If an artist were to draw Mary Ellen Schmider’s life, it might be a series of loops. That’s because the adjunct professor at University of Maryland University College (UMUC) keeps circling back to past interests and adventures.
Or maybe she never left them.
“I have been a humanist, involved in language and history, since the beginning,” said Schmider, who teaches history and women’s studies, sits on the board of the Fulbright Association, and is graduate dean emerita at Minnesota State University. “I like people, and I like to engage with ideas and see the spark that comes from that.”
Schmider’s women’s studies and history courses at UMUC may coincide with the #MeToo movement, but her interest in women’s issues stretches back decades. When the National Organization for Women was just emerging, she was already tracking the feminist movement.
Schmider calls on her students to think globally and multiculturally. It sounds straight out of the headlines, but it is the lens she’s always used as her career carried her from country to country. In recent years, she has kept up with her online classes and students while on brief professional trips to Albania, Hungary, Kosovo and Poland.
Even the notion of virtual teaching is a loop. Schmider was a pioneer in distance learning in the 1970s, developing curricula and using multi-line telephones—the technology at the time—to bring university classes to rural teachers and students across Minnesota.
“It was really pretty primitive. We got telephones that could hold six or seven lines,” she said. “We had teachers with 50 or 60 students in big graduate classes and linked them to groups of two or three students in other places, as many as six sites at a time.”
Underpinning all these loops is Schmider’s passion: education. Except for brief interruptions—including a 2005 Fulbright award that took her to Macedonia—she has been a fixture on the UMUC faculty since 2002.
“Dr. Schmider’s class, by far, has been my favorite,” said Nichelle Lewis, chief of staff in the Office of Science Policy, Engagement, Education, and Communications at the National Institutes of Health. “I took Introduction to Women’s Studies because I needed an elective. I signed up expecting it to be about women’s history.
“But it was an awesome class with so much more information,” said Lewis, who is working on a bachelor’s degree in business with a minor in human resources.
The class was Lewis’ first after 15 years away from college and her first-ever online class.
“This was a very different learning environment than what I’m used to. With her class, I was excited about going home and doing that homework and reading every day. I couldn’t wait to see what was on the discussion board.,” Lewis said. “We were given a really open and honest platform. We could discuss our differences in a respectful way.”
Schmider’s initial contact with UMUC came in the 1980s when she was on sabbatical from Minnesota State University Moorhead. She had been invited by the University of Minnesota to take part in a faculty exchange program, teaching graduate courses in English literature at the University of Reykjavik in Iceland. Her husband, Carl, also a professor, was hired by UMUC to teach at Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland.
That experience launched a trajectory that saw Schmider zigzagging around the world. She lectured in several countries about U.S. social reformers, including Jane Addams, the first American woman to win a Nobel Peace Prize. During a cross-cultural research sabbatical in the early 1990s, she gave a U.S. Embassy-sponsored lecture tour in several Japanese cities. In Okinawa, for example, she spoke on the U.S. tradition of volunteerism, social reform movements, and women in America.
“Education is important not just for people who are doing research but for shaping how they live and what they think about,” Schmider said. “I keep learning. I learn all the time from my students and in keeping up with the research.”
In 1997, Schmider landed in China on a Fulbright lecturer award to teach American poetry and literary criticism to graduate students.
“My students were all teachers. It was very interesting,” she said. “My best student was 16 when he heard his first words of English. He spent time listening to the radio then we talked about French and British books and contemporary poets.”
Then Carl traveled for UMUC to Bosnia for eight weeks and Schmider joined him in Germany to teach English, library research and U.S. history. That launched her four years in the university’s European division, teaching at the Incirlik Air Base in Turkey—just after 9/11 and again in 2003—as well as in Ramstein, Heidelberg, Manheim, and Kaiserslautern, Germany.
“I kept teaching because I love being in the classroom. I taught whenever I had an opportunity,” she said.
During Women’s History Month in March, she made a guest appearance on UMUC’s Facebook Live interview series to discuss the women’s movement from a historical perspective.
“She is the best professor I’ve ever had,” said Cheri Arnett, a subcontracts manager in Northrop Grumman’s Space Division. “She was very responsive and interactive with all her students. She gave incredible feedback and she shared a lot of her own personal experiences, which helped tie the class materials to real life.”
Arnett, who is pursuing a bachelor’s degree in management studies, described Schmider’s women’s studies course as “transformative.”
“It opened the lens on how I view the world,” she said. “It was so great learning that feminism isn’t just about women … but about civil rights and human rights and understanding culture.”