Sherry Hieken, Olivia Mendez-Alm and Dat Le receive UMSL Hero Awards

by | Jul 31, 2023

This month, UMSL recognizes Sherry Hieken, Olivia Mendez-Alm and Dat Le with the UMSL Hero Awards.
A collage of a Black woman, white woman and Vietnamese man.

This month’s honorees are (from left) Sherry Hieken, an administrative consultant II in Finance and Administration; Olivia Mendez-Alm, the director of Enrollment Services, Adult Education; and Dat Le, a business support specialist I in the College of Education. (Photos by Derik Holtmann)

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 Sherry Hieken, an administrative consultant II in Finance and Administration; Olivia Mendez-Alm, the director of Enrollment Services, Adult Education and outgoing president of the Staff Association; and Dat Le, a business support specialist I in the College of Education.

Sherry Hieken

Hieken has had a way with numbers ever since she was about 10 years old, serving as the clerk at the church where her grandfather was the founding pastor and collecting and counting money and filling out deposit slips. She was also the Bible study treasurer and helped the group purchase Sunday school books and track finances for its annual trip to Arkansas.

That experience was a preview of the career Hieken would go on to after earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in business administration at Fontbonne University. She now works at UMSL as an administrative consultant II and manages the budgets for the Finance and Administration Division, which includes the UMSL Police Department, Information Technology Services, Facilities Management, Business and Financial Services and Human Resources.

Hieken began her career at UMSL in 1997 as the first fiscal officer at St. Louis Public Radio.

The way she landed the job felt very serendipitous.

Hieken and her husband bought a house. Her husband was about to paint and put down newspaper to protect the floor when he noticed the job posting at KWMU. He told her she should apply. She got the job and has been balancing UMSL budgets ever since.

She spent a total of 16 years at the station and had also worked for five years in the Budget Services Department before stepping into her current role in 2018. She also serves as the treasurer for the Black Faculty and Staff Association.

“I love working with the different departments, and I’ve just always loved numbers and working on finance and budgets,” she said. “It always gives me joy when I can sit down with different departments and help them with their budgets.”

Hieken’s fastidious and dutiful approach to her work has been noticed and appreciated by Tanika Busch, vice chancellor of the Finance and Administration Division, who nominated her for the award.

“Her contribution to the finance team and the campus is invaluable and she is a strong team player, who is willing to step in at any moment to provide support for units that may be experiencing transition,” Busch said. “Her partnership with the leaders she supports in these units is always collaborative and supportive.”

Hieken sees the big picture with her work.

“I really love what I’m doing now because the departments I work with, I see this as an opportunity to help them have a better understanding of their budgets and the university’s policy and procedures,” she said. “I’m real close to retiring, and so I just look at this as an opportunity now to help someone younger to advance in their career.”

Hieken does her job not only because it’s her duty but also because she enjoys it. When she found out about the UMSL Hero Award, she was shocked.

“I was like, ‘Oh, wow!’ when I saw the email,” she said. “Then I received another email saying that Tanika nominated me. I thanked her and told her I was really excited and that I will continue to do my best to be a team player and make her happy and proud.”

Olivia Mendez-Alm

Mendez-Alm serves as the director of Enrollment Services, Adult Education with a focus on the needs of transfer, adult and online students. She has helped many adults who may be going to college for the first time or continuing their higher education.

She began her career in higher education at her alma mater, Holy Names University in Oakland, California. She earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and liberal studies, but was unsure of what career path she wanted to pursue. After a year working as a nanny, she visited the university’s career center and encountered Barbara Avery, the vice president of student affairs, who suggested she apply for a role as an admissions counselor.

“I walked up the hill to admissions and started that whole process,” Mendez-Alm said. “I didn’t ever think it would be a career. I thought it would be a ‘Let me figure this out’ moment.”

She spent 12 years at Holy Names, earning a master’s degree in urban education and ended her time there as assistant dean and director of Student Success and Retention. Mendez-Alm still remembers the first student she ever admitted, Stephanie, who she’s kept in touch with for nearly 20 years.

When her husband got a job at the Saint Louis Zoo and they chose to move across the country, Mendez-Alm surveyed her options.

“I knew I wanted to stay in higher ed,” Mendez-Alm said. “I like first-generation college students. I truly believe in the transformational power of education, and it has the ability to transform an individual and their family. You get enough people in a neighborhood, and now you’ve transformed a neighborhood, and that means a lot to me. I want to work with students where this really is going to make a huge difference in generations of their family.”

The enthusiasm Mendez-Alm has for helping adults move forward matches the energy she’s displayed advocating for equitable conditions for her staff colleagues as past chair of the UMSL Staff Association.

Blake Schliesser, a senior business support specialist in the Office of Admissions who nominated Mendez-Alm for the award, has been impressed by her dedication.

“I have worked with Olivia in Staff Council and the Equity Advisory Committee and have seen her tireless dedication to advocating for all staff, both current and prospective, particularly for those of minority status,” Schliesser said. “She consistently goes above and beyond her job duties, even taking time to attend meetings on her days off. She has also made great efforts in distributing important communications and making sure interested parties know and understand upcoming changes and how they can get involved. She is a shining example of UMSL’s core values of integrity, inclusion and engagement.”

Keri Jupka, senior research associate in the College of Nursing, also nominated Mendez-Alm for the award and has noticed her fervor for equity.

“I am so proud to nominate Olivia Mendez-Alm,” Jupka said. “I joined the staff association a little over a year ago. In that year, Olivia has shown great leadership as the chair. She is a strong advocate for staff at UMSL and effectively brings forward the staff voice at the administrative and system levels. Olivia has created an inclusive environment where all staff are welcome, and all voices can be heard. Through all the transition of the pandemic and other challenges, Olivia was a steady and constant leader who I trust to always have the best interest of UMSL staff and students in mind with everything she does.”

All the accolades don’t take Mendez-Alm off her focus, which is always clear – she is at UMSL to serve.

“It’s always nice to be acknowledged for the work that you do,” she said. “But I do the work whether people see it or not because I’m not doing the work for me; I’m doing the work for my students.”

Dat Le

Dat Le emigrated to St. Louis from Vietnam with his mother when he was just 4 years old. They moved here to live with his grandfather, but he passed away several months after they arrived. From that moment on, it was Le and his mother together, against the odds.

“It was a really hard blow for my mom,” Le said. “I was too young to really understand what was going on. She was kind of stranded in this new place. My mom’s a little bit older, so it was kind of hard for her to adapt. She still doesn’t speak English that well to this day.”

Despite those difficulties, Le made his way, all the way to UMSL.

Today, Le works as a business support specialist I in the College of Education assisting with finance and procurement. He’s been in the role since January of 2022, but his UMSL affiliation reaches back several years.

After graduating high school in 2016, Le enrolled at UMSL. He had multiple interests so it was a challenge for him to narrow in on a major.

“I was doing a bit of soul searching at the time, so I kind of changed majors probably seven or eight times – just kind of looking for what I was interested in,” he said.

He eventually found the right fit in economics, and he’s currently pursuing his BS and MA in the dual degree program.

“Economics appeals to me for a variety of reasons,” Le said. “It’s all about cost and opportunity. My upbringing was very modest, so as I’ve grown up, I find myself doing cost-benefit analysis for any decision I make – what product brands to choose, tasks to prioritize at work and how much time to allocate for activities during the weekend.

“The field is very data-driven and the information that is gathered is used to make more informed and meaningful decisions on policies that can affect everyone in society. The career paths are diverse and the critical thinking and problem-solving skills are valuable even outside of the field of economics.”

Le’s interest in economics serves him well in a role that he loves. His zeal for his work, coupled with his intention to do his best, is what got him nominated for the UMSL Hero Award by Julie Smith Sodey, assistant teaching professor and associate department chair of the Department of Educator Preparation and Leadership in the College of Business.

“Occasionally, I have to venture up to the fourth floor of Marillac Hall seeking assistance with equipment or materials,” she said. “If you have never worked in Marillac, you may not be aware that our offices are isolated, cinder-block rooms. It is often difficult to tell who is around until you come right up on a door. Dat Le’s office is now at the top of the stairwell, and that door is always open. This visual image represents how I view Dat as a colleague. Every time I emerge from the stairs, the first thing I see is his door wide open, his light on, and without fail, his big smile pokes around from his monitor. There has been an amazing transformation in the COE business support team recently, and Dat has played a key role in that transformation.

“He is always willing to help, even if he has to investigate the best way to be of assistance. Not only is he helpful, he is also a great human and colleague.”

When Le became aware he’d received the award, it took him by surprise.

“I just stared at it for like, five minutes,” he said. “I was like, ‘This is unbelievable.’ I always feel appreciated by everybody I work with. It’s not like my work doesn’t get acknowledged, but I didn’t realize that I would be getting something so prestigious. An award like this only feels like such an honor because it shows that my efforts have had an impact on so many people who I look up to and respect. I was honored. I forwarded it to all of my friends. I was like, ‘Oh my goodness, guys, look at this.’”

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