This week, Kelly Hughes graduates at the top of her class. Many years ago, she did not believe she was “university material.” 

Her first attempt at university, straight out of high school, saw a two-hour commute while working part-time to support herself. When it became too much, she reluctantly concluded university was not for her. 

Her second shot was at the University of Guelph, where she applied as a single mother of three juggling multiple family caretaking responsibilities. 

Despite initial doubts about even accepting her offer, and after a career as a chef and instructor, she felt she had “one last chance” to pursue her dream of getting a degree. 

Kelly Hughes graduates among highest of all College of Arts grads, with U of G’s most prestigious undergraduate award

“I had always wanted to go back to university. I would see students going to their classes and think, ‘They’re so lucky. I wish I could do that,’” Hughes says.

“When COVID hit the hospitality industry, I decided that if I was going to go for my degree, it was now or never. I was lucky to have a partner and kids who wholeheartedly supported me, who said, ‘Absolutely you should go.’ And so that was it.” 

Four years later, Hughes is being praised for having the qualities of a seasoned historian. Graduating among the highest of all College of Arts grads this year, she has received the Dean’s Scholarship (twice), the Marion Mackenzie Prize for Outstanding Achievement in History and has been on the Dean’s List every semester.

Dr. Susan Brown, College of Arts professor and one of Hughes’s mentors, sums up her student this way: “Kelly Hughes is among the top few students I have taught, at any level, over three decades.”

At convocation ceremonies, Hughes will be honoured with the W.C. Winegard Medal, U of G’s most prestigious undergraduate award that recognizes academic achievement and community involvement. It will be the second year in a row the medal has been conferred on a College of Arts grad. 

Thinking about where she started, Hughes describes winning the award as “surreal.”

“I got into studying, research and writing and just realized how much I love it,” Hughes says. “It gave me the momentum to do well, because it came from a place of real love for the work I was doing.” 

College of Arts graduate and chef Kelly Hughes ‘gets things done’ 

Completing a double major in history and in the new digital humanities program culture and technology studies (CTS), Hughes has found her place at U of G. 

“Combining these two majors allowed me to really explore my interest in food history and material culture production in domestic spaces with digital humanities theories and practices,” Hughes says. “Taking the first CTS theory course lit up a part of my brain I didn’t know existed, and I realized how much I enjoyed engaging with really complex theories.” 

It is in her many research projects where Hughes’s lifelong passion for learning shines. She completed a research paper about refrigerator etiquette, and what that can teach us about privacy and data. She went to Harvard University, encouraged by Dr. Karen Racine, to research and write a biography of food writer M.F.K. Fisher. She also created a timeline of Ontario Agricultural College’s 150 years of history, to name just a few projects.

Kelly Hughes (bottom, middle) with the fall 2022 “Hear, Here” Arboretum project team

How did she accomplish all of this while remaining at the top of her class? As she says:

“Being a chef, you develop a certain work ethic, which I can summarize as, ‘You just get things done.’”

Uniting her projects is an interest in telling those stories that go unseen and fall into the background – and understanding what they reveal about our history and culture. 

Her research assistantship highlights a drive to tell the stories of women overlooked by history. At the Orlando Project, a feminist digital archive, Hughes has worked on fulsome profiles of women authors whose works and lives have often been dismissed.

“The stories we’re typically exposed to are about men who have done great things,” she says. “But there are so many more stories that are unheard, those of ordinary people, and those who have been silenced, that can teach us about who we are as a society and as a culture.”

From ‘now or never’ to a future at U of G

Hughes will continue her studies at U of G in the master of history program. She will extend her interest in finding the wisdom in the small, with her SSHRC-funded thesis on artifacts in domestic dwellings.

“People always leave some evidence, whether messages behind a wallpaper or a height chart in a kitchen, that they were there, and this quite often happens in domestic spaces,” Hughes says. “What does it say about people that they want to leave behind evidence of their spatial and temporal existence? I want to make people aware of this phenomenon, to make it a worthy object of study.”

Hughes will be honoured with the Winegard Medal on June 13. She thanks professors Brown and Racine, as well as Drs. Kim Martin and Paul Barrett for being her mentors, supporting her throughout her projects and her journey.  She also praises her peers in the CTS cohort for being incredibly welcoming. 

“I was imagining stereotypes people would assign to me as a mature student. People would just think my education was a fun thing I was doing, a hobby,” Hughes says. “For me, this was always the second phase of my life. To my happiness and surprise, I was taken very seriously, and given amazing support and mentorship.”