Seven Questions for the New H&SS Director

A portrait of Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, professor of psychology at Penn State Behrend.

Melanie Hetzel-Riggin, a professor of psychology at Penn State Behrend, has been named director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. She has taught at Behrend since 2013.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

This summer, Dr. Melanie D. Hetzel-Riggin, a clinical psychologist with more than twenty years of experience in teaching, research, and community outreach, was appointed director of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences. 

Hetzel-Riggin, professor of psychology, has taught in the school since 2013 and had served as associate director since 2021. She previously served as chair of the Psychology program and coordinator of the college’s Master of Arts in Applied Clinical Psychology program

Why did you want to be director of the school?

My professional career has been about helping people. As a teacher, I have helped my students learn and grow into themselves. As a psychologist, I have helped clients develop skills to improve their lives. As a community mental health researcher, I have helped build community coalitions to address many of society’s problems. In becoming director, I am now able to help our school’s students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders in new, more expansive ways.

How do you think your background in psychology will serve you in this new role?

My background in therapeutic practice and trauma-informed systems has influenced my leadership style, which is grounded in an emphasis on open communication; inclusive, relational practices; strong change management skills; and critical self-awareness. If nothing else, active listening and empathy, which are core therapeutic skills, are always essential to working in leadership roles.

What are the initiatives you want to focus on first?

One of my primary initiatives is to work with faculty, staff, and other key stakeholders to tell our school’s story—to students and parents, new faculty and staff, donors and friends, and community partners. Increasing the visibility of our school will increase our opportunities for success. I also want to promote themes common across the disciplines in our school. Most of our majors emphasize the importance of critical thinking, strong communications skills, and the development of global perspectives. I want to work with our faculty, students, and other stakeholders to create curricula and student engagement experiences that promote these themes.

Why are the humanities, social sciences, and arts important today?

We are living in challenging times—dealing with the effects of a worldwide pandemic, climate change, social unrest, and violence in many forms. Studying the humanities, social sciences, and arts gives us insight into the factors that have led us to where we are now and how we can address the challenges we face—how we can use the shared experiences of the past to create a better future for all of us.

What do you want people to know about the School of H&SS?

Stories are at the heart of our school. Our students, faculty, and staff are the creators, keepers, and narrators of the stories of humanity. Stories of our past, present, and future. Stories in words, pictures, movement, and songs. Stories of our internal self and the systems of which we are all a part. Stories of the best and worst of humanity. By telling the stories of humanity, we can all be better prepared for our future.

What are your goals for the school?

I want to make our school the destination for students who want to study the humanities, social sciences, and arts to make a difference in their community. To do this, I would like to strengthen partnerships with the local community, grow student and faculty scholarship and service in regional initiatives, and build on relationships with our alumni.

Advice for incoming students?

College is a time for exploration, so take classes that sound interesting to you. Make a point to talk to your faculty and visit them during their office hours. Join a club, develop a radio show, write for the newspaper. Volunteer. 

Vital Statistics

  • Hometown: Whitewater, Wisconsin
  • Family: Daughter, Ella, 14, and son, Gabe, 11
  • Pets: A clowder of cats, guinea pigs, a turtle, and a gecko
  • First Job: McDonald’s. I have also been a dental assistant, mail sorter, humane society staff member, and history reenactor.
  • Hobbies: I’m an avid reader and I love going to the beach and zoos.
  • Guilty Pleasure: Rita’s Italian Ice