EAST LIVERPOOL - "Keep the ball rolling," Mimi Hughes told Kent State University biology students on Monday. She was encouraging students to be who they want to be, and not base their identity or their career decisions on what others tell them.
In a tough economy sometimes plans change and many people are reinventing themselves, she said. She encouraged students to grasp hold of a challenge and meet it head-on.
Hughes, of Taft, Tenn., spoke to KSU students on her first break from her journey to swim the length of the Ohio River. She finished the second leg of her 981-mile journey Sunday and planned to start swimming again this morning, starting back at the river's 40-mile mark at Ohioville, Pa., where she stopped Sunday.
"Once you choose to become part of change, you have to move," she said. "Don't stop."
Hughes is a remedial-development teacher and professional tutor in the areas of dyslexia and learning strategies. She teaches lifeguard classes and classes that give people strategies for learning at Motlow College in Lynchburg, Tenn.
She told the students once they start college, they gain momentum, and in tough times, no matter what, she told them not to totally drop out of school.
"Take one class, take a gym class, take a one-credit class, but don't stop," she said. In most cases people working hard to go to college don't restart if they stop, she said.
Hughes said she chose to swim the Ohio after falling in love with the Ohio River Valley several years ago during a trip to Louisville, Ky. She said by swimming rivers, her goal is to draw attention to the disparity in education around the world between men and women. She said all during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq she has been disturbed that many women and young girls in the Middle East are denied educational opportunities.
"When I get upset about things going on, I swim," she said. "I don't have a lot of money or influence, I'm not a politician, but I can use my arms and legs."
She said she has seen cases even among her own students where they struggled to get a college education because of controlling husbands or boyfriends. Some have been late to class because they were being threatened before they left for the campus - but they came anyway.
She credits her dad for making her a strong woman. In 31 years of marriage she said she and her husband have learned to be supportive of each other's goals and dreams.
She said her dad raised her after her parents divorced when she was 8.
"Not many people in my school had divorced parents, and those who did, the dad's never got custody. I went with Dad to buy plumbing and electrical supplies," she said. "I never heard my dad say, 'You can't do that, you're a girl. he gave me freedom to challenge myself."
She said her focus is on life skills for young women and girls, not because of any feminist philosophy, but simply because there is known disparity between education of boys and girls. She said she becomes frustrated at times with the feminist movement, because while the message is empowerment of women, but too much emphasis is placed by feminists on women being more like men in order to be successful.
"We want jobs, we want equal, pay, but we are nurturers," she said. "I swim, but I also like to be at home and make soap and bread and can vegetables. I like knitting for my kids."
Her effort is to raise money and awareness for organizations that support academics and life skills for young girls. Besides making local connections during her swims, she also supports international efforts through the Central Asia Institute to promote education for girls and women, with the belief that education and life-skills learning will empower young girls to transform themselves, their families and their communities.
Hughes has previously done swims in Russia and Europe for environmental and social responsibility and to promote peace between nations. She started with a swim across the Bering Sea to Russia in 1997, followed by an environmental awareness swim of the Tennessee River in 2004, the Danube River in 2006, and the Drava and Mura Rivers in 2007.
She said her very first swim was from Alcatraz to San Francisco, which she picked just because she likes the movie, "Birdman of Alcatraz."
"I swam off the island and then I ran 10 miles," she said. "I made it a true 'escape' from Alcatraz."
Hughes hopes her Ohio River swim will continue to spread her vision: "Every person has the power to change the world, one stroke at a time."
Although Hughes said she doesn't fault anyone who chooses to help causes by making donations, she is driven to do more.
"I want to do more than donate to a cause for change," she said. "I want to be the change."