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Graduation means a rewarding career change for UF/IFAS CALS student

GAINESVILLE, Fla. – After a successful career as a cosmetologist for more than 23 years, Melissa Meister decided she owed it to herself to earn a bachelor’s degree. This week, she will graduate with a degree in dietetics from the University of Florida.

Meister, 49, will join more than 300 students graduating with their bachelor’s degrees from the UF/IFAS College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) at 10 a.m. on Saturday in the Exactech Arena at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center.

Meister’s journey with food began as a young teen reading Seventeen Magazine articles about blending foods into a beauty regime for facial cleansers. At the age of 15, Meister was struck with a chronic case of strep throat that plagued her throughout young adulthood. By then, the chronic strep throat had taken its toll on her physically, mentally and emotionally. Through diet and stress reduction methods, Meister was able to improve her health.

“I grew up in a house where food was treated more like a convenience: packaged, canned and frozen,” Meister said. “Certainly, many families do eat convenience foods which creates a cycle of no cultural origin, nutritious quality or even taste. Breaking that cycle was a struggle.”

While raising three children with her husband, Meister paid attention to how food played an important role in keeping her young athletes healthy and ready to play. As her daughter and sons grew in their sports, their energy requirements changed from gaining weight and increasing muscle mass for football to becoming lean and fast for basketball.

After her children graduated from high school, Meister seriously considered applying for a college degree.

“I always knew I wanted to go to college,” she said. “The accessibility of college when I was a youngster was not as available like it is now. Going to school ended up not being an option. My family wasn’t poor enough for grants, but not well-off enough to help me pay for it.”

Meister moved from Ohio to Florida, continuing her hairdressing business full-time while establishing residency and taking classes part-time at Valencia College. She later transferred into CALS, taking dietetics courses as a full-time student. The first semester she came to UF, Meister traveled back and forth from Orlando on the weekends to continue serving her clients.

Meister finds cosmetology a natural progression to the field of dietetics. Her inherent ability to connect with people and find solutions to their beauty goals was rewarding.

“The outside of your appearance is a direct effect from what’s going on inside,” she said. “I really could see how a client’s self-esteem and confidence would grow when transforming them into looking their best. I have supported clients going through different health issues such as hair loss, thyroid disease, weight control and cancer recovery. I know how important a soft touch and good ear to listen can be for others going through hard times.”

After graduation, Meister will continue on the path toward becoming a registered dietitian, earning 1300 hours interning before taking a national exam. She will start her internship experiences in January through the distance Gulf Coast Dietetic Internship program.

“Ten years from now, I can see having my own practice,” Meister said. “Given my history, I’ve always been a self-starter, and having my own business doesn’t scare me at all.”

To anyone who has reservations about going back to school at an unconventional age, Meister says to go for it.

“If you have a vision, an idea, a dream: do it,” she said. “I have been told that I have been an inspiration to others a little younger than me to go back to school. Pursue your dream and don’t be scared. What else do you have in life but time?”

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The College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) administers the degree programs of the University of Florida’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences (UF/IFAS). The mission of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences is to deliver unsurpassed educational programs that prepare students to address the world’s critical challenges related to agriculture, food systems, human wellbeing, natural resources and sustainable communities. The college has received more total (national and regional combined) USDA teaching awards than any other institution. Visit the CALS website at cals.ufl.edu, and follow CALS on social media platforms at @ufcals.

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