#1 Alumni Spotlight Initiative: Lifelong Learning with Dr. Melissa Hughes

Hannah Park 0:05
We’re here to help others. That’s something you’ll hear more times than you can count in The College of Education, Health and Human Services here at Kent State. With programs ranging from education, speech and language pathology, sports administration, hospitality and event management, athletic training and so many more, it’s no surprise over 60,000 alumni worldwide found their home in EHHS.

But what happens after graduation? Welcome to the EHHS Alumni Spotlight Initiative. I’m Hannah Park.

We deeply value the diverse experiences and paths that our alumni have embarked upon since their time at Kent State, and each story has a unique place in our community. For our current students, you might be asking: what’s next? So we turned to the experts.

In this series, we’ll be talking with EHHS alumni about their experiences, insights, and successes and what life after Kent State was like. We had the honor of speaking with Dr. Melissa Andrick Hughes, Founder of Andrick Group, LLC.

The first thing that I wanna know is what program were you enrolled in during your time at Kent State, and what year did you graduate?

Melissa Hughes 1:11
So ohh gosh, I graduated in 1997 which makes me very very very old. I actually started in journalism, and I always had a passion for writing and that's where I started. I was actually trying to remember how I switched to education, and I'm gonna be really honest, I am not sure how that happened. But once I switched my programs and I got into the education classes, I knew I was home. It felt like I needed to be there. It felt like, you know, it worked well with the gifts that I had to offer, but it was also a passion of mine to learn what I didn't have. And so I ended up in education, and I graduated in '97 with a Bachelors in Elementary Education.

Hannah Park 2:06

Perfect. What I would say, like you know, you said you didn't really like know how you ended up in education, but what really drew you to the program like once you were in it?

Melissa Hughes 2:18

Well, I think it was twofold. So this actually drew me to both journalism initially and education: I had the most amazing AP English teacher in high school, and I will never forget what she told us. You know, she always said, "It really doesn't matter how good your ideas are or how smart you are if you do not have the skills to communicate what's in your head to the outside world." Whether that is in writing or in speech. And so that was really where I started in journalism. And to be fair, I wasn't going to be just any journalist. I was going to be like Pulitzer Prize was winning, Woodward and Bernstein type of journalist, right?

I think in education it was kind of the same thing like it was for me. It was really a passion about learning how to learn and learning. Knowing what you don't know, you know, and there's a certain point in your lifetime where you think you know everything, and then you realize ohh well, there's some pretty big gaps that I don't know. I think that was kind of the pivot point to education, and I also knew that I had this very strong passion for... I wrote. And when I say I wrote them, like I published them in my backyard kind of thing, right? I wrote children's books and I wrote short stories and I wrote poems. I kept journals and I think for me, that was such a great outlet for me, and I realized that I could influence lots and lots of kids the same way that I was influenced in that positive way.

Hannah Park 4:09

Yeah, I love that. What were your children's stories about?

Melissa Hughes 4:15

I wrote a story about a kid who had an imaginary friend, and I still remember the the imaginary friends name was Muchoki, and I have no idea where that came from, but I remember my mom still has it. Actually it was bound. It was, you know, had a blue construction paper cover, and it was bound with yarn. Yeah, it was very cute.

But you know, I think it was one of those things where we all have a story to tell. I mean, 100 years later, I go "We all have a story to tell." I think I knew that at a very young age, and so I think those of us who are lucky enough to nurture that spirit of storytelling go a lot farther in life because we need it in business. We need it in relationships. We need it, you know, everywhere.

Hannah Park 5:10

Absolutely. I am curious to know about your journey after Kent State, so you can give us long version, short version, whatever you're comfortable with.

Melissa Hughes 5:22

Well, I can tell you that my journey after Kent State is not anything in the way I planned it to be.

So I when I left Kent State, I actually almost immediately went on to pursue a Masters degree at the University of Akron. I actually pursued 2 masters degrees and a Ph.D. So I was the lifelong learner, and I didn't do any of those degrees because I wanted to have a big house or fancy car. Like I was in education. It wasn't about the money, right? I was never done being at school. Like when a program ended, I was actually sad. You don't get to come back! And so I just re-enroll.

I did get a job at an elementary school that happened to be the elementary school that I attended as a child, and I actually taught 4th grade with a fourth grade teacher who taught me 4th grade as a child.

Hannah Park 6:25

I love that!

Melissa Hughes 6:27

And she will forever be Mrs. Finley. I could never call her by her first name. But that was cool, and it did two things. I think one of the big takeaways was kind of my life lesson that came out of that. You know, for me it was I was very grounded to my roots. It was a little school in Manchester, so you know it's very close and my folks lived a mile away from the school, and my mom would come to school and help me decorate my classroom. And so I did that for like 10 years, and I think I reached this point where I was very restless and... discontented is a little strong, but I felt like there was something. I was having FOMO, right? There's something else out there and I missing out on it. I have this amazing view of Northeast Ohio, but there's a great big world out there, and I kind of decided that I wanted to find it.

And so I remember I had a conversation with my Superintendent, whom I adored. He was just an amazing person, and we went to Friendly's on Arlington Road and we had dippy eggs and I will never forget. Like I just said, "I don't know what I'm supposed to be, but it's not a teacher for the rest of my life, like this isn't my final stop.
And this has been a fantastic chapter, but I've got more chapters to write." And he was amazing and he understood that.

At the time I was writing education instructional books for teachers for a publishing company. It was kind of a side hustle. My book was getting ready to be published, and the editor called me and said, "Hey, good, good news. Your book's almost ready to go to print. I need an update on your bio." And it was like kind of the first time that I realized, ohh, I kind of am nobody right now. Like I don't know what to tell you, but I'm not a teacher anymore. And so the president and founder of the publishing company reached out to me immediately and said "We want you, we want you to come work with us, and we need your teacher perspective." Also, they knew that I could write. So I ended up going to work for this publishing company, and I climbed the ladder to Director of Marketing Communications. In that stretch of, I don't know, 12 years, I realized that there were so many things that I wanted to do. And in your career path, so often when you get a position it's like this is what you do. It's like kind of on the four corners of the page, and there were so many things that I wanted to explore.

One of them was the science of learning. I was doing a lot of thinking about thinking, and learning about learning, and what are those factors that impact our creativity and our problem solving? When do we lose that sense of wonder? And you know, we have this amazing imagination when we're five, and then what happens to that imagination? Like, where's it go? I really went down the neuroscience path, and I started to do a lot of research on just how the brain works and what impacts cognition. And I got really brave one day and I decided, you know what? Just like I wanted to be a teacher for a while and I loved it and I learned a lot, and then I decided this isn't the place for me anymore. The same thing happened with the publishing company, and I decided to take a big, fat, giant, scary step forward.
And I started my own company. I knew nothing about starting my own company, but I knew that. The things that I was learning and what I could share with teachers was valuable, and I also knew that there were some real gaps in what teachers get in their preparation. So I developed and delivered professional development for school systems and teachers. I wrote a couple more books, and I just said "I don't know what I don't know. And I'm gonna go find out what I don't know."

So that leads me to where I am today, and it was a very twisty, turny journey. I could have never told you that that's the way it was gonna go back then, but I'm so grateful for every single one of those experiences. Because looking back, I think everything I did along the way was of great value to who I am today, and I'm lucky I can say that.

Hannah Park 11:33

Yeah. Yeah, I've always found that talking to other alumni, usually the timelines aren't linear. There's a lot of movement in there. I'm glad that you found something that. Like you were able to start your own company. That's just insane. That's incredible!

We looked at your website a little bit, but could you tell us a little bit about what you do now and where you're at currently?

Melissa Hughes 12:01

Sure. So as I was developing and delivering  this content for schools on whole brain teaching and learning, and what is it that makes us smarter, and what is it that makes us not so smart? I started having conversation with people outside of education, and what I found was that people in the corporate world and the business world were actually more interested in knowing how the brain works than folks in education. And it wasn't that the folks in education weren't interested, but education has a very scripted kind of approach to professional development. It is oftentimes that the professional development of teachers gets built into their curriculum, and so the more conversations I was having with business leaders, it was, you know, all things being equal, we all have the same access to information.
If you have a computer and Internet access, we all have pretty much the same tools. 30-40 years ago, that wasn't true, but now we all the same access to information.

So the difference between organizations that can really be rockstar, kick-ass organizations are the ones who know how important company culture is. How important employee engagement is, and how important it is to get a team of people who can both teach and learn. So like when you two go out and share your skills and knowledge with your new organizations, if they approach you from a very traditional, top-down kind of approach, then it may be a very long time before you get to share what you know. And I can guarantee you that you both have experiences I have absolutely no idea. I could learn so much from you. And the world continues to change even more rapidly all the time, so when we have the conversations about "Do you understand what psychological safety means to your employees?" In the classroom, I could say to teachers, "Children will not learn if they are hungry, fearful, anxious. They will not learn, so you can tap dance on the tables all day long and they will not learn." When you take that into the business world, you say, "Your employees will not perform if they do not feel a sense of psychological safety. And this is what is happening in their brains." This is the science part of it. When people are feeling psychological safety, then their prefrontal cortex actually operates better, and they have better impulse control. They're better collaborators, and they're better planners—all of those things that we want from contributing members of an organization. If they're not psychologically safe, they're not going to be did they can't do it. It's just biologically impossible.

Now what I do is, I take that neuroscience of learning that started with those kids in the classroom, and I've discovered that the ability to learn and the ability to understand what factors influence your cognition, your mental acuity, your focus, your concentration becomes even more important once you leave the classroom. Because in the classroom, it's for a grade, and of course it it is. You know, whatever that thing is that you're trying to do as a snapshot of your academic profile, but when you go off into the business world, it's money. It boils down to money, and if you're not performing, then you're not going to have a job for very long, or if you are not performing and you keep your job, then you are costing the company money. What I discovered was business leaders want what I know, and they asked me to come and share what I know. There are a lot of people out there that talk about company culture, especially since the pandemic. The pandemic actually opened a lot of people's eyes as to just how important it is to recognize your people as three dimensional beings and not just employees. We got on Zoom like this and now all of a sudden you can see in my office, and you can see my cat walking across my desk and you can hear the baby crying.  I'm a real person with lots of stuff going on. 

I think the best way to summarize what I do now is I approach company culture and employee engagement from the inside out. From a neuroscience perspective and one real niche area for me is in the hospitality industry. Because not only do I get to talk about the brains of the employees, but I get to talk about the brains of the guests. There are cognitive biases at work. For example, when you go enjoy a meal at a restaurant, you form perceptions of that meal long before you put a bite of food into your mouth. What are those perceptions, and how does that impact the way the guest perceives that dining experience? That part is super fun. I love that part of my job.

Hannah Park 17:49

That's so interesting. I've never really thought of that at all. That's crazy. I'm sure you're aware, but we have a hospitality program within EHHS. I wonder if that's something that they've ever touched on.

Melissa Hughes 18:10

I don't know, but I would love to share with them. You think about in hospitality, think about the last time you went to a restaurant. You have a certain expectation.
So let's say you set the goal for yourself and you reach that goal and you did that thing, and then you go, "I'm going to take myself out for a fantastic meal!" And you go to that beautiful, new, expensive restaurant that everybody's talking about, and your expectations are up here. Well, anything lower than that, you're disappointed. Even if your expectations are completely unreasonable, you're going to be disappointed. And if they just meet your expectations, then it's just OK, even if your expectation is way up here, if your expectation is a five star and they meet it, it's still gonna be just OK.

So in the hospitality world, the key is to understand that we have to exceed expectations. And how do we do that? We do that through surprise and delight. We do that through tempt and tease. As a guest, as a patron yourselves, what is it that makes a dining experience amazing? Sometimes we don't even know. Like if you think about an experience that is very, very memorable—things are memorable either because they're really, really good or they're really, really bad. We don't remember the times where they met our expectations, just it was good. We don't remember those things until in hospitality, we want to create exceptional guest experiences that people remember. So that piece is super fun.

Hannah Park 19:53

Yeah, when I worked in retail, they always talked about that— going above and beyond for every single person.

So I wanted to switch gears just slightly. I want you to imagine that you're talking to a student who's considering a career in either education, health, or human services. They're kind of all tied together in some way. What advice would you give to them?

Melissa Hughes 20:28

I think back to when I was pursuing my program. The goal is right there, and you get your degree and then you're done with the preparation part and you go into the job part. I think my biggest piece of advice is whenever you go into a career that has anything to do with other human beings, you're never done preparing. You're always preparing. Every experience you have prepares you for the next one, and I think if you look at, especially in health and human services, I think if you look at every experience you get as an opportunity to be more prepared for the next one, I think that's a different mindset.

And because I think in education—or really any of the career options—we work with people who sometimes have baggage. Like I worked with kids who had lots of really bad things going on in their lives. I now volunteer as a guardian ad litem, and I work with kids who are experiencing the most unfair things that you can imagine. So I always try to think: this experience with this kid is preparing me for another kid that I'm going to work with, and I'm not gonna have all the answers for this new experience. But this is going to give me answers for my next experience. I think it's really easy to get lost in the the things that you don't know.
You can't possibly prepare for every human interaction that you'll be faced with, and so I think it's easy to to beat yourself up and think, "Oh my gosh, I don't know what I'm doing." I mean, I still have cases with kids and I go, "Well, I never saw this coming." Like I don't know.

My other piece of advice is surround yourself with really smart people because it takes a village, and probably the best goal you can have is to be in a really good village.

Hannah Park 22:55

You know, I love that. This kind of reminds me of my next question I have for you: what piece of advice would you have for your younger self?

Melissa Hughes 23:06

Oh, boy. Well, like most people, when I went out into the world to be a grown up and to start adulting, I wanted everybody to know that I was confident and bright and intelligent and competent and all those things. I think we work really hard at making sure people know that about us, and I think what I would say to my younger self is, "Do you know how much energy that takes? That takes an awful lot of energy."

Spend your energy surrounding yourself with people you can learn from, with people who give you the psychological safety to ask questions, to make mistakes, because the biggest learning I got all along the way was not in the stuff I got right. It was always in the stuff I got wrong, so I think I was very fortunate to have really great mentors along the way. I think my biggest piece of advice would to my younger self is don't wait so long to learn how important that is. If I would have known that from Jump Street, I would have been so far ahead of the game. I think it also enables you to really enjoy what you're doing more because you're not worried about is anybody gonna find out that I really don't know what I'm doing in this particularly because that's terrifying.

Hannah Park 24:44

Yeah! Awesome. Haley, did you have anything that you wanted to ask while we're chugging along?

Haley Dees 24:51

No, you're good. I'm just kind of following along. I know myself as a student, being someone who's still very early in that learning, and I would even go as far to say growing up process, I'm jotting down a lot of these quotes right now just for future reference for myself. So thank you for all of the input you're giving us and the stories that you're sharing, because it's having an impact on me. And I know that it's gonna have an impact on so many people as well.

Melissa Hughes 25:19

Thank you.

Hannah Park 25:20

Very well said. Melissa, I am curious to know what is your dream collaboration or like project with another speaker, writer or anything like that? Does anyone come to mind?

Melissa Hughes 25:38

Ohh yes, so there are several people that I would like to belly up to the bar with a nice bottle of wine and just like have a great conversation, right? Dan Ariely is one of my favorite authors. He's a behavioral psychologist. He teaches at MIT. I have every one of his books. I cannot get enough of him, and I would love to spend some time with him and do something very cool with him. I think his research style, like you know, he takes these questions that are just "I wonder what happened if" and then he just makes it happen. Obviously he has the form to do that, but if you're at all interested in behavioral psychology, Dan Ariely is a fantastic place to start.

And if I get to pick living or dead... can I pick living or dead?

Hannah Park 26:37

Absolutely you can. Yeah.

Melissa Hughes 26:39

I would say Albert Einstein.

Because Albert Einstein... I have studied a lot about him, and he was somewhat of a tortured soul. He was so intelligent, and he had a very difficult time relating to people. As much as I hate to say this, he wasn't really good at relationships. Like he really wasn't good at relationships. I would love to go back and talk to him, not about the science and all the stuff that actually changed the world, but really I would love to talk to him about what those experiences were like for him. How is he able to make peace with himself if he ever did? And I don't know if he did, but yeah, he would be another one.

Hannah Park 27:27

That would be a super interesting conversation, especially since I'm sure he was used to having people talk at him about, like, science and all that stuff. I wonder what it would be like to just have a heart-to-heart.

Melissa Hughes 27:42

Yeah! I mean, you think about the guy who was able to envision riding through space on a beam of light, and he literally wrote four papers that changed the world by the time he was 24 years old. I mean, at 24 years old, I was still trying to figure out my car insurance and stuff! Right?

Hannah Park 28:05

I'm 25. Like what have I done right now?

Melissa Hughes 28:07

I would love to know. We all have insecurities, even the brightest among us. But I think the one thing that I would love to know about him is like, did you struggle with your relationships, and how did that like all fit together? Because I would imagine that he kind of looked at people like you and I like... we couldn't even have a conversation with him. And if he had that to do over, would you have done that differently? And I think he would.

Also, I would love to show him what we know about the brain today and what we know about technology today. If I could say, "Albert, listen, we can actually put electrodes on our heads and we can look inside the brain and see what's going on! When we listen to rock music or listen to babies crying or eat chocolate or drink wine!" Like, do you know what he would do with that information? Just would be amazing.

Hannah Park 29:11

That's such a good answer. I love that.

One of my last questions for you is what did you learn during your time at Kent State or EHHS or just college in general that you carry with you to this day?

Melissa Hughes 29:33

This is probably the easiest question you've asked me.

Ethics. Ethics. My ethics class. I loved my ethics class, and I loved my ethics professor and he was one of those people that he just put out the most provocative... like we would engage in these amazing debates, and after that semester was over, I was very sad, actually. I thought about, "I could get a degree in ethics!" and I was like, "I don't even actually know what that job is like." How does one make a living with that?

But I have learned I have often thought of that class and every time something happens in life that you go, "Wow, I don't know how to process this thing. What is the right thing to do?" Or you experience regret or you think, "Gosh, I wish I would have done this." Life is messy, relationships are messy, people are flawed, and every time something happens—as a matter of fact, I've just dealt with an issue not too long ago—and I thought, "I wonder what that conversation would look like in that ethics class." And I think what that Professor taught me is that life is one big long ethics class and you know it. The difference is the people are real. The consequences are real, but if you're really, really determined, you can develop the emotional intelligence required to understand how those life lessons can make you better. Because we all have those experiences where we go, "Wow, I really messed that up" or "I was trying to do the right thing." And how did that turn out? Too badly.
You know, we've all had those those thoughts.

I strive to have the emotional intelligence to be able to pick out all of those life lessons and say, "This is why this happened, and this is how it's changed me and this is how I'm smarter from it." Yeah, life is one big ethics class. So thank you. I can't remember his name anymore, but yeah, ethics! We need an ethics class every year, I think.

Hannah Park 32:01

Yeah, I took one when I was in college, and it's one of the only classes that I actively remember. Just certain scenarios and stuff like that. So I agree with you 100%. Was there anything else that you wanted to make sure that like students know about you, your journey or anything like that, that we might have missed?

Melissa Hughes 32:32

You know, I did a TED talk... three years ago I guess it is now, but my TED talk was on impostor syndrome. And I learned a lot about impostor syndrome, and I think I'll tie this back to one of the first questions you ask me.

We all wanna go out there and be smart and competent and confident and smart enough and brave enough and whatever enough. And I think the sooner you can get to a place where you can just embrace yourself— and that doesn't mean that you never have anything to learn. That doesn't mean that you're not responsible for any of the mistakes you make in life—but that whole idea of being enough, and I think our young generation today, like your generation, gives me so much hope for the future. You're gonna do life so much better than my generation has done life. I mean, you really are. And I think that the hardest stumbling block for me, and I suspect for a lot of folks, is am I enough?

I guess my advice to you is if you're asking yourself that, then you need to surround yourself with people who can reassure you that you are. You're never done.
You're never done, but wherever you are, you're enough. In that moment, in that space. So embrace that. I think that's the last thing I would leave you with.

Hannah Park 34:08

See, you can tell you've done TED talks before. So eloquently said. Haley, was there anything else that I missed?

Haley Dees 34:20

The one thing that popped into my head that I did want to ask is who is somebody that either in your personal life or growing up that you really looked up to that you know, maybe you still do today or maybe you just learned something from that you've taken with you? I'd love to hear your perspective on any of those things.

Melissa Hughes 34:38

Well, the high school English teacher who said, "It doesn't matter how good your ideas are and it doesn't matter how smart you are if you cannot communicate that to the outside world, it just stays in your head and no one knows." I still stay in touch with her today. When I wrote my book, I reached out to her and asked her if she would be one of my editors and she did. 

And I send out what I call a Neuro Nugget every Friday and it is just one, you know, it's like a 3-minute fascinating thing about the brain that I just can't wait to share with the world, and I think everybody's gonna think it's as fascinating as I do. But I send that out every Friday and she's on my list. Just about every Friday, she responds, and she gives me feedback on my nugget the same way she did as when I was a kid.

I think maybe subconsciously that was another reason maybe that I went into education because there's always that teacher when you ask kids, what do you like about school, like they don't say, "You know, the newest fad curriculum" or "the state of the art technology lab" or, you know, "Lunches are really great this year!" They say, "I love my teacher. My teacher listens to me. My teacher gets me. My teacher makes history seem like a soap opera", right? It's always a teacher. And I think she was that teacher for me. She was a teacher for me and I still stay in touch with her today. She gives me feedback.

I will say it was a little bit traumatic when I got the manuscript back and it was the same red pencil that she had used when she graded our paper. I was terrified.
We had a list of the fatal errors and there were ten fatal errors, and if you made any one of those ten errors, she would draw a line in the paper and she would stop grading. She would stop reading. That was it. It was an automatic F, and I will be honest, when I when I sent the manuscript to her, I was like, "Ohh, please don't let there be anything. Please don't let there be anything." But you know, I just had so much respect for her and that as a grown up, now that she can say to me, I learned so much from you. I mean, you can't beat that with a stick, right?

Hannah Park 37:14

Yeah, absolutely. My gosh, yeah. We actually just had a workshop that a few of the professors put on called Becoming A Brave Teacher, and they talked a lot about how every time that you ask a kid or even a grown up, who is their favorite teacher, who had the most impact? There's always one. So I love that that she was that for you and you stay in contact with her. I love that so much.

Melissa Hughes 37:51

And I have kids come back to me now, you know, I've had kids reach out to me on Facebook or whatever and they go, "You were my teacher in 3rd grade!" And I'm like looking at their Facebook page, and they have kids of their own and like, that's impossible. Absolutely not. I'm far too young.

I have kids say things that they remember from my class. When I was teaching, it was the OJ Simpson trial and we did a whole forensics unit. So the kids would come in every day and there would be a new clue in the classroom and they had to find the clue. And so in teaching the unit, you know, we talked about fingerprints and we talked about all kinds of science in there. But I have had so many kids go, "I remember OJ Simpson unit! I remember that that was so cool."

I mean, I think this if I think that is the probably one of the most rewarding things you can feel in your life: that you touched someone in such a way that they wanted to learn. That made learning fun.