Marcia Countryman, Heather Robinson Coburn and Alexander Salois receive UMSL Hero Awards

by | Jan 22, 2024

The award is presented to up to three staff or faculty members each month in recognition of their efforts to transform the lives of UMSL students and the wider community.
January 2024 UMSL Hero Award recipients Marcia Countryman, Heather Robinson Coburn and Alexander Salois

Marcia Countryman, Heather Robinson Coburn and Alexander Salois are the January 2024 recipients of the UMSL Hero Award. (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 Marcia Countryman, an associate teaching professor of accounting; Heather Robinson Coburn, an academic advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences; and Alexander Salois, a maintenance services attendant in Facilities Management.

Marcia Countryman

Countryman made it through the holiday season and was starting to think through all the steps she needed to take to prepare for the spring semester when the email arrived in early January from Sobolik, alerting her that she’d been chosen to receive the UMSL Hero Award. To say it made her excited to get back in the classroom would be an understatement.

“At the end of the year, everybody’s kind of recalibrating and recharging for the next semester,” Countryman said. “When I saw that email, I was totally energized and ready to go. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is fabulous.’”

Making the recognition even more meaningful was learning that several of her students nominated her for the honor.

“Her dedication to students’ present and future success is evident with the time and effort she invests in them even outside of her teaching responsibilities,” junior accounting major Alexandria Paubel wrote in one nomination. “Her rare quality of being endlessly dedicated to students should be recognized because it will, and has been, the reason for the thousands of successful UMSL graduates who were fortunate enough to fall under her care.”

“She is a wonderful professor and an amazing role model for all accounting students,” senior Natalie Wiedl wrote in another. “She puts students first always and strives to be present in the lives of UMSL students.”

Countryman couldn’t help but be touched.

“I know that UMSL students have very busy schedules, so for them to take the time out of their day and for them to formally nominate me for an award is amazing to me,” Countryman said. “I dedicate my time to helping them be successful, and I think they recognize my passion for teaching and passion for student success here at UMSL.”

The desire to have an impact on the lives of students was what led Countryman into the classroom in the first place.

After earning her bachelor’s degree in accounting, she began working toward an MBA at Northern Illinois University as a teaching assistant. That experience showed her there could be a way to combine both passions, accounting and education.

Countryman spent a few years working as a CPA in Chicago, but she eventually decided to pursue a PhD at Saint Louis University, paving the way for a move to academia.

Her first college teaching experience in St. Louis came at St. Louis Community College–Wildwood. She joined the UMSL faculty part-time in 2010 and moved into a full-time position in 2014.

She’s been making a lasting impact on students ever since, teaching both undergraduate and graduate students while also serving as faculty advisor to the Accounting Club since 2015.

In the latter role, she helps expose students to internship and career opportunities.

“The whole transforming lives thing is totally true,” Countryman said. “Many students aren’t aware of what the opportunities are out there. I strive to help them on the education side as well as the career side. The Accounting Club provides an opportunity for students to meet the accounting firms and private companies that hire accountants and prepare for their careers.”

Heather Robinson Coburn

Robinson Coburn looks forward to attending commencement because she gets to meet the students she works with face-to-face – often for the first time – and can join in celebrating their success.

Robinson works as an academic advisor in the College of Arts and Sciences, helping students coordinate their schedules and ensuring they’re maintaining progress toward their degrees. But since the pandemic, a lot of advising has been done virtually.

“Most of my students are online,” Robinson Coburn said. “When I go to work commencement or things like that, I hear them say, ‘You’re Heather? Oh my gosh, I’m so happy to finally meet you. You saved me. You helped me.’ To hear that and know that I made an impact in the student’s life is great. That’s my goal in life in general is to know that I’m making an impact.”

Others have taken notice as well.

“Heather diligently assists communication and media students in tracking their progress toward graduation and helping them find relevant and exciting courses in which to enroll,” Associate Professor Stephanie Van Stee wrote in nominating her for the Hero Award. “Heather is always open to working collaboratively with faculty to assist our students. She is so appreciated!”

Robinson Coburn’s path to becoming an academic advisor began at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri. There she earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s degree in counselor education.

She also spent nearly seven years on staff at Lincoln, working as a program coordinator in student activities and eventually becoming a counselor in training in her last year.

Robinson Coburn wanted to move back to the St. Louis region where she grew up, and she found an opportunity working as an academic advisor with UMSL NOW. She already had a lot of familiarity with the university because her parents met and both earned their bachelor’s degrees at the university, and it was not uncommon for them to bring her to events at their alma mater during her childhood. Her sister also participated in UMSL’s Bridge Program while in high school.

UMSL NOW wound up getting folded into the Office of Admissions, and Robinson Coburn became engaged in both advising and recruitment efforts. In 2022, she saw an opportunity to get back to advising full-time and transitioned to the College of Arts and Sciences.

Today, she works primarily with students majoring in communication, biochemistry and biotechnology, organizational leadership and psychological sciences.

She admires the work ethic and openness of UMSL students and the camaraderie of her colleagues.

“Our team of advisors, everybody works collaboratively and is super friendly,” Robinson Coburn said. “If I have a question or maybe there’s something I’m not sure about, there’s never any hesitance to ask a co-worker. The team atmosphere really keeps me here, honestly. I think every office I’ve worked in, the people I felt like I connected with very well. That has been a good experience.”

Alexander Salois

Salois began working part-time in Facilities Management as a student pursuing a bachelor’s degree in history. The chance at a full-time position in the department seemed too good to pass up when he made the decision to work toward a second bachelor’s degree in astrophysics.

“They offered me a full-time position because I’d been a student worker, and I thought it’d be a good way to finish the second degree because of the discount,” said Salois, referring to the UM System’s employee tuition benefit. “So here I am.”

He’s been serving as a maintenance services attendant since early 2022 and, during that time, has led an effort to digitize campus key records with the goal of making the campus safer and more sustainable. He also audited the locks in each building on campus to determine how many have been re-keyed and has culled employee records to eliminate outdated information for former faculty and staff members.

But it’s his everyday customer service that led Salois to receive the UMSL Hero Award.

“Alexander consistently provides an outstanding level of service and support whenever myself or others within the College of Education have needed his help,” Senior Business Support Specialist Blake Schliesser wrote in nominating him. “He has responded faster than any other facilities member whenever I’ve placed a work order. We’ve had issues with missing keys, jammed or broken locks, malfunctioning keypads and doors needing entirely new locking systems and he has exceeded expectations every single time. His knowledge, skill and work ethic are a great asset to our campus.”

Salois hadn’t heard much about the award but was pleased to be recognized. Most of his focus remains on his studies.

“It’s not always easy,” he said of juggling the responsibilities of his job with his coursework. “I’ve got some people down here who have helped me out a lot and kind of cover for me, but it’s been very busy.”

His work in astrophysics is fulfilling a lifelong passion.

“It’s been an interest as long as I can remember,” Salois said. “I probably knew all the planets before I could even really walk. My family read that kind of stuff to me when I was a kid. My mom would have Star Trek on, so space has always just been something that I’ve been interested in.”

Salois will have about two more semesters of coursework to complete after this semester, and he expects to pursue a graduate degree when he’s finished.

Steve Walentik

Steve Walentik