Dana Hughes (’98, Theatre) is not afraid to ask questions and explore other peoples’ stories. Whether the questions and stories are about race and its role in society, constitutional law, highly enriched uranium near universities, or about the current refugee crisis in Africa, Hughes has created a career that shines a light on marginalized people and makes an impact.
Over the past three decades, Hughes’ career has included actress in New York City, broadcast journalist for ABC, and now, senior communications officer for the UN Refugee Agency in Africa. In all three careers, Hughes has used her confidence, curiosity, intelligence, and drive to explore the human condition.
Hughes developed a love of acting in her mid-teens, and after attending the Minority Theater Workshop, a summer workshop for high school students produced by Morris Burns, emeritus professor of theatre, she was inspired to learn more about African American theater and culture. That impetus took her to Spelman College, a historically black liberal arts college for women in Atlanta, GA. But after two years and some homesickness, she returned to Fort Collins and enrolled at CSU. “It was the first big grown-up decision I made, and I’m a big believer in owning your decisions and owning your life,” she says. “I became a theatre major, built a community, was a member of the President’s Leadership Program, and was a peer mentor.”
Her campus engagement and success at CSU transferred to New York City, where, after graduation, she pursued acting professionally, was a member of the junior company of the Negro Ensemble Company, and did a variety on stage and on screen productions for a few years. But when an opportunity for an internship in London with the House of Commons, based on a recommendation from a CSU political science professor, came up, she went for it.
It was in London that Hughes discovered her love for international issues. And while she was a good actress and had some interesting parts, she was ready to move in to a career that involved writing, storytelling, social justice, and had politics and an international angle.
That decision lead her to the Ford Foundation, where she focused on explanatory journalism as part of the foundation’s communications team. As an editorial assistant she helped cover stories ranging from the Zanzibar International Film Festival to the truth and reconciliation tribunal in Sierra Leone. “[Acting] and delving into the study of the human condition and expression of it through storytelling set me up to be a journalist. I got to amplify other voices and help them tell their stories,” she says.
There, she discovered an interest in international political journalism, and she applied to the Columbia School of Journalism for a master’s program. She was in school part-time, worked full-time, and interned three nights a week for CNN. Her diligence and dedication paid off: she was awarded a fellowship with the investigative unit working with Brian Ross at ABC News.
Hughes became an investigative journalist pursuing stories that covered subjects like prescription drug errors and the lives of children of dictators. Then, because of her interest in international media and stories, she moved to Kenya as a producer and reporter for sub-Saharan Africa.
“It was a dream job,” she says, “an amazing experience.” As a foreign correspondent, she covered everything from the Kenyan post-election protests and ethnic violence, to the reaction to President Obama’s inauguration, to Kenyan doctors treating Somali refugees fleeing famine. “It was my first real exposure to refugees,” she says, “and the needs were so great.”
She won an Emmy for her work in Kenya, and after four years there, returned to the States where she covered the State Department and foreign affairs as an off-air reporter and producer. “Acting set the stage for understanding the why – why people are doing what they do. And directing set me up for producing. Once you understand the why for characters, the true storytelling comes in figuring out how it all works together,” she says.
As a producer, travelling with John Kerry and Hilary Clinton was exciting, but it didn’t allow Hughes to tell the stories she wanted to tell. “I’m a field person,” she says. “I found I most liked making an impact through international media by shining a light on marginalized people.” So she left ABC after nearly 10 years and joined the United Nations Refugee Agency, UNHCR, and moved back to Kenya. As the Senior Regional Communications Officer, her job is to raise visibility, awareness, and advocate for refugee situations in 13 countries across the East, Horn and Great Lakes Region of Africa.
In the past four years Hughes has traveled to countries hosting refugees from South Sudan, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo among others. She’s committed to showing the people behind the numbers, hearing from and telling the stories of people who have been forced to flee often horrific circumstances just to survive.
“Some of my friends will ask, ‘don’t you get depressed and hate humanity?’,” she says.
“But I don’t see the negative or focus on the war. I always remember the person, the hero. I focus on the resilience; the good Samaritan who helped, the refugee who continues to push forward and have hope no matter the circumstances.”
That focus on resilience plays into Hughes own life as well, regarding her methodical and focused approach to her career choices. “I don’t regret things,” she says. “In the midst of transition, of course, it’s always hard. But if you look at best case and worst case scenarios and you know what you believe and who you are, then you won’t regret.”
Her advice to others: “Be honest about who you are and what you believe in, and have faith in that.”
Dana Hughes will be the December 2018 Commencement Speaker for the College of Liberal Arts.