2023 Women Trailblazer Awards celebrate the ‘women who tell our stories’

2023 Trailblazer Award recipients Kristin Sobolik, Felia Davenport, Sydney Stark, Shawntelle Fisher, April Regester and Tanisha Stevens stand together with their awards

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, Associate Professor Felia Davenport, Student Government Association President Sydney Stark, SoulFisher Ministries CEO Shawntelle Fisher, Associate Professor April Regester and Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens honored with 2023 UMSL Trailblazer Awards last Wednesday at the Millennium Student Center. (Photos by August Jennewein)

For nearly three decades, the University of Missouri–St. Louis Women Trailblazer Awards have honored, celebrated and uplifted the achievements of exceptional women who have paved the way for others on campus and beyond.

The annual awards are part of the university’s Women’s History Month programming, and this year’s theme was “Celebrating Women Who Tell Our Stories.”

The theme “aligned with the national theme that honors women in every community who have devoted their lives and talents to producing art, pursuing truth and reflecting the human condition decade after decade,” Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens wrote in the event program.

Attendees in the Century Rooms of the Millennium Student Center heard from Constance Gully, president and CEO of Parents As Teachers, who in her keynote address recounted the stories of the women who have made a transformational impact on Parents as Teachers. She also implored the audience members to seek out ways where they could make their own mark.

Natissia Small surprises Tanisha Stevens with a 2023 Women Trailblazer Award

Vice Provost for Access, Academic Support and Workforce Integration Natissia Small surprises Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Tanisha Stevens with a 2023 Women Trailblazer Award.

“Life is a gift and a journey,” she said. “It’s not about where you start, but where you are heading and where you are having impact. To every trailblazer, every woman in this room, let’s keep paying it forward. Because when we lift others, as Blanche Touhill taught me, we’ll make their path easier, we help more dreams become a reality. Every woman has a story and every hero begins with her.”

This year’s Trailblazers Awards were then presented to Associate Professor of Communication and Media Felia Davenport, CEO of The SoulFisher Ministries Shawntelle Fisher, Associate Professor of Inclusive Education April Regester, Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, criminology and criminal justice and Spanish student Sydney Stark and Stevens – though the program for the event only listed the first five recipients.

Stevens’ nomination came as a surprise toward the end of the ceremony when Vice Provost for Access, Academic Support, and Workforce Integration Natissia Small took the stage to deliver the news.

“One of the hardest things to do is to serve on the committee and for the committee to decide that we have a trailblazer amongst us and to hide that from her,” Small said with a laugh. “If she only knew that we were running around right before this to figure some things out because she was too close to each of us.”

Each of the recipients took time to tell their own stories and acknowledge those who have been vital to their success, from mentors to mothers.

Read more below about the remarkable 2023 class of Trailblazers:

Felia Davenport is an associate professor in communication and media. Her research has always been through a creative lens with a foundation in social justice and change. Davenport always told stories through her costume design for various dance theater companies. Now she uses her story and journey to connect with others in the community to be an agent of change. Her research will always remain in the visual but will expand now with communicating social and personal identity through textiles, history, communication and collaboration.

Shawntelle Fisher is an influential leader, speaker and teacher who serves with excellence and integrity. Fisher became a mother at age 15 and a convicted felon at age 17. After going to prison seven times, she made a decision to allow God to transform her into the person he had created her to be. This transformation led her back to college and to start The SoulFisher Ministries. She holds both a bachelor’s degree in educational studies and media studies from UMSL and dual master’s degrees in social work and divinity from Washington University in St. Louis and Eden Theological Seminary. She is a licensed clinical social worker, a Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Board member, a National Association of Social Workers committee member and a member of the St. Louis County Diversion Committee. Since starting The SoulFisher Ministries in 2012, Fisher has raised over $10 million in funding to support their work promoting academic excellence and social responsibility in the lives of youth and empowering currently and formerly incarcerated women to take back control of their lives and become contributing taxpayers who give back in meaningful ways.

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik addresses the audience from the stage at the 2023 Women Trailblazer Awards

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik addresses the audience from the stage at the 2023 Women Trailblazer Awards.

April Regester is an associate professor inclusive education at UMSL and serves as the department chair for the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership. Prior leadership positions include associate chair of the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership and director of faculty support and engagement for the College of Education. Regester received her PhD in special education, disabilities and risk studies from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2009. Her research interests include friendship development and peer supports for individuals of all abilities, inclusive education teacher preparation and postsecondary education programs for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She established the Missouri Peer Supports Project in 2011, which was piloted in three Missouri high schools to help support inclusive education, extracurricular activities and social opportunities and she helped to establish UMSL Succeed, an inclusive residential, postsecondary education program for individuals with developmental and intellectual disabilities.

Chancellor Kristin Sobolik is the eighth chancellor of the university. She first joined the UMSL community as provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs in 2017. Throughout her time at UMSL, Sobolik has led the development and implementation of the university’s strategic focus on student success, educational relevancy, inclusive prosperity and economic growth and development with regional and national partners. Under her leadership, UMSL has introduced over a dozen new academic programs, increased student graduation rates while decreasing student debt, increased private philanthropy, grown research expenditures and ascended 69 places in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of the nation’s top national universities. Sobolik serves as vice president and treasurer of the executive committee of the Coalition of Urban and Metropolitan Universities and is on the advisory council for the commissioner of the Missouri Department of Higher Education and Workforce Development. She serves on numerous regional boards, including Greater St. Louis, Inc., the St. Louis Regional Business Council and the Urban League of Metropolitan St. Louis. The St. Louis Business Journal recognized her with a Most Influential Business Women Award in 2020 and the Urban League of Greater St. Louis presented her with a Distinguished Women’s Leadership Award in 2022.

Sydney Stark is a senior criminology and criminal justice and Spanish student at UMSL. She is the president of UMSL’s Student Government Association, where she oversees the executive board and student senate to help students bring about change to their campus and advocate on their behalf. She is also a member of Zeta Tau Alpha and has held two consecutive terms as vice president and DEI chairwoman, where she helped new members and general members alike find their home in the sorority. She will be attending law school in the fall to pursue international law. Stark hopes to someday live abroad and travel while she helps international organizations in their pursuit of justice.

Tanisha Stevens is the vice chancellor for diversity, equity and inclusion at UMSL. Stevens also serves as the university’s chief diversity officer and member of the Chancellor’s Cabinet. She brings her expertise and a vision to identify opportunities for the greater alignment and more unified efforts to identify opportunities for individuals across the campus but also within the St. Louis community. As a trusted adviser who values relationships, she works hard to establish and strengthen collaborative partnerships across the institution and in the St. Louis community at large.


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