60 for 60: Mary Chant, Perry Drake, Corneille Ewango, Hongjin Li, Paul Matteucci and Letisha Wexstten honored as exceptional alumni

by | Jan 22, 2024

To celebrate its anniversary, UMSL is 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.

60 for 60 Alumni graphicThe 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 celebrates 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 Mary Chant, Perry Drake, Corneille Ewango, Hongjin Li, Paul Matteucci and Letisha Wexstten.

Mary ChantMary Chant, BSW 1994

For St. Louis native Mary Chant, happiness comes from learning. Chant, who graduated from UMSL in 1994 with a BSW, credits her father, who earned a bachelor’s degree and MBA from UMSL, with instilling in her the spirit of discovery.

“My father was one of the most curious people I have ever known, and never stopped learning, whether it be banjo, meditation, other cultures, or a new coding/programming language,” Chant said. “Still today, I’m at my happiest when I am learning.”

Chant’s “happy place” ignited a career that has positively impacted the lives of children and families for nearly 30 years, working first with Missouri runaways and homeless youth before moving to Idaho in the 1990s to focus on economic security and asset development for low-income families. As director of Community Action Partnership of Idaho, Chant worked with state and national economic security organizations to develop and implement policies that helped people reach economic security and build assets. In 2012, she returned to Missouri to assume her current role as CEO of Missouri Coalition for Children, a statewide association of child and family organizations dedicated to improving lives through policy and practice that support child and family well-being and healthy communities.

“There were times earlier in my life where the love, support and concern of others were the difference between negative outcomes and the opportunities, education and well-being I enjoy today and have for decades,” she said. “I’m acutely aware that these supports and resources were not and are not, available to so many youths and families, and more importantly, that we can change this. Through meaningful community engagement and thoughtful policy and investment, we can help children and families thrive in their communities.”

As UMSL celebrates its 60th anniversary, Chant has a simple message for current and future students who will lead by transformation in the years to come.

“Say yes more,” she said. “Looking back on my life, I regret the chances I did not take much more than the ones I did, even when the ones I took did not work out like I hoped they would.”

Perry DrakePerry Drake, BS 1984, PhD 2017

Perry Drake has a knack of knowing where audiences of potential customers currently are in the digital media space, and where they might be in the future. Drake, who earned a BS in economics and a PhD in education technology from UMSL, has parlayed a deep understanding of data-driven marketing with a passion for preparing future business leaders to become transformative forces in higher education.

While serving as assistant professor of integrated marketing at New York University, Drake was responsible for creating some of the very first courses dealing in web analytics, social media analytics and SAS data mining certifications at the university level. In addition, he was among the first faculty members to use Adobe Sitecatalyst in the classroom. He is also the author of “Optimal Database Marketing” published by Sage Publications (2001) and has written for many journals.

After nearly 16 years at NYU, he returned to his alma mater in 2013, joining the faculty of the College of Business Administration. His accomplishments include the implementation of a non-credit certification program in digital and social media marketing at the graduate level and within continuing education. He offers courses in advanced Facebook advertising, CRM strategies, Google Analytics and tagging, video production and editing and LinkedIn strategy among others. He founded the annual Midwest Digital Marketing Conference, where more than 2,000 attendees gather for sessions covering digital, social, tech, data, analytics and more presented by speakers from leading organizations in the industry like TikTok, Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and Microsoft.

He also oversees the student run YouTube channel, podcast and blog for the College of Business Administration. He is a regular on the speaking circuit, expressing his passion for all things digital and social while embracing the disruptions that are occurring in the world of marketing and communications. When he’s not in the classroom or at a conference, Drake is pounding the pavement as a competitive runner and has been a regular participant in the New York City Marathon.

Corneille EwangoCorneille Ewango, MS 2006

Corneille Ewango grew up in Congo, which has one of the largest forests in the world. He came from a family of soldiers, poachers and fishers and spent his early years supporting his family by collecting elephant tusks and the meat of animals killed by his father and uncle.

“That grew my passion for protecting the forest and plants,” he said. “When I am studying plants, I feel like I am talking with some kind of supernatural life, like I am talking with someone who does not speak.”

Ewango studied biology at the University of Kisangani, where he supplemented his studies with an internship at the Wildlife Conservation Society. After receiving a BS in 1995, he was employed as botanist and herbarium curator by the Centre de Formation et de Recherche en Conservation Forestiere, adjacent to the Ituri Forest Reserve.

Amid civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1996 to 2003, Ewango was responsible for the botany program at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Over the course of the war, he became the only senior staff member remaining after others fled. He risked his life by staying throughout the conflict, hiding the reserve’s rare herbarium collection while confronting military officials about the various illegal, anti-environmental activities in which the soldiers were engaging.

The reserve remained intact throughout the war. Many poachers were eventually arrested or exiled, partly because of Ewango’s efforts. After the war, he received a Christiansen Fund fellowship from the Whitney R. Harris World Ecology Center to study in UMSL’s Department of Biology, earning a master’s degree in tropical botany in 2006.

Ewango received the Goldman Environmental Award while still a master’s student at UMSL. He used his award proceeds to help build an herbarium that still serves to protect and research local flora in the Congo. Additionally, in 2011, he was awarded the Future of Nature Award which recognizes international species protection efforts.

Hongjin LiHongjin Li, BSN 2013

Hongjin Li is a source of hope for breast cancer survivors everywhere. Li earned a BSN at UMSL in 2013, an MS in biostatistics from Columbia University and a PhD in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh. Today, she is an assistant professor at the University of Illinois Cancer Center in Chicago, specializing in genomic and metabolomic tools to better understand psychoneurological symptoms experienced by breast cancer survivors and therapies for treatment-related symptoms.

Li was initially introduced to UMSL by Rensheng Luo, a friend of her mother who works as a research associate professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the university. She ultimately decided to enroll in the College of Nursing and credited the BSN program with giving her a solid background and foundation for her career, providing hands-on experience through clinics at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and mentoring her in evidence-based research. Her professors were also encouraging, as Li was the only international student in her cohort.

“I had a lot of trouble with the language and terminology at the beginning,” she said. “They helped me overcome this difficulty.”

When she graduated with her BSN from UMSL in 2013, she knew she wanted to pursue nursing research, and sought ways to further develop her skillset as a researcher through education and experience.

She is currently studying the potential role of acupuncture to alleviate the pain, fatigue, depression or anxiety that most breast cancer survivors experience to some degree during and after endocrine therapy. She has received funding from the American Cancer Society, the Sigma Theta Tau international research award and the Heilbrunn Nurse Scholar Award from Rockefeller University and is a member of the Midwest Nursing Research Society, Oncology Nursing Society and Sigma Theta Tau.

Her research focus has a personal connection. While pursuing her BSN at UMSL in 2009, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. She took a temporary leave from school to return home to the Hubei province of China and care for her mother. She saw firsthand how acupuncture alleviated her mother’s symptoms and knew she wanted to devote her work within the nursing field to examining how the treatment could be used to help other patients.

Paul MatteucciPaul Matteucci, BSBA 1991

Paul Matteucci was a 26-year-old, place-bound St. Louis resident in 1989 searching for a degree to transform his career from good to great. Matteucci’s quest led him to UMSL, where he completed a BSBA in Management Information Systems in 1991 that would springboard a 40-year professional journey in information technology solutions that included the design and implementation of some of the largest mission-critical federal systems including the IRS, NASA, DHS, GSA and SEC.

The pinnacle of Matteucci’s career began in 2012 when he joined a small government technology services start-up, Attain, LLC, where he became a partner in 2016. Matteucci grew his business to more than $60 million in 2021 when it merged with corporate IT giant Maximus. He continued as a senior vice president at Maximus until his early retirement in June 2023 at age 60.

“I have always thrived in an environment where I can empower team members to be creative and productive,” he said. “By leveraging an entrepreneurial spirit with my knowledge of information technology, I have been most fortunate to help others reach their full potential.”

While in school, he served as the first governor-appointed UMSL student curator from 1990 to 1992, raising awareness of UMSL’s unique mission of service to place-bound nontraditional students. Throughout his journey, Matteucci has never forgotten his experience at UMSL and has been eager to give back to his alma mater. He supported the expansion of the UMSL Alumni Association outside of St. Louis, most notably as host of events in Washington D.C. and during spring training in Florida as well as his establishment and gifts to the Vicki Sauter Scholarship Fund in support of nontraditional and minority students.

“Professor Sauter taught me to put clients in the center of my life and drive their success,” Matteucci said. “This life lesson became the cornerstone of my career in IT and consulting and played a huge role in my success.”

Matteucci’s clients are not his only priority. He also adopted six Romanian orphans ages 8-15 in 1999 and today he has ten grandchildren and one on the way.

Letisha WexsttenLetisha Wexstten, BFA 2019

Letisha Wexstten is on a quest to see more people with disabilities in the workforce. This purpose-driven mission is personal for Wexstten, who was born without arms and struggled mightily to find employment after earning an associate degree in graphic communications from St. Louis Community College in 2012. As the rejection letters piled up and her non-disabled peers landed jobs, Wexstten concluded that employers simply doubted her ability to do the work.

The experience motivated her to find a way to empower others facing similar challenges. While finishing a bachelor’s degree in graphic design from UMSL in 2019, Wexstten created V15Able (pronounced “visible”), a digital platform that allows job seekers with disabilities to connect and showcase their skills with potential employers. Her idea got a major boost from UMSL’s inaugural Entrepreneur Quest Student Accelerator pitch competition, where Wexstten won first place and a $15,000 development grant. She then received a $50,000 award from Arch Grants and more recently earned a spot in the Pipeline Pathfinder program, which helps underserved entrepreneurs. Through her UMSL journey, Wexstten has taken an idea and turned it into reality, creating a resource that stands to transform the workplace for disabled job seekers everywhere.

“I want to see more businesses making accommodations and using V15Able to find out how to make their environments more accessible,” she said. “I really believe that long-term, this platform has the potential to help connect people with disabilities around the world.”

Among other things, V15Able will allow users the opportunity to demonstrate to prospective employers how they would complete projects and tasks. The idea for this was prompted by her own YouTube page, Tisha Unarmed, which Wexstten started in 2012 to inspire others as she was dealing with frustration in the job market.

“When I saw how much difference the YouTube channel was making, I knew that I wanted to help other people like me gain the confidence they needed to take back their independence,” she said. “V15Able is a game changer that connects people with a platform that will allow them to truly express their capabilities.”

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Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens
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Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.

Eye on UMSL: Tending the gardens

Biology student James Ott and Sustainable Energy & Environmental Coordinator Katy Mike Smaistrla pull weeds last week in the native gardens north of the Recreation Wellness Center.