Army veteran, UMSL manager Karen Pierre joins USO board

by | May 19, 2015

For Karen Pierre serving on the USO advisory board is about coming full circle and giving back.
Karen Pierre

For retired U.S. Army Sergeant First Class Karen Pierre, manager of community relations at UMSL, serving on the USO advisory board is about coming full circle and giving back. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The items on the shelves and walls of Karen Pierre’s office in Woods Hall hint at a lifetime of stories. A familiar face on campus, the manager of community relations spent nearly 22 years in the U.S. Army before joining the University of Missouri–St. Louis.

“This is the Women in Military Service Memorial in Arlington,” Pierre says, pointing at a framed photo from 1997. “It’s the only major national memorial honoring women who have served in our nation’s defense during all eras and in all services. The goal is to register all military women to preserve their history. When I meet a veteran, the first thing I ask is, ‘Are you registered?'”

Her own Army career – one that landed her in Italy, South Korea and Germany among other locations – is long behind her. But the military still impacts her life, most recently as a new member of the advisory board for the USO of Missouri, Inc. She was nominated for the seat and officially named to the board in November 2014.

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Pierre served more than two decades in the U.S. Army, retiring in 1998.

“It’s funny to come full circle,” says Pierre, who fondly remembers USO (United Service Organizations) events she attended while stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., herself in the mid-1990s.

The main USO of Missouri location is at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport, where Pierre enjoyed greeting soldiers headed home for the holidays in December.

“It’s a big coordinated effort, with over 1,000 volunteers,” Pierre says. “It’s emotional.”

From her Army days, to giving back through the USO, to her shifting responsibilities at UMSL during the last 16 years, Pierre has served in a variety of roles. Many of them have prepared her well for her current job working closely with the Chancellor’s Council, community members and local and regional government officials.

“I’m the go-to person when elected officials visit campus,” Pierre says. “I usually have very little notice to organize a press conference or community meeting. That’s where I draw on my military training to make it happen.”

She credits the Army with helping to expand her and her children’s horizons – particularly in terms of her own education. While stationed near Chicago after her first several assignments, she started on a nontraditional path toward a college degree.

“I started thinking about my education,” she says. “Several service members at the time were taking classes at night, and my present job afforded me the same opportunity.”

Pierre made steady progress, eventually earning her bachelor’s degree in 1998 from Columbia College. She remembers doing homework alongside her son and her daughter, who is a UMSL alumna. While living in Italy for four years, all three of them were enrolled in school.

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While stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., with the 554th Engineer Battalion, Pierre accompanied military guests from around the globe on regular trips to Washington, D.C.

“I took an art history class there, and the kids and I would travel around the country and visit various museums and churches to see all of the original masters,” she says. “It was so cool to share that with my kids. And it was great, too, going to school and comparing our grades. It was motivation for all of us.”

Recently, while accompanying UMSL Chancellor Tom George on his Show Me Value Tour visit to Normandy Middle School, Pierre shared with the students her story of earning a college degree while serving in the Army and raising a family.

“I just wanted my life to go in a new direction,” Pierre says of her decision at the time. “My sister had been in the military, my brothers were in, so I thought I would try that. And I stayed.”

The growing presence of student veterans at UMSL – and the university’s commitment to them – is gratifying to Pierre. She’s especially impressed by the Veterans Center.

“I love the idea – how the students saw that need a couple years ago,” Pierre says. “They were feeling a little disconnected, and I just thought what a wonderful way for them to come together.”

A gathering place, study spot and resource center, the UMSL Veterans Center has something in common with the USO, which was known for coffee, donuts and space to relax when the USO was founded during World War II. Since then the USO has grown into a multi-program organization supporting military personnel and their families.

“My experience in the military was very positive,” Pierre says of joining the USO board, “and when you go away from something so positive like that, it can’t just end there.”

The UMSL Experience

Evie Hemphill

Evie Hemphill