Sylvia Harris, Roger Kujath and Vinita Henry named first recipients of UMSL Hero Award

UMSL Hero Award honorees

From left, Sylvia Harris, Roger Kujath and Dr. Vinita Henry were named the first recipients of the UMSL Hero Award, created to recognize the heroic efforts of UMSL’s staff and faculty to help transform the lives of UMSL students and the people in the wider community. (Photos by August Jennewein)

University of Missouri–St. Louis Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and her cabinet are shining a light on some of the more exemplary efforts of staff and faculty members by bestowing the UMSL Hero Award on up to three honorees each month.

“Such accomplishments may be reflected through consistent exemplary performance, through sustained work activities above and beyond normal job requirements or through the superior support of our core values of trust, inclusion, innovation, access, success and engagement,” Sobolik said in announcing the creation of the award last month. “My sincere hope is that this award will become a meaningful recognition that brings to light the work of our wonderful colleagues.”

The first three honorees are: Sylvia Harris, the assistant director of academic advising and student services in the College of Arts and Sciences; Roger Kujath, custodian in the Millennium Student Center; and Dr. Vinita Henry, a clinical professor and the director of clinical operation in the College of Optometry. Each will receive an UMSL Hero lapel pin in recognition of their contributions.

Sylvia Harris, assistant director of academic advising and student services

Harris holds a bachelor’s and two master’s degrees from UMSL and has worked in the advising office in the College of Arts and Sciences since 2013. She has been instrumental in ensuring the office has continued to meet the needs of UMSL students since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

“She immediately took charge of this very challenging process, made sure everyone on our team had the necessary technology and support to function remotely and moved our entire team to remote advising in the course of one weekend,” Birgit Noll, the associate dean for undergraduate studies, wrote in her nomination of Harris. “Working long hours, she helped create the online forms and protocols we needed to serve our students in this new environment. She was also instrumental in creating our Zoom Drop-In Lounge for students, a concept that was quickly adopted by many other offices on campus. Directors of those units sought her out for help in setting up their own lounges and for customizing them to fit their needs.

“In addition, Sylvia has been a highly effective cheerleader who has kept up team morale throughout this very challenging year.”

Harris said it’s been critical for staff to be available for students, even while both might be working away from campus.

“I’ve had 8 p.m. or 9 p.m. appointments with students; I’ve met them when they get off work,” she said. “Those late evening appointments don’t bother me. We chat about things – what they are having for dinner, things like that. The kids are playing in the background. I think that’s what makes them feel good about this – the fact that they can access us, and we make ourselves accessible.”

Roger Kujath, custodian

Kujath has been a member of the UMSL community for nearly 30 years, beginning as a temporary employee in 1991 and becoming a full-time member of the custodial staff in 2001. He works in the Millennium Student Center and is primarily responsible for cleaning and maintaining the third floor of the building.

“His service is so valuable to our community,” Dixie Williams, interim associate vice chancellor for strategic enrollment, wrote in nominating Kujath. “He doesn’t just pick up the trash or mop the floors. He is truly helping to maintain the safety and wellness of our community. He has been coming to campus every day to clean and keep it clean even when almost all of us were working from home.

“I often think about what visitors to campus take away when they leave. They think about the great tour and nice staff and faculty, but they also notice when a campus is dirty or there is trash laying around. I don’t have to worry about that in our building because of Roger. He really gets how his job relates to the mission of the university.”

Williams has also come to appreciate Kujath’s welcoming demeanor.

“He is a person who smiles and says good morning,” Williams said. “He is a ‘Have a great day’ that I can count on. In this time of stress and unprecedented change, that is so important.”

Vinita Henry, director of clinical operation

Henry is in her 35th year as a member of the faculty in the College of Optometry after also graduating from and completing her residency at the college. Since 2010, she’s served as the director of clinical operation, giving her oversight over the students, faculty and staff members who work at UMSL’s three eye clinics.

The pandemic forced the college’s sudden closure last March, but with Henry’s leadership, students and staff stayed engaged and productive during the hiatus, and she was instrumental in helping it reopen safely in May.

“Under her direction, we were the second college of optometry in the nation to reopen,” said patient service representative Ruby Ficklen, who was among several people in the College of Optometry to nominate Henry. “This has allowed her staff to remain gainfully employed, her students on the path to higher education and, most importantly, allowed the patients who rely on our vital health and vision care to be served in our clinic.”

Henry is the first to acknowledge the trying circumstances of this year, but she’s proud of the way the students, faculty and staff have overcome.

“We jumped back into patient care and have been slowly building,” Henry said. “In December, we exceeded last December in revenue. So we’re back on track. It’s so very important for our students to be able to be in clinic seeing patients, or they can’t finish their education. So I’m just thrilled that we’re back when we’re working and seeing patients.”

Henry, like the other recipients, was also grateful her colleagues thought to recognize her work.

To nominate staff or faculty for the UMSL Hero Award, visit https://www.umsl.edu/chancellor/heroes/index.html.

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