Melissa Daniel, Amanda O’Neill and Harry Harris receive UMSL Hero Awards

by | Feb 20, 2023

The award is presented to up to three staff or faculty members each month in recognition of their efforts to transform the lives of UMSL students and the wider community.
February 2023 Hero Awards

This month’s Hero Award recipients are Melissa Daniel, Amanda O’Neill and Harry Harris. (Photos by August Jennewein)

University of Missouri–St. Louis Chancellor Kristin Sobolik and her cabinet continue to recognize the exemplary efforts of staff and faculty members from across campus by bestowing the UMSL Hero Award on up to three individuals each month.

This month’s honorees are Melissa Daniel, the director of business administration in the College of Arts and Sciences; Amanda O’Neill, an officer with the UMSL Police Department; and Harry Harris, the assistant director of student services in the College of Nursing.

Melissa Daniel

Daniel was nothing short of speechless when she found out she had received the UMSL Hero Award.

“It just means so much to me,” she said. “I just love UMSL so darn much and am just so grateful to be able to contribute to our mission.”

As the director of business administration in the College of Arts and Sciences, Daniel manages the business operations for the college, working with various entities across the University of Missouri System to help implement and refine policies and procedures, including managing the budget, payroll and recruitment and overseeing the operational needs for the college. More recently, she’s been excited to be able to contribute on a campuswide level by serving on various committees, including the strategic planning committee and provost search committee.

“One of the things that’s great about being on various committees when policy and procedural changes come up is that I’m able to really have a direct contribution and impact so that I can shape things in the way that I think makes sense for our team across the university,” she said.

Daniel has always wanted to work in higher education administration, particularly in the public realm. After earning a degree in broadcast journalism from Webster University, she worked as the director of community outreach at Washington University in St. Louis for a decade. She then moved to New York City to work as director of global programs at New York University, where she also earned her MPA from the Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. At that point, she knew she wanted to come home, and considers herself lucky to land her current position at UMSL, where she started in 2018. Having focused on socio-economic mobility while pursuing her graduate degree, Daniel was drawn to UMSL because she felt like she could make an impact.

“I’m a firm believer that graduating college students is a direct indicator of economic success for the entire region,” she said. “Education is extremely important to me, and I feel like I’m contributing to our community by supporting the staff, the faculty, the students, and the deans in any way that I can. What I learned in grad school really was transformative because I gained tools to create change based on key operational indicators. I knew the challenges that public higher education was up against, and I really felt like I could make a difference.”

Daniel said the UMSL Hero Award would not have been possible without the support of her team, including the administrators who report to her in the College of Arts and Sciences as well as colleagues across campus. And her work hasn’t gone unnoticed by members of that team, including Michael Griffin, associate professor and chair of the Department of Psychological Sciences, who nominated her for the award.

“Melissa is an invaluable member of the College of Arts and Sciences,” Griffin said. “She oversees all of the budgets in the largest college on campus and oversees a large staff of employees in each department in the college. Melissa is absolutely fantastic at her job and has helped us work through incredibly difficult budget challenges over the past three years. She has had to contend with significant staff turnover and yet she always finds time to answer questions or lend help to the department chairs in the college. She is always delightful to work with and is tireless.”

Amanda O’Neill

Stacy Pearson, a senior academic advisor in the College of Nursing, knows that rescuing birds isn’t in Amanda O’Neill’s job description as a campus police officer.

But when Pearson recently came across an injured sparrow in the College of Nursing parking garage, she thought she’d ask if O’Neill could help, and went ahead and flagged her down.

“I love animals!” O’Neill immediately exclaimed, quickly pulling into a parking spot and coming over to check on the bird. The two ended up grabbing a box to shelter the bird so that O’Neill could transport it to Wild Bird Rehabilitation in Overland.

“Amanda was so kind and earnest in her help, I instantly thought of nominating her for an UMSL Hero Award,” Pearson said. “I love that this police officer is a friend to all creatures (human or otherwise) and thought she deserved some recognition.”

O’Neill is known as the animal rescuer around the station – she has a pitbull at home and has rescued cats, a groundhog and even a snake on campus.

“That was my first bird,” she said with a laugh. “Whenever there’s an animal call, my lieutenant just shakes his head. He’s like, ‘Oh boy, here she goes.’ I’m kind of the animal-lover of the department.”

Of course, O’Neill’s duties at UMSL go far beyond rescuing animals. Much of her job involves patrolling campus, whether by bike or on foot, and responding to calls, from simple requests such as helping someone who locked their keys in their office to welfare checks for those in crisis. When she’s not responding to a call, O’Neill makes a point to connect with people around campus, popping in to the Recreation and Wellness Center, Millennium Student Center, the College of Business Administration and more.

“I’m a people person, which is really important with my job,” she said. “I just try to be seen and get to know everybody because then whenever they do have to call the police for something, they don’t have to worry about ‘What are they gonna be like?’ ‘Am I going to be safe?’ ‘Can I trust them?’ They already have a relationship with me. That’s always been a really important part of my job: establishing those relationships with the community.”

O’Neill will celebrate five years with UMSL in May, and is also wrapping up her degree in physical education. After taking her first course in special education in 2020 and volunteering with TASK, a local nonprofit instructional sports program for kids with disabilities, she decided to combine her love of physical education with her interest in special education, and now dreams of landing a job as an adaptive PE teacher. Whether in her future career as a teacher or in her current role as a police officer, she hopes to make a real difference and was touched that someone recognized her efforts to do so when she was nominated for a Hero Award.

“I didn’t realize that people really paid close attention to how I interact with people,” O’Neill said. “I mean, I try to go above and beyond and take the most care for people, and I try to make their day a little bit better. So when I got that I was like, ‘People notice.’ It just really confirmed that the work I was doing was making a difference. I said it made my week, but this made my year.”

Harry Harris

Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens describes Harry Harris in three words: dedicated, determined and passionate.

“These adjectives not only describe Harry in his work-life, but also in his interpersonal relationships with colleagues and in his pursuit of inclusion and equity in his community, especially within his school district,” Stevens said in nominating Harris for the UMSL Hero Award for his work with the Black Faculty/Staff Association.

“Harry speaks with purpose, with a genuine desire to learn from those who he interacts with on a daily basis. He is inclusive, a true example of being purposeful and an advocate for people, particularly our Black faculty, staff and students. His purpose is to not only allow for others to ‘have a seat at the table’ but also for their voices to be recognized and valued as well.”

In addition to working as the assistant director of student services in the College of Nursing, Harris is currently serving his second term as president of the BFSA. During his term as president, the organization has created the Jerome E. Morris speaker series, which Stevens said allows for more campus engagement by inviting guest speakers to campus. The organization will also soon celebrate its 40th anniversary on campus with a gala at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center on March 4.

“I’ve been most proud of the other members who have come together to help lift up the organization overall,” Harris said of his time as president. “We’ve got the Dr. Morris speaker series, every year we put on a Black History Month panel discussion during February, we’ve done welcome back events. It takes work to do all of that and for folks who work on these things to take time out of their schedules to be a part of it. That’s what I’m most proud of, because it really brings everybody together, which is part of our mission.”

In his role in the College of Nursing, meanwhile, Harris oversees the advising process and supports both faculty and students, including clinical, RN to BSN and accelerated students. In addition to helping those students navigate the academic process, Harris helps connect them to resources, including the Triton Pantry, social services and financial aid, and also encourages and motivates them throughout the semester.

“It’s also a matter of trying to bring a level of satisfaction within the college – bringing forth that honor and pride that goes with being a part of the college,” he said. “We like to do a lot of small things to let the students know that we recognize them, whether it’s something as simple as an email telling them, ‘Hey, we’ve finished week one. Good luck with everything. Let us know if you need anything.’ or planning small events such as a Valentine’s Day event. We want to be a place where students can come if they have concerns or if they have needs. We can be that first point to start to work with them.”

This coming August, Harris will celebrate five years with the College of Nursing, but his history at UMSL stretches back much further – last month marked 19 years of working for the university. Prior to joining the College of Nursing, he worked as a coordinator for academics for the Department of Athletics for about 11 years and, before that, in the formerly centralized advising center. Over the years in his various roles at UMSL, he’s enjoyed helping to solve problems, having different opportunities to make an impact and getting to connect with students, faculty and staff.

“When I started here, I didn’t think I would be here as long as I have,” he said. “I think that does say something about the overall environment to want to stay in a position that long. It’s that connection, that feeling of being comfortable and being safe and believing in the work that you’re doing.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske