Celebrating the 2024 Women Trailblazer Awards

Greetings UMSL Community,

Thank you to everybody who attended our 2024 UMSL Women Trailblazer Awards this month in the Millennium Student Center Century Rooms. It was an incredible experience to conduct our 29th year of honoring UMSL women who continue to “blaze trails” at UMSL and in the greater community that we serve. The Trailblazer Award is presented to women who have worked to forge new pathways for women and/or women who have contributed significantly to the University and/or the greater St. Louis community.

This year’s theme, “Women Who Advocate for All,” celebrates women who have not only demonstrated outstanding leadership but have also dedicated themselves to advocating for the well-being and advancement of everyone around them. It highlights the tireless efforts of those who go above and beyond, fostering positive change in our community.

We were graced by 2022 Trailblazer Recipient Dr. Katy Mike Smaistrla as our Mistress of Ceremonies, and we were inspired by our Keynote Speaker, Riisa Rawlins, Interim CEO for the Regional Health Commission. During her keynote address Rawlins recited Maya Angelou’s poem Phenomenal Women, and reflected on her personal journey of advocacy, as well as her current motivation as she works to earn her PhD at UMSL. In honor of the achievements of our Trailblazers she invoked the words of past women who advocated for all. Those words will be shared below.

Shirley Chisholm, first black woman elected to the United States Congress and first black candidate for a major-party nomination for the President of the United States said, “I want to be remembered as a woman who dared to be a catalyst for change.”

Ida B. Wells, investigative journalist and one of the founding members of the NAACP said, “The way to right wrongs is to turn the light of truth upon them.”

Audre Lorde,  writer, professor, philosopher, and civil rights activist said, “What we must do is commit ourselves to some future that can include each other, and to work toward that future with the particular strengths of our individual identities.”

These insightful words by past women who advocated for all led Rawlins to note that, “Advocacy requires truth-telling. We don’t address what we don’t name.” Much of what drives Rawlins in the advocacy work that she upholds is her identity as a woman, and the characteristics that make up Riisa Rawlins, in her own words, are strength, grace, creativity, resourcefulness, compassion, and tenacity. In conclusion to her remarks to this year’s Trailblazers she said, “I encourage you, as you receive these rewards today and as we all go out into the world and do amazing things, to continue to share your identity, your individual unique talents and gifts for collective benefit. To continue to shine your light so others can see the light and that they can join in the cause. And to lean in to your identity as a woman and what that means to you.”

Following our key note address MC Dr. Smaistrla led us in the presentation of awards for our Trailblazers. Below are excerpts from each Trailblazer’s acceptance speech. If you want to read more about our Trailblazer’s, their biographical information can be found here.

Below you can watch our UMSL 2024 Women Trailblazers Award Ceremony!

Dr. Kimberly Baldus

“The many words and actions of support from all faculty, supervisors and students were a critical lifeline for me as my family endured some of the most difficult and terrifying days of our lives. Their many acts of advocacy helped me endure and ultimately created blueprints for the model of supporting others that I have tried to follow. In my last two decades at UMSL I’ve been blessed with some truly exceptional mentors whose leadership moves I have shamelessly copied countless times. In particular, I want to acknowledge the deep gratitude I have for Bergit Noll and Keeta Holmes two of the amazing women who have blazed trails for me and countless others. Through these years I have also had many opportunities to experience the joy that advocating for others brings among the hundreds of students I have taught. Among the many special peer mentors who have helped honors help other students. Among the numerous Honors alumni who continue to participate in our honors community. Among the talented faculty who continually seek out ways to offer the very best education possible. And among the staff who every day perform amazing feats to keep our college and community running. I have been fortunate and proud to advocate for some pretty amazing people. Thank you all for providing this opportunity today for me to reflect on how much this advocacy has meant and continues to mean for me.”

Maria A. Ellis

“Strength, courage, and determination, and fearlessness is what it takes to be a trailblazer and for a woman it takes even more we have to be twice as good or even better for us to get the same recognition as some of our male colleagues, however we do so with grace and style, and I always do it in five or six inch heels. I am so grateful for this time. I’m thankful for the members of the Voices of Jubilation Gospel Choir. This gospel choir just started here on campus this September, and we’ve done some amazing things. But one thing that I really enjoy that we do is we’ve taken the ability to spread music education to all people of all ages. So not only am I able to teach music literacy to elementary, middle school and high school, but we now offer an adult music literacy class. So there’s adults who want to learn how to read music. They can give it all in the course of our rehearsal. Being a leader is making sure everybody has access [to music.]”

Dr. Channon Peoples

“I say all the time, I had no idea what college access was, what college preparation [was.] But so many years ago, God led me here, so I’m thankful to be here. And he sustains me daily. So I wanted to say that I am blessed to do purpose driven work, mission driven work that changes lives. We have a mission here at home, still transforming lives. And I believe that we are afforded the opportunity to do that every day. And so we provide our students with not only the information that they have that they need to empower their lives, to set the goals that they need to empower their lives, but also the tools. … And students to write the vision for their lives and further provide them with the tools to live out their dreams. But when I fell into this work over 21 years ago as a volunteer, I had been laid off and I came here as a volunteer, had no idea what I was doing with my life. I had no idea the number of lives that I would have the fortunate opportunity to inspire to college matriculation. We are proud as a department to have 100% of our students that achieve postsecondary success. We’ve been fortunate to engage nearly 45,000 students and families in ways that I’m confident will continue to transform our communities. These students are blazing trails of their own, both near and far, and we couldn’t be more proud. So I can talk about the things that I’ve done and our team can talk about the things that they’ve done, but we are grateful to boast on the things that these students do.”

Dr. Kimberly Werner

“I’m very deeply honored to receive this award and to be respected by my colleagues, to nominate me to be added to such an impressive sorority of trailblazers is truly overwhelming. I have been incredibly lucky to have amazing mentors throughout my life. From a young age, my parents instilled in me a strong sense of justice, persistence and self-accountability and always encouraged me to serve others. 16 years of Catholic education taught me to be disciplined, humble, and to have integrity in everything I do. In graduate school, Dr. Mike Griffin and Dr. Tera Galovski guided me to becoming the researcher and educator that I am today. Showing me how to be, how to ask tough questions while simultaneously supporting trauma survivors and advancing science. Dr. Kathy Bucholz at Washington University pushed me to demand more of myself to let the data speak for itself and to be a strong mentor for others. My colleagues challenged me to think like a nurse, a social worker and a public health expert. I am so grateful for each of them. The trauma survivors who have shared their stories with me through the years have taught me more about grit, survivorship and compassion than I could ever imagine. And finally, my husband and son inspire me every day to be kinder and a more patient person and to advocate for everyone, even myself. It is our responsibility as academics to be more, to hold our students to a high standard, to champion causes that matter, to investigate important questions and to amplify the voices that are often marginalized and unheard. It is about being open to learning. Standing up for what’s right, even in the face of adversity and never losing sight of the transformative power of education and hope.”

Dr. Patricia Zahn

“I’m really grateful today and feeling very blessed. I’m feeling that so intently. I can hardly believe that I’m being honored with all of these extraordinary women and all of you. It’s really awkward for me to be here today because usually I’m never on the receiving end of these things. I’m usually writing the letters of nomination, and I’m participating in selection committees and I’m helping give recognition. I love to celebrate the great things that other people are doing and the good work taking place that makes our communities stronger and better places for everyone. So when I got the email that I was receiving this honor, I actually thought for a moment that maybe the message was for somebody else. I know that’s kind of funny. And I did respond and I said, Are you sure this is for me? So I asked I was asked for a short bio and that gave me a chance to reflect on several accomplishments throughout the years. And I’m really proud of the work that I’ve done and continue to do in partnership with many people in this room. And you all know who you are. And then throughout the entire campus and our Saint Louis community honoring women who blazed trails at Amsel and then the greater community that we serve, this Trailblazer Award is presented again to women who have worked to forge new pathways for women as well as women who’ve contributed significantly to UMSL and the Greater Saint Louis community. So thinking about the award, one of the things that I recognized is that I’m a go to person. When someone has a great idea or sees a need, they come to me. And that’s really a responsibility and an honor for me. I talk to them, we talk things out, and I provide guidance and I help others see what’s possible. As a result I have been part of creating several very meaningful and effective programs and collaborations, and you’ll see some of them written in the bio. And I’m really honored that I can be a trusted guide and partner as we create new pathways and together we’re transforming lives.”

Nora Stith

“I am so honored and deeply humbled to stand before you today as a recipient of this prestigious award celebrating women who advocate for all. Thank you to the organizers of this award for their dedication to honoring the vital work of women advocates and for providing a platform to celebrate our collective achievements. Your recognition reaffirms the importance of advocacy in effecting positive change and inspires us to continue our efforts with renewed determination and purpose. As I accept this award, I am honored to be surrounded by the incredible company I find myself in among fellow recipients whose dedication and impact have left a lasting impact on our college campus, communities and beyond. Each of you embodies this spirit of advocacy in your own unique way, and I am deeply inspired by your commitment, courage, and compassion. I share this award with each and every one of you, and I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to stand among such remarkable women who are making a difference in the world.”

As we reflect on the inspiring words shared by our Trailblazers and the impactful work they continue to pursue, we extend our heartfelt gratitude to everyone who attended the event – faculty, staff, students, and the friends and family of our honorees. Your presence and support are deeply appreciated and serve as a testament to the collective commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion at UMSL. Together, let us continue to champion the values of advocacy, empowerment, and community building. Congratulations once again to all our Trailblazers, and may we all be inspired to strive for a more inclusive and equitable future.