Biology graduate and 2024 Women Trailblazers recipient Nora Stith heading to dental school this fall

by | May 6, 2024

Stith was a 2019 Opportunity Scholar and served in leadership for multiple organizations across campus.
Nora Stith

After graduating with a degree in biology and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College, Nora Stith will start dental school at UMKC this fall. (Photos by Derik Holtmann)

For much of her life, Nora Stith’s role model lived under the very same roof: her mom.

Even from an early age, Stith remembers listening to her mom each day when she got home from her nursing job as she talked about how much she enjoyed working with her patients. She had worked as a nurse for many years before Stith and her twin sister, Sarah, were adopted from Guangxi, China, and returned to school when they were in elementary school to pursue a career as a nurse anesthetist.

Those conversations planted a seed in Stith, who will be graduating from the University of Missouri–St. Louis with a bachelor’s degree in biology and a certificate from the Pierre Laclede Honors College this weekend. This fall, she’ll be continuing the family tradition in health care as she starts her first year in the School of Dentistry at the University of Missouri–Kansas City.

Nora Stith accepts a 2024 UMSL Trailblazer Award from Vice Chancellor Tanesha Stevens

Nora Stith (at left) received a 2024 Women Trailblazers Award from Vice Chancellor Tanesha Stevens in recognition of her involvement both on the UMSL campus and throughout the St. Louis community.

“I could see how much of an impact that she was having on her patients’ lives, and she was feeling very fulfilled in her career, and I was like, ‘This is amazing,’” Stith said. “And then I saw her go back to school in elementary school to pursue anesthesia, and she put in so many hours of hard work and dedication. She is my role model for me as a person in health care. She’s passionate about helping others and putting in that time and effort to make sure that her patients are well cared for and listened to.”

While Stith has always known she wanted to work in health care, it wasn’t until she participated in HOSA Future Health Professionals at Francis Howell High School that she solidified her plans to pursue dentistry. She was inspired heavily by her own dentist, Dr. James Fetsch, who served as another role model and mentor from an early age.

Stith and her sister – who also pursued a career in health care and is currently wrapping up her first year in UMSL’s College of Optometry – needed significant dental work when they moved to the United States from China as children. Stith saw Fetsch for dental work from those very first visits up until high school, forming an impactful connection.

“He made me feel comfortable; he made me feel OK with my speech impediment and the way that I talked,” she said. “Even though I knew health care was my direction, having that person who has always been a constant support system for me was another main reason why I chose dentistry because I want to create those relationships with my patients as well in the future.”

Stith enrolled at UMSL as a biology major, fulfilling many of her prerequisites alongside her sister, who earned her undergraduate degree last year. As a member of the Pre-Dental Society, Stith was able to connect with and learn from like-minded students pursuing a career in dentistry both in Missouri and across the country. She was also a member of the 2019 cohort of Opportunity Scholars, an all-inclusive, four-year scholarship that serves first-generation college students and those who are underrepresented in the workforce from certain academic fields.

Stith credits her experience in the Opportunity Scholars Program, for which she now serves as a peer mentor, with helping her succeed throughout her undergraduate career and get involved on campus. In addition to the Pre-Dental Society, she’s served in leadership roles for multiple student organizations including the Biological Society, UMSL Sustainability, Pierre Laclede Honors College Student Association and in the co-ed service fraternity, Alpha Phi Omega. She’s also a member of the Student Mentor Advisory and Recruitment Team and previously held the roles of student representative and archivist for UMSL’s Pierre Laclede Honors College Student Association.

“It was that community where I felt I could join as many organizations as I could,” she said. “With the Honors College, they encouraged me to pursue different organizations to get active on campus, so that’s why I joined as many as I did. I’ve had so many great experiences with the members and the rest of the board and I’ve been very fortunate to meet so many people who are still my closest friends and supporters throughout my undergrad here at UMSL.”

In addition to her involvement on campus, Stith also dedicates much of her time to working with people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She discovered this passion working as a special needs facilitator at Fairmount Elementary School, working one-on-one with children with disabilities and helping them integrate into the group activities. After falling in love with the work, she started volunteering with St. Louis Arc, which provides high-quality services, family support and advocacy to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She leads a weekly book club group, participates in a walking club and volunteers as needed at the organization’s advocacy clinics.

“The organization focuses on enriching the lives of those with intellectual and developmental disabilities, and they’re so amazing,” she said. “I love the environment. I love all the people, and I can only say good things about St. Louis Arc. It’s been such a pleasure getting to work with them and volunteer my time with all the other volunteers and coordinators.”

In March, Stith was recognized for her involvement both on the UMSL campus and throughout the St. Louis community as a recipient of a 2024 Women Trailblazers Award. She said the award came as a complete shock, and she was honored to be recognized alongside the other women.

As she embarks on her next steps to pursue a career as a dentist, she plans to focus on general dentistry, which will allow her to see patients of varying ages and help them with their dental needs. She feels her experience at UMSL, including the rigorous curriculum in the Department of Biology as well as the research she conducted in retired Professor Patricia Parker’s lab, have set her up well for this next chapter.

“My friends or anyone that knows me knows that I love UMSL so much and I’m not being paid to say this,” she said with a laugh. “Not only do I have my strongest supporters here within the biology department and also Honors, but I feel like I am prepared science-wise. All of my classes and professors in the biology department have led me to a place where I feel comfortable with the material, and they always gave me an environment where I felt welcomed and I could ask questions.”

Heather Riske

Heather Riske