By Cary Shimek, UM News Service
MISSOULA – When Mariah Thomas was little, her elementary school buried a time capsule. Each student wrote a note that included their future plans. That capsule was cracked open when Thomas was a senior at Capital High School in Helena, and her younger version had written:
“I want to go to the University of Montana to study writing.”
Well, that’s exactly what she did. But there’s A LOT more to the story.
You see, few people have wrung as much living and learning from their college experience as Thomas. To say she stayed busy is like saying grizzlies like huckleberries.
When Thomas graduates May 13 with nearly 1,800 other UM students, she will have earned a major in journalism, a major in political science, a minor in history and a certificate from the University’s Franke Global Leadership Initiative. And that’s while working three years as a reporter and editor for the Montana Kaimin, UM’s student newspaper.
She also was a learning assistant for the honors college and an international research affairs intern for the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center. During the summers, she interned with her hometown paper, the Independent Record, and the Montana State News Bureau. She helped with the Forward Montana Foundation and its census-completion and get-out-the-vote efforts. Additionally, she was selected for UM’s law school-housed Baucus Leaders DC program, which landed her in the office of U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
Feeling tired yet?
“It’s been a busy four years for sure, but really fun,” Thomas said with a laugh. “I feel like I have a whole crew of people who have supported me during my time here at UM. And it matters.”
She came to UM as a Presidential Leadership Scholar, which provides full tuition for four years, and immediately found a home with the University’s Davidson Honors College. Then, as she was getting her bearings at UM during her freshman year, COVID-19 hit. This is when Thomas’ energy and engagement jumped to another gear.
“It’s kind of a cliché line that I hear a lot, but I think the pandemic just made it really easy to be more productive,” she said.
She started in fall 2020 as a Kaimin sports reporter. Then she became a straight news reporter and last year was the Kaimin features editor. This year she served as the newspaper’s copy chief.
Thomas covered all manner of stories – from the UM volleyball team (even when COVID had canceled most sports) to University budgets and lawsuits. When transgender Rep. Zooey Zephyr, D-Missoula, recently was blocked from the floor at the Montana Legislature, Thomas wrote the Kaimin story about it. She wrote many cover stories for the student newspaper.
Thomas joined the Davidson Honors College just as Tim Nichols took over as dean, and was in his first Intro to Honors class. Nichols became an important mentor to Thomas, and she became a learning assistant in his class the past three years. She also joined the Honors Student Association – which builds community among students in the college with events like documentary nights and Trick or Treat So Missoula Eats – and she became president of that organization this past year.
“The Davidson Honors College is just a space that feels really welcoming and comfortable. It’s a home away from home,” Thomas said. “The Kaimin office and the DHC are definitely where you would find me on this campus. I joke if you gave me a blanket and a pillow, I would sleep at the Kaimin office.”
Thomas also found many faculty mentors in the journalism school – Joe Eaton, Jule Banville, Dennis Swibold, the list goes on. She said Lee Banville, the journalism school director, has become “very much a character in my life” and taught many of her favorite classes.
Banville remembers Thomas visiting the journalism school for the first time while she was still in high school. She had spent the previous day shadowing UM student Shaylee Ragar, who was covering the Legislature.
“She talked about how amazing it was for students to be able to ask government officials hard questions and get answers, and she seemed to be hooked already,” Banville said. “She seemed like someone who was going to be all in at UM.”
It was Thomas’ political science classes that connected her with the Baucus Leaders program that led to her internship with the office of Sen. Susan Collins. Thomas isn’t totally certain how her skills got paired with the moderate Republican, but she wrote her application essay about the importance of bipartisanship in politics today.
“I think the best things we’ve accomplished in American politics has always involved bringing people together and bridging divides,” she said. “I’m a very strong believer in the importance of that.”
During her internship in Washington, D.C., Thomas spent a lot of time answering the phone and talking to Collins’ Maine constituents. She said it was always fascinating to learn what they wanted to speak to their senator about. The Collins office also had her draft up a few news releases once they discovered her UM writing skills. She also was able to get a balcony view of the U.S. Senate voting on the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Unbeknownst to Thomas, Collins staffers also reached out to both U.S. senators from Montana and set up personal meetings for her. So she got to meet individually with Steve Daines and Jon Tester.
“Sen. Daines was very kind to me,” Thomas said. “With Tester, we talked about Montana politics and journalism’s importance in covering local politics. And he ended up telling me something like I was wise beyond my years, which was a crazy thing to hear from a senator.
“I feel like those are the kinds of experiences you hold onto for a lifetime.”
During her time at UM, Thomas was named one of the Forward Montana Foundation's 25 Under 25 in 2020, won the Brown Scholarship for Ethics in Public Affairs from the Mansfield Center, was a UM Alumni Association Legacy Scholarship recipient and was nominated by the UM for the Truman, Mitchell and Marshall scholarships. She also earned several journalism school scholarships.
With Commencement looming, Thomas is ready to step out into the world. And she already has a job lined up: She took a Report for America position with the Ashland Source, an online independent newsroom located in a town between Columbus, Ohio, and Cleveland.
“I think the Report for America mission is super noble, and the importance of local news has been really drilled into us here at the J-school,” she said. “But it’s going to be weird watching the University move along without me being in it every single day.”
In five years, Thomas would be perfectly content if she was somewhere writing about politics. She also could see herself going to law school or earning a master’s degree. And it started all those years ago with her younger self wanting to attend UM to study writing.
“But I was never sure it was going to work out that way,” she said. “There were many moments that I questioned that as I went along my journey. But that is exactly what I ended up doing, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.
“It feels really scary to be stepping into new dreams, but I also know that the University has really prepared me to do that, and I’m grateful for it.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.