The University of Missouri-St. Louis is proud of the economic and philanthropic reach of its programs and partnerships, but it’s the people UMSL most wants to honor as it celebrate its 60th anniversary. Throughout the year of celebration, UMSL will be spotlighting 60 alumni who apply one or more of the university’s core values in the world and help to make it a better place.
This month’s honorees are Maria Ellis, Stan Freerks, Ketosha Harris, Joe Russo, Mike Toohey and Luigi Wewege.
The power of music first stirred within Ellis while growing up in St. Louis listening to and learning from her father and his siblings singing in their choir. Mastering The Chapman Singers’ soprano, alto and tenor parts sparked a passion that led Ellis to become the conductor of her church’s youth choir at age 12. Her lifelong passion continued at UMSL, where she received a BM in music education with an emphasis in voice in 2017. Through her personal, academic and professional experiences, Ellis has always been motivated by the connection between music and the human bond.
“Music is a powerful tool that unites us all,” Ellis said. “When we are singing in a choir or playing in a band, our differences are replaced by our collective goal at that moment – to make beautiful sounds.”
Today, Ellis is a creative force whose impact reverberates across multiple music fronts. As founder of Girl Conductor, Ellis brings more diversity to the field of music conducting, particularly when it comes to women of color.
“More and more women and people of color are making their way to the conductor’s podium,” Ellis said. “It is inspiring to see the diversity that is emerging in the field.”
Ellis travels the country conducting, teaching choirs and providing voice lessons, while leading professional development workshops for music teachers. In June, she made her Carnegie Hall debut, conducting 100 singers from various choruses around the country. Ellis is also the founder and artistic director of the City of Music All-Star Chorus at The Sheldon Concert Hall and will direct the new UMSL community choir, Voices of Jubilation Ensemble, open to UMSL students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members, beginning this fall.
When she is not leading the way for future generations of singers and music educators, Ellis is behind the microphone as the award-winning host of “Bach and Beyonce” and “American Gospel with Maria A. Ellis” on Classic 107.3, The Voice of the Arts in St. Louis.
As an insurance industry leader, Freerks spent more than 40 years bringing peace of mind and financial stability to individuals and businesses in St. Louis and beyond. Early in his career, Freerks was an account executive who worked directly with the insurance-buying public before forming his own business, S. A. Freerks & Associates, a wholesale insurance products and services company focusing on the transportation, hospitality and construction industries. Freerks, who earned an MBA from UMSL in 1992, credits the College of Business Administration for taking his insurance firm to the next level.
“The quality and flexibility of the UMSL MBA program was extremely valuable as I grew my insurance brokerage,” he said. “The faculty became my consulting firm as I dealt with the issues in building my business.”
Through his company, Freerks worked on behalf of retail insurance brokers with specialty insurance firms, placing business with more than 20 insurance companies and several underwriters at Lloyds of London. S. A. Freerks & Associates was acquired by global insurance giant Arthur J. Gallagher in 2011, and Freerks was tapped to lead the firm’s subsidiary, Risk Placement Services, where he remained until his retirement in 2017.
Freerks’ community focus has included roles with the Missouri Surplus Lines Association and the Capitol Indemnity Agency Advisory Council. He is also active in the St. Louis Master’s Swimming organization and the Cornell Water Polo Club. Freerks also gives back to UMSL. He serves on the board of the St. Louis Mercantile Library while supporting various UMSL initiatives. He contributes, along with his wife, Terry, to the success of the UMSL Alumni 5K Run & Walk while funding upgrades to the student-athlete academic commons.
Harris once stood on the precipice of a deeply personal decision – whether or not to return to academia as a single parent after a sustained absence. It was a seminal moment for the UMSL graduate, who eventually followed her heart back to her alma mater, where she first earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and criminology and criminal justice in 2014. After completing a master’s degree in adult higher education in 2017, Harris finished her academic triathlon with a doctorate in educational practices and social justice in 2022. Harris has never second-guessed the decision to further her education at UMSL thanks to the safety net for professional development the university provided.
“Through every friendship and experience, the UMSL journey has been priceless and has served as a springboard in shaping my career,” Harris said. “I believe UMSL is a beacon of light and hope for the St. Louis region, and as a light bearer, my passion is to continue to serve and reach all people within the remote and dark complexities of our social systems.”
Currently, Harris is the homeless services program manager for the City of St. Louis, where she leads and supervises contract compliance officers and outreach teams, negotiates contracts and analyzes data while serving diverse at-risk populations. Harris was previously in the St. Louis City’s Building Division and the Office of Public Safety. She was also an instructor and outreach coordinator with Emmanuel Temple Church.
Harris also serves on the UMSL Legislative Advocacy Committee and is a board member of A Red Circle, providing sustained, focused attention to the racial equity issues that impact North St. Louis County to build a stronger community.
Russo always knew he wanted to make a positive impact in life. But never in his wildest dreams did he imagine touching billions of lives around the world. It all began at UMSL, where Russo earned a BS in biology and later a PhD in biology. He then continued at Colorado State University, where he studied RNA virus metabolism as a postdoctoral associate. From there, Russo returned to St. Louis for what would become a breakout role in biotech. Throughout his journey as a global difference maker in the realm of scientific discovery, Russo has been grateful to UMSL for helping him realize his potential.
“The exceptional professors in the biology department not only provided scientific education and development but also career support and guidance,” Russo said. “I am truly grateful to my PhD advisor, Dr. Olivas, for believing in me enough to suggest a career in molecular biology.”
After completing his post-doc work, Russo joined Pfizer in 2018, focusing on next-generation gene therapy platforms. His work was critical with the arrival of COVID-19 a little more than a year later and Pfizer’s subsequent commitment to vaccine development using a novel mRNA-based platform. Russo served as an innovator and collaborator on the team that ultimately created Pfizer’s COVID-19 RNA vaccine, bringing hope to a world turned upside down by the deadly pandemic.
Today, Russo is a senior principal scientist and RNA technology development lead in Pfizer’s BioProcess R&D. He is also active in paying his UMSL experience forward, serving as a teaching adjunct in the Department of Biology and participating in multiple Biology Career Forum events.
Rapid change through innovative technology – it is the constant that defines our modern way of life – and that is just the way Toohey likes it. He parlayed a lifelong interest in computers with a passion for problem-solving to pursue his academic and professional dreams at UMSL. Toohey started out as a student consultant for UMSL Information Technology Services in the fall of 2000, working up to his current role as a principal system administrator. Through the years, he has worked on many different university initiatives and is as excited as ever about putting his stamp on the next big project.
“Technology is constantly evolving,” Toohey said. “With more convenient technologies like mobile devices, cloud computing and artificial intelligence, we have to be responsible consumers in keeping our business and personal resources safe from risks like ransomware, malware and even social engineering.”
Toohey spent years on parallel tracks at UMSL, building an IT career during the day while spending two decades as a nontraditional student, exploring undergraduate course work in cybersecurity, communications, math and computer science in route to a BLS in 2017. Afterwards, he completed a master’s in information systems in 2022 to increase his value to the university. Toohey has been honored as an UMSL Hero and is a respected colleague throughout the university campus and across the University of Missouri System.
“Most will never understand or see the technology infrastructure that enables student learning and employee productivity, but Mike is keenly aware how each piece of the puzzle fits into our collective efforts,” said Justin Roberts, UMSL associate vice chancellor for marketing and communications. “Day or night, Mike is a responsive, collaborative and engaged colleague who works tirelessly to support the technology infrastructures that advance this university.”
Wewege is a global financial guru. The UMSL alumnus runs one of the leading banks in the Caribbean and Central America, growing Caye International Bank to become the largest such institution in Belize. Wewege is a thought leader who serves on various international advisory boards, including the Fort Kobbe International Vaults in Panama. He is the author of “The Digital Banking Revolution,” now in its third edition, and is an instructor at the FinTech School in California.
“UMSL was a truly transformational experience that allowed me to hone my skills and strengthen my network through various campus organizations, while introducing me to an international perspective on my business education,” Wewege said. “All these experiences encouraged me to continue my education as well as further explore career opportunities worldwide.”
Wewege earned an MBA in international business from the MIB Trieste School of Management in Italy and a bachelor’s degree in business administration with honors from UMSL, where he triple-majored in finance, international business and management. During his time at UMSL, Wewege starred on the men’s golf team and received Great Lakes Valley Conference Academic All-Conference honors. He also launched a pilot study on the accuracy of American credit bureau data for the Federal Trade Commission.
Wewege has been recognized with several awards, including the Private Banker of the Year Award in 2021 by International Investor and Pan Finance magazines. He was honored by UMSL as recipient of the Outstanding Young Alumni Award in 2019 and the Salute to Business Achievement Award in 2017. Wewege is passionate about developing opportunities that empower young people to create positive change, creating his own foundation to provide an annual academic scholarship to a deserving student.