2024 Women Trailblazer Awards celebrate ‘women who advocate for all’

by | Mar 25, 2024

This year's awards honored Kimberly Baldus, Maria A. Ellis, Channon Peoples, Nora Stith, Kimberly Werner and Patricia Zahn.
2024 Women Trailblazer Awards

This year’s Women Trailblazer Awards honored (from left) Patricia Zahn, Maria A. Ellis, Kimberly Werner, Channon Peoples, Nora Stith and Kimberly Baldus. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

In one of her most famous poems, Maya Angelou wrote, “I’m a woman. Phenomenally. Phenomenal woman, That’s me.”

Riisa Rawlins, interim chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, drew on those powerful words during her keynote address at the 2024 Women Trailblazer Awards at the University of Missouri–St. Louis last week.

“We have an opportunity to celebrate some phenomenal women that are walking amongst us that have blazed trails and continue to create opportunity and inspiration for those who follow,” Rawlins said before reading the poem to the crowd gathered in the Century Rooms of the Millennium Student Center.

Established in 1995, the Women Trailblazer Awards honor UMSL women who have worked to forge new pathways for women and contributed significantly to the university and greater St. Louis community. Presented by the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, the annual awards are part of the university’s Women’s History Month programming.

This year’s theme, “Women Who Advocate for All,” celebrated women who have not only demonstrated outstanding leadership but have also dedicated themselves to advocating for the wellbeing and advancement of everyone around them. The awards highlight the tireless efforts of those who go above and beyond, fostering positive change in our community.

“A trailblazer is someone who doesn’t follow the beaten path; they create it,” said mistress of ceremony Katy Mike Smaistrla, sustainability coordinator at UMSL and a 2022 Trailblazer Award recipient. “They challenge norms, break barriers and champion causes that resonate with the core values of equity, justice and empowerment. Each Trailblazer is a testament to resilience, determination and the unwavering belief that one person can indeed make a significant impact.”

This year’s Trailblazers Awards were presented to Kimberly Baldus, teaching professor and associate dean of the Pierre Laclede Honors College; Maria A. Ellis, artistic director of the Sheldon’s All-Star Chorus and UMSL’s Voices of Jubilation ensemble; Channon Peoples, executive director of Precollegiate Student Services; Nora Stith, current student in the Pierre Laclede Honors College; Kimberly Werner, associate professor and associate dean of research in the College of Nursing; and Patricia Zahn, director of Community Engagement and Outreach.

2024 Women Trailblazer Awards

Riisa Rawlins, interim chief executive officer of the St. Louis Regional Health Commission, served as the keynote speaker at this year’s Women Trailblazer Awards. (Photo by Derik Holtmann)

Read more below about the 2024 class of Trailblazers:

Kimberly Baldus is the associate dean of the Pierre Laclede Honors College and has served as an Honors faculty member teaching literature and composition courses since 1997. She led the development of the Honors College first-year experience courses, its living and learning community and its peer mentor program, which has impacted the learning of hundreds of Honors students since it was launched in 2014. Her current role includes supervising Honors faculty and staff who constantly give her reasons to feel proud of their dedication and accomplishments. Baldus also teaches students, primarily in the senior Honors Portfolio class, as they reflect on their Honors education and develop application materials for graduate schools or careers. She loves to hear the stories of their successes, and especially treasures hearing from alumni about how much they enjoyed being part of the Honors College.

Internationally known as “The Girl Conductor,” Maria A. Ellis is a passionate music educator and conductor. She is the owner of Girl Conductor, which specializes in diverse music education resources, and also serves as the artistic director of The Sheldon’s All-Star Chorus and UMSL’s Voices of Jubilation ensemble. Ellis is a highly sought after clinician, adjudicator and presenter throughout the United States and abroad. She is also the host of the award-winning radio show “Bach and Beyoncé” and “American Gospel with Maria A. Ellis” on Classic 107.3, The Voice for the Arts in St. Louis. This past June, Ellis made her Carnegie Hall debut as a conductor and was awarded The St. Louis Arts and Education 2023 Arts Innovator Award as well as the St. Louis Suburban Music Educators Association 2023 Merit Award Winner.

Channon Peoples joined the UMSL Office of Precollegiate Student Services in 2003 as a volunteer and now serves as executive director. While the number of high school students under-prepared for the transition to postsecondary opportunities continues to rise, the office she oversees remains committed to providing educational opportunities and resources that fortify students academically and prepare them for the next phase of their life’s journey. Peoples counts it a privilege to serve others in the St. Louis community by providing the tools necessary for successful postsecondary enrollment and degree attainment. She is a member of the Missouri Association for College Admissions Counseling, the National College Access Network and the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, and also serves on the MOCAN St. Louis Graduates Professional Development Committee, the Postsecondary Equity Network and chair of the UMSL Women’s Empowerment Network.

Nora Stith is a dedicated advocate for students at the Pierre Laclede Honors College and for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is currently a member of the Student Mentor Advisory and Recruitment Team and a peer mentor in the Opportunity Scholars Program and previously held the roles of student representative and archivist in the Student Association. During her time at UMSL, Stith has served in leadership roles for multiple student organizations, such as the Pre-Dental Society, Biological Society, UMSL Sustainability, and in the co-ed Service Fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. She is also an active volunteer with St. Louis Arc, an organization that provides support for individuals with disabilities. She currently leads a weekly book club group and volunteers on an as-needed basis at the organization’s advocacy clinics. She is also employed as a special needs facilitator at Fairmount Elementary School and will be attending UMKC School of Dentistry in the fall.

Kimberly Werner possesses interdisciplinary expertise in behavioral neuroscience psychology and addiction epidemiology. Currently, she serves as an associate professor and associate dean of research in the College of Nursing, committed to advancing knowledge, fostering ethics and promoting inclusivity within the UMSL and St. Louis communities. Werner’s research explores biopsychosocial alterations associated with intimate partner violence, post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma-related psychopathology, elucidating the roots of substance use disorder and other risky behaviors across gender and race. Her collaborative efforts to investigate the impact of brain injury and PTSD on survivors of intimate partner violence have gained national recognition. Beyond research, Dr. Werner leads initiatives to combat gender-based violence as the principal investigator of the Tritons United: Against Gender-Based Violence grant. Through this program, she and her team have delivered gender-based violence prevention and education programming for the UMSL community since 2019.

Now the director of community engagement and outreach at UMSL, Patricia Zahn has worked in education and nonprofit organizations for decades. She came to UMSL to support the Des Lee Collaborative Vision and help develop and strengthen community engagement efforts and partnerships. Zahn chaired the UMSL Association for Women Faculty and Staff this year and has also facilitated the launch of a Community Engaged Research workshop series and initiated a Service-Learning Community of Practice. Passionate about the importance of civic life and social responsibility, she spearheaded the UMSL Civic Engagement Coalition, a group of faculty, staff and student members assuring voter registration access and civic learning opportunities on campus. Due to these efforts, UMSL has been recognized for the past seven years as an ALL IN for Democracy higher education leader and is designated as a voter-friendly campus.

Heather Riske

Heather Riske