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 Karen Wawrzyniak, office support staff in Student Outreach and Support; Jennifer Fisher, associate teaching professor in the College of Education; and Scott Morrison, staging and rigging services manager at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
Karen Wawrzyniak has always felt at home in higher education.
Wawrzyniak graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with a bachelor’s degree in English. She was excited to take a senior secretary position in the library at the Missouri Institute of Mental Health in 1995, then a part of MU, because it meant having a job working with books.
“I just liked working for the university so much,” Wawrzyniak said. “I really liked the Missouri Institute of Mental Health. I felt that I learned something new almost every day. I learned a lot about mental health.”
While looking for another university library job, Wawrzyniak found a listing for an office support position at UMSL in Multicultural Relations, now University Student Support, in 2012. She was attracted to the cultural diversity and tightknit community at UMSL.
“There are so many different people to meet and talk with, and UMSL students are really sweet,” she said. “My department used to be over in Lucas Hall, and I’d be walking across the bridge to The Nosh to have lunch, and students would be yelling at me, ‘Hi, Miss Karen!’”
Wawrzyniak has been eager to give back to those students over the years, connecting them to the educational resources available at UMSL. She’s also keen to help others on campus, including Chancellor Kristin Sobolik, who commended her for her help dealing with recent electrical issues in Woods Hall.
“She has helped in setting up extra rooms, printing and just positivity and support at a time when we needed that,” Sobolik wrote in her nomination. “Karen is consistently positive with our students in the SOS area and is a true asset to UMSL – she has the UMSL attitude!”
Wawrzyniak never expected to be recognized for that work but is grateful nonetheless.
“I’m surprised,” she said. “I feel like I work hard at my job, and I’m happy that it’s recognized.”
Jennifer Fisher is no stranger to being honored for her work as an art educator. The Missouri Art Education Association named the assistant professor Art Educator of the Year in 2021 and the National Art Education Association named her the 2022 Western Region Higher Education Art Educator.
However, she was especially appreciative to be nominated for an UMSL Hero Award by her colleague Dr. Leigh Mincks, an adjunct instructor and art education veteran.
“It was really sweet, and I felt like it was an honor to be nominated by Leigh because she’s been in this game a lot longer than I have,” Fisher said. “I respect her a lot, so the fact that she took time out of her day to even nominate me was really wonderful and kind.”
In her nomination of Fisher, Mincks highlighted Fisher’s ability to connect with those around her.
“Jennifer Fisher has never spent one day in her role as art educator and not had an inspirational impact on not only her students but folks standing nearby and around the corner,” Mincks wrote. “Jennifer takes her role as a change-making artist, educator and colleague with the integrity and authenticity one cannot simply read the textbook and ‘do.’ Her energy and passion for teaching, helping and leading comes from every fiber of her innate being.”
Fisher always knew she wanted to be a teacher, but she initially envisioned teaching English or language arts until an undergraduate ceramics class at Southeast Missouri State University sparked an interest in art. She changed course and never looked back.
After graduating from SEMO, Fisher furthered her education with a master’s in special education, with an emphasis in gifted education, from the University of Missouri–Columbia and a PhD in teaching and learning processes from UMSL.
Mentors at UMSL such as E. Louis Lankford and Karen Cummings guided Fisher, who considers herself lucky to have studied under such renowned art educators. Lankford and Cummings would eventually pass the torch to Fisher after the completion of her doctorate in 2016. Her graduation happened to coincide with their retirements, and they suggested she apply for a newly open position in the Department of Art and Design.
“I was just at the right place, right time, right degree, to even have an opportunity to apply for that,” Fisher said. “My whole time at UMSL so far has been really just trying to not screw up the amazing foundation that they had set up for me in the program. Then also to continue to hold those high standards that they had set. Luckily, they really had me set up for success.”
At first, Fisher worried a bit about transitioning from K-12 education to higher education, but she couldn’t be happier about her place at UMSL.
“I was a little nervous when I came to higher ed that I wouldn’t be able to forge the same kind of meaningful lasting mentorship relationships, and I couldn’t have been more wrong,” she said. “If anything, it’s been even more rewarding because my current students are adults. I can talk to them on professional levels that are a little bit different than I could my high school students or middle school students. It’s been so nice to not only build mentorships as they start to get into the field. We can really work together as colleagues and equals in the field.”
After earning an associate degree in criminal justice, Scott Morrison briefly considered entering law enforcement before his father talked him out of it. Instead, Morrison went to work for the 22nd Circuit Court, serving court documents.
He did that for eight years before the work began to take a toll.
“I didn’t enjoy that because I was the bad guy,” he explained. “I was showing up, and I had papers, and the people I was handing papers to all of a sudden had a serious situation that they had to deal with in their life. I sat down one day and I said, ‘What do you really, really want to do?’ and I said to myself, ‘I like working in audio.’”
In a gambit to break into the audio industry, Morrison pounded the pavement taking resumes in person to several companies in St. Louis. He made a bold move at a store downtown – one that paid dividends.
“I walked in with my resume and I said, ‘I was wondering if I could talk to the man,’” Morrison said. “They said ‘What man?’ I said, ‘Whoever owns all this stuff; whoever’s company this is. I was wondering if I could have 60 seconds of his time.’ The guy walked out of his office and said ‘You got 60 seconds.’ I went in there, and I introduced myself. It was probably three or four months after that, I was a foreman at his new shop.”
That role eventually led Morrison to UMSL. He met James Campbell, who was the director of audio and video services for the Touhill at the time, on a job, and Campbell extended an offer to join the crew.
Morrison started as a part-timer in 2008, and within a year, he was helping run shows full time. Now, Morrison serves as the staging and rigging services manager, working with clients to execute their vision while also ensuring the safety of performers.
He’s particularly enjoyed working on Variety St. Louis’ annual musicals, which often involve lifting performers over the stage, and with the Ambassadors of Harmony, an a cappella chorus led by Associate Professor Jim Henry.
“He and his team have been absolutely wonderful to work with,” Morrison said. “I’m going to say about 15 years ago, my first show with them, they knew what they wanted, but they just didn’t know how to get there. So, through the years I’ve been able to help them. I’ve been able to sit down and say ‘What do you want as your final product?’ Then I’ve been able to help them find out here’s how the Touhill is going to be able to help you get there.”
Jordyn LaBarge, stage service assistant, noted Morrison’s dedication to working out those details.
“Scott Morrison has dedicated hours and hours of his time ensuring the smooth and elegant operations of the Touhill Performing Arts Center,” LaBarge wrote in her nomination. “Not one person can be seen working as hard as him, doing whatever it takes to accomplish seemingly impossible goals for the university and for the client.”
Though Morrison insists it’s a team effort.
“Jason Stahr, who is managing director, he is probably the hardest worker that I’ve ever worked with in my life,” he said. “He is the best boss that I’ve ever worked for in my life. He has wisdom. He understands when it’s time to push his crew, and he understands when it’s time to let his crew rest. Secondly, the technical crew, which are the other department heads, my teammates, they are some of the most talented individuals that I have ever had the pleasure of working with.”