Marisa “Missy” Hughes, a sophomore majoring in general studies, said she never understood why her upbringing was challenging, until she realized what she wanted to do in her life — help build peace.

“I didn’t realize it or understand it fully why I was so different,” Hughes said. “I was always obsessed with God and seeking peace. Everything I research and write is all to understand how I can be a ‘princess of peace.'”

Hughes has used her experiences with homelessness, abuse and dance to try and help others build understanding and peace.

“I grew up in Portland, Oregon, where I was actually homeless half of the time,” Hughes said. “I would live with friends a lot, and I sometimes stayed with my grandparents. I was a street dancer growing up, and that’s how I made my money to take care of my little brothers.”

She said as children, she and her siblings were physically abused and suffered the effects that their mother’s alcoholism and their parents’ conflicts had on the family.

“My mom would make really fancy margaritas, and because she didn’t want to drink alone, she would make me margaritas, and I would have to drink with her,” Hughes said.

Hughes said that when she was 13, she was at an audition where Deedee Anderson, the dance coach for The Portland Trail Blazers dance team, discovered her. Anderson told Hughes that she had raw dance talent, but she needed training. Hughes moved to California that summer to train with a dance studio. When she returned, her parents decided to separate.

“When my parents separated, I ended up in foster care,” Hughes said.

She said her friend’s family was the first to have legal guardianship for her.

“They taught me things I had never learned before, like how to shower on a daily basis,” Hughes said. “They taught me how to get up in the morning and go to sleep at night, which was so weird to me.”

Hughes said she had to work hard to catch up in school because she was taken out of school in second grade by her parents, but she was able to graduate middle school.

“After I graduated middle school, I was moved into permanent foster care,” Hughes said.

She said throughout her high school years, she moved into different foster homes, encountered different cultures and danced in various studios throughout Oregon and Washington.

Hughes said she was with an LDS foster family in Woodland, Washington, at one point.

“The missionaries came to the door one day,” Hughes said. “In my first lesson, they talked very in-depth about Joseph Smith, his age and his confusion. During those last few years, I had been searching through many different religions, including the Buddhist Way. I realized I could relate to him because he was just as lost as me.”

Hughes said she listened to the missionaries for weeks, and then told them she wanted to get baptized. Since she was under 18, she had to get permission from her parents. She said that her dad gave her permission after she wrote a hand-writen a letter from her heart to explain why she wanted to be baptized.

Hughes said she was baptized Nov. 18, 2007, when she was 15, by one of the missionaries who had taught her.

After six months, Hughes said that her foster parents kicked her out, and it was hard for the state to place her in another home because many foster families were anti-Mormon. When she turned 17, she was able to go back and live in her father’s house with her new step-mother. During that time, she had a bad experience with a church leader, which led her to stop attending church regularly.

“When I was 17, I went to Vancouver to see my sister, and she introduced me to one of her friends,” Hughes said.

Hughes said that friend ended up being her boyfriend, and they bought a house and car together after she turned 18. During the relationship, she worked at a gym as a personal trainer and attended community college where she could earn her high school diploma and associate degree at the same time.

“I ended up doing horribly the last part of my semester because my relationship ended up being a domestic violence situation,” Hughes said.

Hughes said she started the next semester on academic probation, and if she did not do well, she would be dismissed from the school. Then, a new chapter opened in her life.

Above: Missy Hughes with her son, Mika, in downtown Portland, Oregon. “Mika can and will mock just about anything I do — he put himself in that position,” Hughes said.    Photo by Alain Briand

“That’s when I get the unexpected two pink bars on my pregnancy test,” Hughes said.

Hughes said she decided to try to resolve the relationship between her and her boyfriend throughout the pregnancy.

“I was on bed-rest for the last four months of my pregnancy because I was so high risk,” Hughes said.

Hughes said she went into labor two weeks after her due date, and gave birth to a healthy baby boy named Mika.

“The doctor rolled him onto my stomach, and as she rolled him onto me, I saw that he had blue eyes,” Hughes said. “I’m the only blue-eyed kid in my whole family. When I was little, I had a teddy bear that I called ‘Big Blue Eyes’ even though it had brown eyes because I wanted someone to be like me. When my baby rolled onto my stomach, I thought, ‘This is my Big Blue Eyes.’”

Hughes said after Mika was born, she left the relationship with her boyfriend because the situation was not improving.

“I got my records transferred to a singles ward, and I got permission to go since I had my son,” Hughes said. “I had the most wonderful bishop who helped me through so much.”

She said she was able to support herself and her son by working for Arthur Murray Dance Studio, and at the same time she started the audition process for the Seattle Seahawks dance team.

“I lost the audition, and a week after that, I ended up getting fired from Arthur Murray because some political things and because I was Mormon,” Hughes said. “I was completely heartbroken. I had lost my two dream jobs.”

Hughes said once she got home and tucked her son into bed, she collapsed in her living room and started to cry and pray. She was prompted to apply to a church school, but brushed it off.

“That night I had a vision,” Hughes said. “I could feel that I was really there. I was walking on the beach; my son’s hand swinging in mine. I could feel the sand in my feet and the wind in my hair. With one deep breath in . . . I could smell freedom.”

Hughes said she realized she needed to go to BYU-Hawaii, but she submitted college applications to BYU and BYU-Idaho as well. She was accepted to BYU-I but not the other two. BYU-H told her that they could not accept her because of her high school GPA, but they advised her to attend BYU-I until she had enough credits to transfer.

“I have been attending BYU-Idaho for three semesters, and this semester I was accepted into BYU-Hawaii,” Hughes said. “I want to major in Intercultural Peace Building at BYU-H. I want to help cultures understand each other.”

Scott Hankey, the program manager at Oak Grove Youth Shelter featured in “Ambition,” a documentary about Hughes, said that she is able to advocate in a way that gets her heard.

“She is somebody with at inner light, somebody who had an idea of where she wanted to go,” Hankey said.

Hughes said that the major events in her life played a role in helping her discover why she was different and always obsessed with God. She said she created and lives by the motto, “You cannot truly hate anyone if you can understand them.”

“Jesus was called Prince of Peace because peace is the map to journey for Christ-like love,” Hughes said. “I’m studying peace because I want to be the soft anchor toward understanding in my home, community and career.”

*Editor’s note: Feature image taken by TheTylerPrice