USC Upstate graduate Rosie Meindl overcame incredible obstacles in earning her degree. Here, she poses in the lobby of the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium before her graduation ceremony on Tuesday with her husband, Patrick, and Judy Prince, right, vice chancellor of USC Upstate’s Greenville campus.
The paths traveled by each of the 450 December graduates at the University of South Carolina Upstate no doubt inspired pride and joy at Tuesday's commencement ceremony, but Rosie Meindl's perseverance in particular had one university official calling the evening a "great celebration."
Meindl made her way to the Upstate in August 2006 as one of thousands along the Gulf Coast displaced by Hurricane Katrina, which also cost her the first year of her college education: The University of Southern Mississippi campus where she was enrolled was destroyed by the 2005 mega-storm. Her inspiring story took a far more tragic turn less than a year later when Meindl's 3-year-old niece, Mackenzie Van Dorn, who was visiting from Mississippi, died after being struck by a falling tree limb at the Greenville Zoo on July 4, 2007.
"You do not know the esteem to which I hold her," Judy Prince, vice chancellor of USC Upstate's Greenville campus, said of Meindl. "I think she is an incredible young woman - such a role model. I don't know how she did a lot of what she did. We have all been touched by her in what she has been able to overcome."
The final steps of Meindl's amazing journey came Tuesday at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium as the 26-year-old accepted a degree in elementary education that will forever symbolize her personal triumph. The degree took Meindl more than eight years to complete after graduating Biloxi (Miss.) High School in 2000.
"I'm just excited and ecstatic to finally walk across that stage to get my certificate," Meindl said, "and being able to go on and live a dream that I've had for a long time."
'Born to teach'
That dream is teaching, and judging by Meindl's experience this fall in Mary Jane Moore's first-grade class at Brushy Creek Elementary School in Taylors, she is well on her way.
"To me she was born to teach," said Prince, who was Meindl's chief mentor at USC Upstate. "She's very smart and just absorbs learning. To me, that's the kind of person that makes the best teacher. She just loves to learn, and to share her excitement about learning with other people."
"I wish I could have more student-teachers like her," said Moore, who is retiring next spring after 24 years. "She was just so conscientious, always prepared and had such a positive attitude. It was really a joy to work with her."
Meindl's passion for kids and the profession is what helped carry her through some rough bumps in the road, such as last spring semester when Meindl made her first attempt at student teaching, just six months after the tragedy.
The emotional toll of losing her niece so suddenly, coupled with the physical and mental rigors involved in running a classroom full of energetic kindergartners, began to weigh heavily on Meindl. She became physically ill as the semester went on, and after a lengthy heart-to-heart talk with Prince, the two decided that Meindl needed a break.
"It was hard going back (to school)," Meindl said, "but I knew I needed that distraction in order to kind of continue on with life, because there were many mornings where I felt like I could have very well thrown the covers over my head and said, 'Forget it, I just don't feel like going today.'
"But I realize now in the long-term that I probably needed a little more time to kind of deal with (her niece's death)."
Meindl had helped raise her niece, so losing her was "almost like losing my own child," she said. "It was pretty devastating."
Consequently, Meindl said she was not where she needed to be emotionally for her student-teaching demands and "almost walked away from the teaching profession because I was just so burned out and overwhelmed."
"People just don't understand how being an early-childhood teacher is absolutely physically demanding," Prince said. "(Meindl's) body was just absolutely worn out from what she had been through mentally and physically. (Withdrawing from student teaching) was extremely difficult and was not something that she or I took lightly. She simply had to do it. She had reached a point to where she simply was not able to continue."
The passion returns
The break served Meindl well, and helped restore her passion for the classroom.
In addition, Meindl said she received tremendous support from family and faculty at USC Upstate, particularly Prince and Meindl's husband, Patrick, a computer programmer at Greenville Hospital System. Meindl followed her husband to the Upstate in 2006, soon after he left Mississippi and took a job at Piedmont Technical College to be closer to his parents, who lost their home during Katrina's wrath and relocated to South Carolina.
When Meindl arrived at Brushy Creek this fall, she was back for good.
"If we didn't know ahead of time about all of her personal trials, there would be no way to tell that she had been through anything as traumatic," Brushy Creek Principal DeeDee Washington said. "She just is so focused on what she's doing when she's here that you would never be able to tell that she had had such tragedy in her young life. She's very focused and wise beyond her years."
While the first-graders at Brushy Creek often reminded Meindl of MacKenzie, they also reminded her of why she does what she does.
"The time that it became evident to me that I definitely wanted to continue teaching was my last day in the classroom," said Meindl, who recently bought a house in Powdersville and plans to stay in the area. "I looked at every one of my little first-graders and I thought, 'You know, I'm going to miss these kids, and kids are where my heart is and teaching is what I really want to do.' "