Woman's academic second act vaults her into new life path
By Carol Schmidt
BOZEMAN – Carol Mealer wasn’t looking for a second act when she and a friend decided to take a class at Montana State University.
The successful businesswoman and leader in the Bozeman arts community thought she might like to learn more about art history and challenge her intellect in the process. Six years later, that journey has taken some unexpected directions for Mealer, who is now a graduate student in the School of Art in the College of Arts and Architecture and who has been recently recognized as an emerging scholar in the area of early Christian art.
“This is not where I would have predicted my life would go,” Mealer said as she prepared to teach a section of an art history class at the university. “But, I can honestly say, I can’t imagine what my life would have been without (returning to school).”
Mealer is a non-traditional student, a member of a small but important segment of MSU’s student body. Chris Fastnow, MSU vice president of planning and analysis, said a non-traditional student is one who is over age 25. Current enrollment records indicate that there are about 1,500 non-traditional undergraduate students out of 16,249 students enrolled. The number shrinks significantly when considering students over age 40, with just 165 undergraduates and 358 graduate students in that age group.
There may be as many reasons for returning to university as there are non-traditional students. In Mealer’s case, she had always been interested in art, a passion that deepened when she served as a volunteer and a board member for arts organizations in Bozeman and in California while running successful medical offices and surgery centers.
One of nine children, Mealer grew up in Pasadena and studied art for a year at a private Catholic college in Los Angeles before joining her family’s real estate development business as a project manager. Working in that capacity on a surgery center for a large group of plastic surgeons in Murrieta, California, she caught the eye of one of the partners, Dr. William Mealer. Bill Mealer was an avid outdoorsman who had long dreamed of relocating to Montana to hunt and fish and raise their sons, Robbie and Randy, and he bought the Southwest Montana Plastic Surgery and the family moved to Bozeman in 2001. Carol ran the business side of the practice.
Carol had been a board member of the Dorland Mountain Colony, a retreat for artists and writers in Temecula, California. Upon arriving in Bozeman, she also became involved with local arts organizations. She was a board member for the Bozeman Symphony Orchestra for a decade, serving as its president for four years. In 2015, she became the community liaison for the Museum of the Rockies’ Oplontis exhibit, “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero,” in 2015. She helped write the companion pamphlet for the exhibit, “Ancient Roman History Travels West to the Museum of the Rockies.”
So when friend Deirdre Quinn suggested they take classes at MSU, Mealer was enthusiastic, if a little nervous, about returning to finish the art degree she had started so many years before.
“It helped because there was two of us and we encouraged each other,” Mealer recalled. She said at every turn – from the Office of the Registrar to the office of the director of the School of Art – everyone was both supportive and helpful. Even the students in her classes, most younger than her sons, were kind.
“We were shaking in our boots for the first exam, but we got through it together,” she said. “I loved (school) from the beginning. I still do.”
Regina Gee, professor of art and current co-director of the school, as well as Mealer’s mentor, said that from the very first, Mealer epitomized the qualities that are often found in returning students.
“It may sound pedestrian, but it is true that returning students who come back are more focused, more experienced and deeply grateful to be learning for the sake of learning,” Gee said. “Carol was like that. School was her gift to herself.”
Mealer’s determination was challenged in 2016 when her husband was diagnosed with leukemia. He died in October 2017. Mealer took a semester off before returning to her studies. MSU, she said, was a lifeline.
Gee said that, during that time, she saw Mealer became even more determined academically.
“She went from being a student to being a scholar,” Gee said. “She began to exhibit scholarly original thinking and research and set that higher goal for herself.”
Mealer graduated from MSU in 2019 with a bachelor’s in art with a 3.94 GPA. She was a member of Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, received an MSU Award for Excellence honoring the top seniors in the School of Art in 2018, was inducted into the National Honor Society and studied abroad in Italy in 2015. In spring 2019, she was finishing her thesis when Gee asked her if she could return to Italy to help with the School of Art’s students studying at the ruins in Oplontis. Gee, a specialist in Roman frescoes, has worked since 2008 on excavating the luxurious Roman residences buried by the eruption of Vesuvius. Mealer said those experiences abroad with the School of Art helped narrow her academic focus to the history of early Christian iconography, especially the art found in the tombs below the Vatican, called the Vatican Necropolis.
“When I graduated I thought, ‘Do I really have to graduate?’ I was having so much fun, I didn’t want it to end. So I applied to grad school,” Mealer said.
As a graduate student Mealer is helping professor Todd Larkin curate a touring show of Asian art while working on her thesis evaluating early Christian iconography and researching Mausoleum M, the Tomb of the Julii beneath St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican Necropolis. She has lectured about the art in the tombs at the Yellowstone Theological Institute, which recently awarded her its promising scholar award to support her advanced studies.
Gee said that Mealer’s social skills, which she used for years to fundraise and build community, have informed how Mealer now works with undergraduate students.
“I knew Carol was delightful and passionate, which is really good for the classroom. I knew she was nurturing,” Gee said. “But she is also good at pedagogy (the method and practice of teaching). She goes into pedagogy and structure to address student weakness. I found myself thinking as I watched her, ‘I should try that myself.’”
Gee said Mealer has served as a model for other non-traditional students in the School of Art. One of them, Sandee Guevremont, enrolled in MSU to study studio art after helping run a successful company in Texas. Mealer is a teaching assistant for one of Guevremont’s classes.
“(She) is inspiring,” Guevremont wrote in an email. “I find it very admirable for women of our age to keep following their passions even if it takes this long to do so.”
Gee said that in her years in higher education she has noticed that there are students whose desire for education stops when they are done with their schooling.
“And then there are humans who miss learning and return for the love of it,” Gee said. “Carol is the latter. For her, learning is an action verb that animates her very being.”
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