October 2023 UMSL Hero Awards Grace Derda, Janice Petty and JIm Schallom

This month’s UMSL Hero Award recipients are (from left) Grace Derda, Janice Petty and Jim Schallom. (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 Grace Derda, student services coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences; Janice Petty, custodian; and Jim Schallom, senior director of development in University Advancement.

Grace Derda

Derda loved interviewing fellow students and learning about the challenges they encountered and overcame in pursuit of their education when she was a student reporter studying journalism, first at Florissant Valley Community College and later Southern Illinois University.

It was always inspiring to hear about and get to share those stories. She still remembers some of them more than 40 years later, like the student who was undergoing kidney dialysis and another who endured brain injuries and had to relearn basic activities.

But Derda didn’t wind up pursuing journalism as a career.

“I had to write some stories where I was kind of pushed to be a little more critical, and I don’t think I had the right personality,” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I would be able to survive very well in that world.”

Instead, she found her way into a role in academic advising that allows her to regularly see the perseverance of students and gives her the opportunity to help them thrive.

Derda works as a student services coordinator in the College of Arts and Sciences. She advises a variety of Arts and Sciences majors, discussing remaining requirements for majors, minors and certificates and assisting with course selection and registration. She also coordinates the graduation list within the college each semester and assists Arts and Sciences majors who need academic plans for financial aid.

“Grace Derda is incredible,” said Professor Joanna Mendoza, the chair of the Department of Music, who nominated Derda for the Hero Award. “Capable, efficient, thorough, thoughtful, and kind, Grace is our advising superhero. The Music curriculum, with all of its peculiarities for transfer students, is a lot to navigate, and she helps so many other departments and students as well in CAS. I don’t know how she does it. This quiet, kind and gentle woman is fierce in her work and commitment to helping students, staff and faculty.”

Derda began working at UMSL as a clerk in the Office of Graduate Education in 1982 and moved into an advising role in Arts and Sciences in 1985. She went on to earn a master’s degree in counseling as she grew in her job and has since been honored with Chancellor’s Awards for Staff Excellence in the administrative or professional employee category in both 1999 and 2018.

Much has changed about the way Derda carries out her job duties over the past four decades. When she started, advisors shared a single computer terminal located down the hallway. But she still sees a lot of throughlines from back then to the students she works with today.

“I think the students we have, by and large, don’t take for granted that they are pursuing an education,” Derda said. “They are juggling a lot to go to school, and they’re dealing with a variety of situations at home and obstacles. Advisors have to talk to students, learn about what their needs are and then help them find a way to pursue their education in a way that actually works for them. It’s very rewarding.”

Janice Petty

Janice Petty never imagined when she landed a part-time position in the cafeteria at UMSL that she’d still be working at the university 21 years later.

“For me, it’s been a good place because I guess I like the kids and the people,” Petty said. “My work is not hard, but I guess I just enjoy the campus, enjoy people on the campus.”

Petty didn’t stay in the cafeteria long. Around the time she was hired, the university was preparing to open the Blanche M. Touhill Peforming Arts Center, and it had an opening for a custodian in the new building. Petty filled it.

She’s worked all across campus in the intervening years, including in Marillac Hall, Oak Hall and, most recently the Nursing Administration Building.

Petty’s left a mark there over the past four or five years, so much so that both College of Nursing Executive Staff Assistant Pat Gillette and Interim Dean Judith Lewis nominated her for the UMSL Hero Award.

“Janice is at work every day, with a smile,” Gillette said. “She isn’t just a housekeeper, she is an integral part of our team and our HERO.  We are never in need of something she provides or does, and she is always willing to go above and beyond. If I ask her for something and say no rush, she brings it right away.  She schedules her duties to accommodate busy times within the building, so as not to inconvenience us. She brightens everyone’s day.”

Added Lewis: “Janice is a daily reminder of commitment, dedication, professionalism and caring for the students, faculty, College of Nursing and the University of Missouri-St. Louis. She takes pride in her work and goes out of her way to make sure that the environment is conducive to study and work. She is adaptable and flexible and willingly goes to other buildings when there is a shortage. She monitors course schedules so that she can make sure the classrooms are inviting for students. During times of increased work – such as getting the dorms ready for students – she remains calm, thorough and efficient in getting the job done.”

Petty was appreciative that both took the time to recognize her contributions.

She was previously the recipient of the Chancellor’s Award for Staff Excellence to a custodial employee in 2019 and expects to continue at UMSL until she’s ready to retire.

“I’ve been here for so long, I haven’t thought about looking anywhere else,” Petty said. “It’s a nice place to work as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know what everybody else is feeling, but for me, I’ve had no problems out of UMSL. It’s been a good place for me.”

Jim Schallom

Schallom knows all about the impact UMSL can make on a person’s life. He need only look at his own.

He had earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Saint Louis University but, along the way, realized teaching in a classroom wasn’t going to be for him. Instead, he took a position fundraising at a nonprofit but quickly saw he was going to need more education.

“I didn’t make enough to pay my student loans, so I went to grad school as a way to defer those loans with the goal of hopefully getting a better job so that I would be able to sustain myself after I graduated,” Schallom said. “It paid off.”

After working in membership at the Saint Louis Science Center and development at nonprofits College Summit  – now PeerForward – and Sherwood Forest, Schallom saw an opportunity to return to UMSL in 2018, 10 years after he’d earned his MPPA in nonprofit management. He was hired as the senior director of development for the College of Business Administration, and he’s since added the College of Education and Department of Athletics to his portfolio.

He draws on his personal experience when working with potential donors.

“That being part of my story kind of helps make connections because I have that same experience that a lot of our students today do and our alumni do,” Schallom said.

He recognizes what a challenging time it is to work in fundraising in higher education, but the impact UMSL has made on its graduates makes that job a little easier.

“Donors are starting to think about philanthropy in different ways,” he said. “Education has always been one of the largest beneficiaries of philanthropy in the United States, and I think that’s going to continue to be true, but donors are thinking more broadly about ways that they can make a difference in the community.

“The good thing for UMSL is so many of our alums really feel empowered and inspired to give back because of the difference that UMSL made in their lives. A lot of our fundraising is around scholarships, and they really feel inspired to pay it forward for future students who are doing the same things that they did – working full-time while going to school.”

Schallom has also been excited to let potential donors know about the changes taking place across campus through the Transform UMSL initiative. It’s a tangible way to talk about the future of the university and the critical role it will continue to play in the years ahead.

Lisa Capone, UMSL’s vice chancellor for advancement, nominated Schallom for the Hero Award and cited statements from multiple team members about the quality and value of his work.

“Jim has really leaned into connecting the Alumni Engagement and Annual Giving team, particularly in partnering on the new Richter Family Welcome and Alumni Center prospective donors and solicitations,” one team member said. “In fact, Jim has served as an acting leader in the Office of Development for the past several months, helping to train and onboard new staff, make progress on division-wide goals – especially the capital projects – all while raising money himself with donors.”

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik