An unprecedented year: Looking back at 2020 through notable stories in UMSL Daily
No one could have imagined what was in store in the new year when the calendar flipped to 2020 last January, and the University of Missouri–St. Louis certainly wasn’t spared the turmoil.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted seemingly every aspect of daily life and forced UMSL students, faculty and staff to adapt to new ways of learning, teaching and working as we all made an abrupt transition to a virtual environment in the spring. It also inspired new efforts by the campus community to reach out into the wider St. Louis region and address the needs of its neighbors.
The following stories are reflective of that work and also highlight the resilience of students, faculty, staff and alumni to succeed and continue to have a positive impact no matter the challenges put in front of them. This selection is only a snapshot of the 438 articles UMSL Daily has published in the past year, but they sum up the spirit the whole campus has displayed to pull together and overcome during this unprecedented year.
The year began like any other for the UMSL Daily team looking to highlight the fascinating work being done by students faculty and staff, and it was difficult to think of many more interesting assignments than College of Optometry student George Dowdy. He did a clinical rotation in Nome, Alaska, where he helped treat native Alaskan patients in Nome and the surrounding villages with preceptor and alumna Marcy O’Neil. This story, reported in January and February, became the cover story on the spring issue of UMSL Magazine.
The UMSL men’s basketball team spent the first two months of the year putting together arguably the finest season in school history, and they punctuated it by clinching the Great Lakes Valley Conference regular-season title with a home victory in the regular-season finale against Illinois Springfield on Feb. 29. Coach Bob Sundvold’s team advanced to the finals of the GLVC Tournament before losing but still secured its first NCAA Division II Tournament berth since 1988. There might have been no better example of how quickly the pandemic hit than when the Tritons learned the national tournament had been canceled as they were boarding the bus to head to Indiana for their opening round game on March 12.
The UMSL community quickly experienced the tragic impact of the pandemic on March 20 when DNP student Judy Wilson Griffin became the first St. Louis County resident to die from COVID-19. Griffin had an approximately 30-year career as a perinatal clinical nurse specialist and had dedicated herself to improving the lives of infants and mothers. Her loss was felt deeply in the College of Nursing and across the St. Louis region.
The UMSL community was still adjusting to working and learning remotely in early April when University of Missouri System President Mun Choi and the Board of Curators announced that Kristin Sobolik had been appointed the eighth permanent chancellor in UMSL’s history. That decision removed an interim tag Sobolik had held since the previous September following Chancellor Emeritus Tom George’s retirement. Sobolik had the responsibility of leading the university through all the challenges of the past year. She remade her administrative team, naming Marie Mora as Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs and selecting Tanisha Stevens and Chris Spilling for the newly created positions of vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion and vice chancellor for research and economic and community development, respectively. Sobolik also began laying out her vision for the increased role she expects UMSL to play fostering inclusive prosperity in the St. Louis region.
Members of the university found creative ways to try to help during the early months of the pandemic. Mayank Jain, a first-year student in the College of Business Administration’s Professional MBA program, formed a team of 22 volunteers to sew and distribute fabric masks to doctors and nurses at St. Louis hospitals that were experiencing shortages of personal protective equipment. The Children’s Advocacy Center put together a webinar providing parents tips and strategies to support children during the time of upheaval. The Community Psychological Service created therapy groups to help people cope with COVID and try to recover after extended hospital stays. Over the summer, MSW student Lacey Corbett conducted research for the Ferguson Commission that showed the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on Black communities in St. Louis.
Despite the disruption to the spring semester, more than 1,400 students completed their degrees in May and joined the ranks of UMSL’s more than 105,000 alumni. Among them was Terran Hill, who earned his degree in economics and moved on to Cornell University law school this fall. Hill and other spring 2020 graduates were recognized for their many accomplishments during virtual ceremonies held last weekend.
It was quiet on campus this summer with all courses held virtually to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. That also meant that area high school students chosen to be part of UMSL’s Collaborative Laboratory Internships and Mentoring Blueprint, known as CLIMB, weren’t able to get hands-on experience working as paid interns in labs across campus. Patricia Parker, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies who started the CLIMB program, worked with colleagues to adapt the program to a virtual format, so the students from Jennings Senior High School and University City High School could still gain an educational opportunity and the chance to earn a little money. The students, including Dakota Warren (above), conducted research on the COVID-19 pandemic and the reasons for its outsized impact on the Black community.
The campus community found something to celebrate in August when INSIGHT Into Diversity magazine honored UMSL with a 2020 Higher Education Excellence in Diversity Award, a national prize recognizing U.S. colleges and universities that demonstrate an outstanding commitment to diversity and inclusion. UMSL was one of 90 recipients this year and received the award for the fourth time. That was validation for the efforts of many at the university to promote diversity and inclusion, including holding the university’s first Virtual Gathering for Racial Unity with nearly 200 people in attendance virtually on June 18.
Jerome Morris, the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor of Urban Education, was named the recipient of the prestigious Lyle M. Spencer Research Award, a $1 million prize he’s using to investigate his theory of communally bonded schooling in three St. Louis area school districts. Morris wasn’t the only faculty members in the College of Education to receive funding for his work during the fall semester. Assistant Professor Shea Kerkhoff, Assistant Teaching Professor Katie O’Daniels and Associate Professor Nancy Singer received a combined $5.1 million in federal funding to help promote evidence-based literacy strategies among local educators and to create online literacy resources. Associate Professor April Regester and her collaborators – Assistant Professor Jennifer Bumble, Succeed Program Director Jonathan Lidgus and Assistant Professor Lindsay Athamanah – received a $2.1 million grant to expand the Succeed program.
Education alumnus Darrion Cockrell was named the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education’s 2021 Missouri Teacher of the Year in September. Cockrell, a physical education teacher at Crestwood Elementary School, gained attention for forging strong bonds with students, staff and parents while overhauling the school’s fitness program. His personal story as a former gang member adopted by his former middle school football coach and his wife in the seventh grade has proved inspirational and been covered by a number of national news outlets in recent weeks.
In October, the UMSL community was saddened to learn of the passing of UMSL founding father Wayne Goode after a battle with leukemia. Goode, whose statue stands at the center of the UMSL campus, was only a few years removed from his own college graduation and a freshman legislator in the Missouri House of Representatives when he drafted legislation that allowed for the transfer of the old Bellerive Country Club from the Normandy School District to the University of Missouri, allowing for the establishment of the University of Missouri–St. Louis in 1963. The university’s 105,000 graduates in the 57 years since are perhaps his greatest legacy from 42 years in elected office in Jefferson City.
In November, the College of Nursing kicked off construction on a $7 million expansion and renovation of its Nursing Learning Resource and Simulation Center. The new facility will increase the number of simulation rooms from five to eleven, allowing the college to grow the number of pre-licensure BSN students it graduates by 20 percent annually. That should help cut into the nursing shortage currently felt in St. Louis area hospitals, where the vacancy rate is 10.4 percent and expected to grow.
Madeleine James, Sophie Loban, Gracelyn Penn, Lexi Neal, Swabu Jefferson and Nick Bashaw were cast in UMSL Opera Theatre’s production of of “The Clever Artifice of Harriet and Margaret,” under the direction of Associate Professor Stella Markou. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the show ran only once in a special performance only for cast members’ families in March. A recording of that night was submitted to the National Opera Association’s Division 1 Opera Competition, and the cast learned in November they were awarded first place.
More than 430 early stage entrepreneurs applied to be part of UMSL Accelerate’s first Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Accelerator, highlighting both the abundance of entrepreneurial talent in the St. Louis region and the need to better fund and engage underrepresented founders. Earlier this month, Dan Lauer, executive director of UMSL Accelerate, and Monique Bynum, program director of UMSL DEI Accelerator, announced the six founders selected to be part of the first cohort. Thanks to support from Ameren, Edward Jones and Express Scripts, the founders have each received $50,000 in non-dilutive capital in addition to $200,000 in in-kind resources and will begin participating in an 8-week business development program in early 2021.
Every one of UMSL’s latest graduates had much to celebrate over the weekend as they capped a trying year by finishing their degrees and launching their futures. Maybe the weekend’s biggest celebration belonged to College of Nursing student marshal Hannah Williams, who not only earned her BSN but also got married on the same day as the virtual commencement ceremonies. As she adjusts to married life, Williams will soon begin working in the pediatric intensive care unit at Cardinal Glennon Children’s Hospital.
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