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CMU grads find amazing uncommon careers

Alumni star on Broadway, save lives on the Alaskan frontier and more

Contact: Heather Smith

Reprinted from Centralight Summer 2015 ​​

Ever dreamed of starring on Broadway, owning a vintage 1950s hotel along historic Route 66, training the unbelievable performers in Cirque du Soleil or saving lives on the Alaskan frontier?

Yes, well, those are real jobs held by real CMU grads who are using their Central Michigan University education to help them succeed in their unusual careers across the country and beyond.

Each has a story to tell about reaching a unique place and working to secure a dream job thanks to the place where it began: Mount Pleasant.

By Betsy Miner-Swarts, ‘86

CMU alum Sarah Roberts pretty much does it all as a family physician, and she cares for people in one of the most unforgiving and breathtakingly beautiful places in America – Alaska.

There’s an urgent demand for healthcare there, and the state’s rugged landscape and limited infrastructure makes it difficult to reach residents.

“People get on little planes and boats and fly to us – they actually have to fly to see a doctor,” says Roberts, who lives and works in Homer, a remote town of about 5,000 where roads are sparse and need is plenty.

Roberts’ path to the land of glaciers, oil rigs and world-class fishing came by way of Mount Pleasant, where she earned her bachelor of science degree in 2004 before heading off to Michigan State University for her M.D. Her choice of residency pointed her in several directions before eventually taking her to the northwest extremity of North America in 2008.

Roberts has been practicing medicine “Northern Exposure”-style ever since.

“Homer is known as the end of the road,” she says. “It’s home to the singer Jewel, the Kilchers (stars of the Discovery Channel series ‘Alaska: The Last Frontier’) and the biggest halibut in the world.”

The fish might be abundant, but there aren’t enough doctors to meet the state’s needs. During her residency in Anchorage and rural rotations in Bethel, Roberts flew in little planes from village to village to treat the state’s sick and injured residents.

“We may have been the only doctor to fly in, in over a month,” she says. “Small villages in Alaska are staffed with health aids. They are high-school graduates with some training, and they do ‘cookbook medicine.’”

Roberts gravitated toward family medicine because she loves doing everything. She gets her fill at South Peninsula Hospital in Homer, a critical access hospital, which is a medical center that caters to the medically underserved.

“I do deliveries and C-sections. I also take care of people in the hospital and do ER shifts and clinic. There are no dull days,” she says.

When she’s not easing pain, bringing new life into the world and saving lives, Sarah is busy taking in Alaska with husband, Aaron, an electrical engineer in the oil industry, and their 1-year-old son, Elijah.

“Winters are long and dark, but summers are truly amazing,” she says. “We fish in the bay, boat and kayak all summer. We have a huge garden, and I ride my horse on the beach. We go bear viewing and – really – we got married on a glacier.

“We live Alaska every day.”

Roberts received CMU’s Leader Advancement Scholarship as a senior at Rockford High School. The program recognizes 40 young leaders and awards them $8,000 scholarships. Once she arrived on campus, her time was filled with clubs and homecoming and trips to CMU’s biological station on Beaver Island.

She says her days as a Chippewa were essential to her development as a leader.

“I draw on that every single day as I care for people,” she says. “Now I’m trying to put my stamp on family medicine in Alaska.”

By Robin Miner-Swartz

As musical theater jobs go, few are more unique and challenging than playing Jean Valjean, the protagonist in the Broadway smash “Les Miserables.”

“It’s kind of the Mount Everest of male roles,” says Nathaniel Hackmann, ’04, M.A. ’06. “It’s got every challenge you can think of. You have to sing high and soft, you have to sing low and loud. You have to sing high and loud, you have to sing low and soft. And you have to be able to lift a cart and lift people over your head. It’s incredibly physically demanding as well as vocally demanding.”

Hackmann has been with the show since it returned to Broadway in New York City in March 2014. His contract enables him to stay with “Les Mis” as long as it’s open, unless he decides to leave.

“It’s just about the most secure job one can hope for in the Broadway world.”

Hackmann performs several roles in the production, including serving as the understudy for the iconic Jean Valjean, a man struggling to lead a normal life after serving a lengthy prison sentence for stealing bread to feed his sister’s starving children.

“It’s a three-hour show with nonstop singing, so learning to pace yourself is definitely a big challenge,” Hackmann says. “But there isn’t a more gratifying role either.”

Originally from Arizona, Hackmann was studying voice under Dr. Eric Tucker at Northern Arizona University when Tucker left to join the CMU School of Music faculty. Hackmann and three other students followed Tucker to Mount Pleasant.

“There’s a reason I followed him all the way to Michigan,” Hackmann says. “He taught me about character. He showed me what it meant to be a hard worker.

“There’s no doubt that everything I am and everything I do is owed in some way to the things I learned from Eric Tucker.”

Tucker is equally complimentary about Hackmann.

“He’s brilliant, he’s exceptionally talented, and he’s one of the most disciplined people I know,” Tucker says.

Hackmann has to be to play Jean Valjean. He’s onstage nearly every minute of the three-hour show.

“One of the reasons the show is so demanding is because it’s very rare we have everyone on from the original cast all at once,” he says. “Someone is injured or sick or has vacation days, so we hardly ever do the same show twice, as far as the lineup is concerned.”

And after the final curtain, he gets to go home to his wife, Nicole Begue Hackmann, and their little boy, Alexander – something that’s pretty rare for a musical theater performer.

“This is the first time I’ve been in one place since I graduated,” Hackmann says.

By Cynthia J. Drake, M.A. ‘08

Traveling on Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles is like driving more than 2,000 miles through a living postcard of neon signs, mom-and-pop diners and quirky roadside attractions.

It is not, for all the encroaching pressures of our fast-paced world, the domain of chain restaurants and super-mega-everything-but-the-kitchen-sink retailers.

It was in that place Kevin and Nancy Mueller, both 1984 graduates, found themselves in 2011 – after they both were laid off from their corporate jobs.

“Like a lot of people my age – middle management, lower-level executives – they decide they don’t need you or your office,” says Kevin. “That was when the door was open for us to think outside the box. I guess a little bit of the entrepreneurial side was coming out of me.”

After being downsized, Kevin says he went on a soul-searching trip, and his thoughts wandered to the independent businesses along Route 66, where his family had traveled just a few years prior.

Kevin presented the idea that they sell their house in Brighton and buy the Blue Swallow Motel in Tucumcari, New Mexico. A 12-room motel, the Blue Swallow first opened on Route 66 in 1939. Gorgeous desert sunsets compete with the motel’s kitschy electric sign that still proudly proclaims: “100% refrigerated air.”

“I didn’t say what I wanted to say,” Nancy says. “That was the first bit of enthusiasm I had heard in his voice in weeks.”

Route 66 and its anti-corporate vibe turned out to be an ideal solution to mark the end of their rat race affair.

“It kind of gets under your skin a bit,” says Kevin. “It’s the open road stretches where you’re reminded of what it was like to drive on a two-lane highway. You just don’t see that along the interstate, where everything is the same, and every off-ramp has the same hotels and the same restaurants, and you forget which town you’re in because everything looks the same. Route 66 is the anti-that.

“It’s all about an America that’s not homogenous. It’s what makes this for us very rewarding. We’re not only preserving a property that’s historic … we’re also preserving a way of life.”

Kevin says the motel’s design invites travelers to sit out and chat with one another, and several have stayed connected with the Muellers and have written about the Blue Swallow’s welcoming and peaceful vibe.

“We try to create this atmosphere almost of stepping back in time to a different time when you engaged your fellow travelers,” he says. “You didn’t travel 900 miles in one day in air conditioned comfort. You maybe did 200 miles sweating your butt off.”

The couple, now along with their son Cameron and his wife, Jessica, treat guests to nights under the stars roasting marshmallows before the travelers bunk down in rooms outfitted with rotary phones and pink stucco walls.

In the morning, they wake up refreshed, ready for whatever lies ahead on the stretch known as the Mother Road.

By Robin Miner-Swartz

CMU grad Bryan Burnstein, ’02, is kind of a big deal.

He’s paid to keep hundreds of the world’s top athletes in peak condition as the head of performance science for Cirque du Soleil, a massive, global brand that wows thousands of fans nightly.

Cirque du Soleil shows are a dramatic mix of circus arts and street entertainment that require performers to possess tremendous strength and flexibility. The company’s roster of 19 shows plays in more than 270 cities around the world. Las Vegas, where Burnstein is based, is home to eight resident Cirque shows.

“I pinch myself some days,” Burnstein says. “In our industry, there aren’t a lot of places you can go that will allow you to develop this much professionally and challenge you every day, yet still have an amazing work-life balance.”

After graduation, the Detroit-area native spent four seasons as the head athletic trainer and strength and conditioning coach for the Saginaw Spirit hockey team.

“I loved that world, loved the sport,” Burnstein says. “What I didn’t love was, at that level, you have to be good at everything but it’s hard to be great at anything. I didn’t feel like I was developing that much.”

He started looking for jobs. A trip to Las Vegas and an interview for a job he didn’t get turned into an opportunity to meet with Cirque. “I flew in on a Friday, and they offered me the job the next day.”

Burnstein and his wife, Brooke, also a graduate of CMU’s athletic training program, headed west.

“When I was first hired, my role was split between athletic training and strength and conditioning,” Burnstein says. “I had to quickly learn how to provide medical care and coverage for all of our Vegas shows. They’d never had that type of integration before.”

The demand for strength and conditioning training for Cirque’s performers was growing quickly. While each show has its own core group of physical therapists, athletic trainers and coaches working with the artists, there wasn’t a set of standards for all the Vegas shows. Burnstein began focusing on the integration of strength and conditioning, Pilates, nutrition and psychology and, over seven-plus years, worked himself into the newly created position of head of performance science for Cirque du Soleil.

Brooke and Bryan met during freshman orientation in the first year of CMU’s Leadership Advancement Program. He credits CMU with developing his self-confidence.

“Central helped me grow as a person. Not just to be a good student, but to focus on all of the other areas important to being successful – having a sense of community, service, participation in recreation, in campus life,” he says. “And I had awesome instructors who made sure when I graduated I was ready to enter the workforce. They had great connections within the industry I wanted to be in, which opens doors to first jobs.”

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