Ariel Brown, Mary Johnson and Al Stanger receive UMSL Hero Awards

by | May 28, 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.
UMSL May Hero Awards

This month’s Hero Award recipients are (from left) Ariel Brown, Mary Johnson and Al Stanger. (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 Ariel Brown, a student support specialist senior in student financial services; Mary Johnson, custodian on UMSL’s South Campus; and Al Stanger, the director of the Math Academic Center.

Ariel Brown

When she graduated from UMSL with a Bachelor of Social Work in December 2011, Brown would not have guessed her career path would eventually bring her back to her alma mater, working in the Student Financial Services office. But looking back? Her full-circle journey makes perfect sense.

“It’s always been, for me, helping people try to figure out how they can better their lives in different ways, financially,” she said.

Her first job after graduation was as a caseworker with the Family Support Division in Missouri’s Department of Social Services, helping families navigate Medicaid benefits, food stamp benefits, childcare assistance and TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families).

She has always remembered something her supervisor, Sheritha Bradford, told her. “She would always stress, ‘Never get so jaded that you forget that there’s a person on the opposite side of this,’” Brown said. “And I’ve taken that with me ever since.”

After five years with the state, Brown took a position with SSM Health, helping families figure out how to manage medical bills. Then, after six years, she saw a job opening at UMSL and applied.

“I had no higher-ed financial aid experience, and I am forever grateful for Mitch Hess, my director, and Samantha Matchefts, my supervisor, for taking a chance on me. I absolutely love it here,” Brown said. “It was a whole new area, but I appreciate the challenge because that’s when you grow. You grow from being uncomfortable.”

Brown has earned two FAFSA-related certificates, one for application processing and one for professional judgment, which allows her to help students explore options based on extenuating circumstances. In her role, Brown and her colleagues handle a variety of student needs.

Sometimes, it’s just going out front to help students fill out their forms. Sometimes, it’s answering questions like, “Why didn’t I qualify for a Pell Grant?” Sometimes, it’s sitting down to create a financial aid package. Sometimes, it’s Brown reaching out to ask about potential scholarship options that might be available. And sometimes, it’s just about listening. Money issues are stressful.

“We listen all the time, because sometimes people just need someone to listen and not respond, because they don’t always need a solution,” Brown said. “They just want somebody to hear them.”

That extra bit of caring is a natural extension of her approach to her career path.

“Even though it’s about numbers, at the end of the day, it’s about people,” she said. “There’s a person on the opposite side of every application. The numbers, I can only do what makes sense based on the guidelines with the Department of Education. I am going to help you to the best of my abilities within those rules and regulations, but I’m still going to look at you as a person.”

Working at UMSL, Brown is taking the opportunity to continue her education, too, working toward a master’s degree in communication.

Mary Johnson

A beloved figure on UMSL’s South Campus, where she takes care of the classroom building and parts of Marillac Hall – she was nominated for this award by three different people in the College of Education – Johnson does far more than just keep her building spotless. She brings the holiday spirit, for pretty much every holiday.

“We were always big on decorating and stuff like that,” Johnson said. “One day I was in Dollar Tree and saw some decorations, and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be cute on the tables in the vending area!’ And after that, I just never stopped.”

Easter and Christmas are her two favorites. At this point, she has enough decorations that she doesn’t need to go to Dollar Tree to resupply. She keeps some of the decorations in a storage room on-site, and the rest in a walk-in closet at home, and she moves them in and out as needed.

“No matter the occasion, anyone who passed through the area would be touched through the generosity of someone who clearly takes her job seriously and values the contributions she makes to transforming lives,” wrote Alexandra Gresick, one of the nominators.

Johnson said everyone seems to appreciate the decorations.

“They do! The students really enjoy it,” she said. “And the staff, the advisors and the dean’s secretary, they all compliment me and say, ‘Mary they look so good!’ It just brightens it up a little bit, so it’s just not so plain.”

And her day-to-day custodial efforts are noticed, too.

“They just praise me all the time, and that just makes you want to keep doing the best job that you can do,” Johnson said with a smile. “They’re great people to work with. I couldn’t ask for better people to work with. And the students are great, too.”

Johnson started at UMSL about two-and-a-half years ago. She had worked in health care for three decades, tending to adults who were dealing with physical or mental issues. She wanted a job that would help her stay active, and her late husband, Dave, who worked for the university for 30-plus years in the facilities department, recommended applying at UMSL.

“I take the stairs when I can, when I don’t have to bring my cart and my trash can,” she said. “But if I have to run down and get some extra paper towels or anything, I’ll take the stairs. You know, I’m 60 now. I’ve got to keep myself busy. Active.”

Al Stanger

Stanger understands the benefits of UMSL’s Math Academic Center because he’s a product of UMSL’s Math Academic Center. When he started as an UMSL undergraduate in 1987, it was known as just the “Math Lab” and it played a huge role in not just his college career, but his life.

Stanger worked at the Math Lab for most of the three-and-a-half years it took to finish his degree. While at UMSL, he met Kimberly Taylor. A friendship started, which turned into a romance. Eleven years after they first met in Clark Hall, they got married, and earlier this year, they celebrated their 25th anniversary.

For Stanger, two things are equally important: that students know his Math Academic Center is a place to get math help, but not in a stuffy, buttoned-up environment.

“This is a very laid-back atmosphere in here,” he said with a laugh. “We love food and drink in here. You know, some of the computer labs don’t. We have a frequently asked questions page on our website, and students are warned that if you’re the kind of student who needs ‘stony cold silence’ in order to study productively, maybe the Math Lab is not for you. You can study in the library and when you get stuck, you can come over here and get your questions answered.”

Stanger taught math courses at UMSL for many years, but since 2014 his focus has been on the Math Academic Center. He technically has an office elsewhere, but he spends most of his time in the center, ready to guide and assist when needed.

“I strongly encourage study groups meeting here, because it’s always better if the students work together to help each other,” he said. “We sometimes get math students who like to hang out here, and sometimes they’ll just voluntarily help the person next to them if they think they can and it’s beneficial.”

One of Stanger’s responsibilities is recruiting student tutors. In the spring semester, eight student workers were part of the team. Part of Stanger’s pitch comes from personal experience.

“I credit my years of working as a student tutor in this lab with how well I did on the GRE,” he said. “There’s no way I would have done as well without working here, working with the other students.”

His efforts are appreciated, by students and faculty alike.

“He embodies the very essence of the center itself,” wrote Teaching Professor Qiang Dotzel, who nominated Stanger. “Renowned among students, there’s a saying that ‘Al is the Math Academic Center and the Math Academic Center is Al.’ Despite his supervisory role, Al is deeply involved in assisting students firsthand, often found at the front desk personally aiding individuals or groups.”

She added: “Al’s unwavering commitment to student success has undoubtedly transformed countless lives.”

Ryan Fagan

Ryan Fagan