. “It was not until I started working with the USOPC that I had a true understanding and appreciation of the Olympic movement.”

Serrano was surprised to learn fans in Europe tailgate at events like the biathlon just like Americans would for a football game. It is one of the many things he has come to respect about the Winter Games and its athletes.

“I never really realized these were sports that had a full competitive season each year, even in a non-Olympic year,” he said. “Olympic sports pose a unique atmosphere, different than other sports. The athletes do not just represent a team, but Team USA, and having the opportunity to provide support to athletes while striving to be the best in the world is a special one.”

Destined to Serve

Connecting with faculty helped Calaneet Balas on her journey to CEO and president of The ALS Association.

As internet fads go, the Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the most memorable. The perfect combination of an easy-to-do, yet still uncomfortable stunt, all done in the name of a good cause. Even those who did not personally participate likely know someone who did. People who had no clue what ALS is suddenly became aware, and many more opened their wallets in support. For alumna Calaneet Balas (’97), who serves as the CEO and president of The ALS Association, the lightning-in-a-bottle phenomenon is having long-term impact and giving her hope for the future.

“Money drives progress. When you put money into research you get answers, and then you follow the things that are promising,” Balas said. “I really see the amount of progress in the number of phase two and phase three clinical trials compared to where we were before the Ice Bucket Challenge.”

Balas joined The ALS Association in 2016, two years after the viral sensation, but she is managing its exciting results that come with great opportunities and great challenges. She estimates late-phase clinical trials have nearly quadrupled in recent years, an unusually significant amount of progress.

“Things like the Challenge are good because they help with awareness, and that opens the door for a deeper conversation,” she said.   

In a career dedicated to public health advocacy, Balas is prepared to have those deeper conversations on a number of topics. She also served as the chief executive officer of the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, in addition to leadership roles with the Arthritis Foundation and the International Alliance of ALS/MND Associations. As a trusted voice in public health, she has testified before Congress and spoken with major news outlets including the New York Times, the Washington Post and NBC Nightly News. Interestingly enough, her life may have taken a drastically different path if not for a call from a former professor.

After earning her degree in exercise science from Truman, the native of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, did a post-graduate internship in St. Louis. She was contemplating a trip through Europe when Michael Bird, chair and professor of exercise science, encouraged her to pursue a graduate program at the University of Memphis. His connections put her on a path to a full scholarship while she earned a master’s degree in human movement science and education.

“I couldn’t have done that on my own,” she said. “He reached out and said, ‘you’re not going traipsing around Europe; you’re too smart for that.’ I owe him a great deal of gratitude for mentoring me in that direction.”

Balas also added an MBA from Herriot-Watt University to her credentials, but her career focus has remained on helping others, not on titles.

“I sometimes call myself the accidental leader,” she said. “I try to get out of the C-suite and I get pulled back into it. For me, it’s not about being an administrator, it’s about really being able to have an impact.”

The ALS Association has been making an impact since its inception in 1985. Unfortunately, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, is one of the world’s most complicated and debilitating ailments. A progressive disease of the nervous system, ALS patients see reductions in muscle functionality, eventually inhibiting the ability to move, communicate or even swallow, all while cognitive awareness remains intact. Effected individuals essentially become trapped in their own body.

“It’s probably most of our worst nightmares,” Balas said.

According to Balas, ALS is not as rare as many might think. Its true devastation comes from its rapidity. Treatments that slow down progression could increase survival rates, and advances in technology have made life more manageable for afflicted individuals. While every advance is welcomed, Balas will not be satisfied with progress alone.

“My eye is always on the prize of a cure,” she said. “It’s an honor to try to fight for this community and fight for people and their families who are trying to deal with this. The days can be hard, but my days are no harder than theirs. They keep me going. I won’t give up on them.”