Travel and Personal Growth: Author Melanie Sue Hicks On Why & How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings

An interview with Maria Angelova


Consider service. There is something truly magical about connecting with others through community building or service. I have had the great privilege of serving others in a variety of ways around the world. And it has changed me forever.

Thankfully, the world is open for travel once again. Traveling can broaden our horizons and make space for people to become more open-minded. How can travel give us the opportunity for personal growth? What are some ways that travel can help us become better human beings? As a part of our series about “How Traveling Can Help Us Become Better Human Beings”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Melanie Sue Hicks, author of Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation.

Melanie Sue Hicks, author of Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, is an adventure seeking, social impact advocate dedicated to helping others overcome fear and live their dharma. She has led or participated in more than fifty service projects in twenty cities and four international locations and dedicates her life to creating impact on her own or amplifying the impact of others every single day.

As an empathy driven author, and education, nonprofit and workplace expert, she has been interviewed and published in more than two dozen magazines and websites including, Marie Claire, Authority Magazine, See Beyond Magazine, The District, and Doctor’s Life Magazine As an experienced motivational speaker and master facilitator. Using her custom 3E Method of Change© along with her unique style of group facilitation, she offers training to organizations focused on helping to navigate the future of education and work for increased retention, productivity, and revenue.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

I had a fantastic childhood. I grew up in a small, middle-class, beach town in northern Florida. It was the kind of town where everyone knew everyone. Where multigenerational families were the norm. Where kids went off to college only to return to rinse and repeat the family legacy. My parents planted the seed of wanderlust as we spent every summer traveling the US in a large RV for six-weeks at a time.

I had the privilege to go on to a university of my choosing where I found a home among 200 young women that would unlock a part of my soul I never knew existed. I loved nearly everything about my college experience. From the sorority girls who became my second family, to my job as a Disney character, to my chosen major of organizational communications and rhetoric. It was the place I found my voice, in both writing and speaking. It was the place I grew from a child from a small town to a young woman with individual values and passions.

Under the triangles of a Delta Delta Delta sign, I found the deeply embedded voice of confidence that whispered assurances that just maybe, I could take on this big world after all. And I was not the only one. The faded photos of girls who wore matching handmade t-shirts and themed costumes, went on to be global CEOs, political leaders, corporate lawyers, teachers, models, and moms. Most importantly, this chapter of life built the foundation of service to others that I will take to my grave.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

My career has been a completely nonlinear, winding path through communications, advocacy, education, nonprofits and entrepreneurship. But with every passing year, I see more and more synergy between these seemingly disparate career experiences that have created a powerful toolkit with which I will serve the world. Somewhere early in my childhood, a seed was planted that giving back to the world, in our own unique ways, was going to be my calling. I wasn’t sure how that would manifest itself, perhaps I am still not sure, but I know it is true.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

There is no question my success could not have happened without my parents. Each in their own way. My father was stern, strong, quiet, and endlessly organized. He was the planner of great summer adventures that are still the most important parts of my childhood. From my father, I was taught integrity, discipline, and hard work. From my mother, kindness, openheartedness, and fearlessness. Never-ending energy, generosity of spirit, and laughter that echoes long after it ends are the legacies of my mother. All of these lessons coupled with a foundation of endless support gave me the courage to pursue the big, crazy, scary dreams I am still chasing after today.

It has been said that sometimes our mistakes can be our greatest teachers. Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or takeaway did you learn from that?

I have made enough mistakes for many lifetimes, but I also am proud of every single one for how they helped me to grow into the person I am now. Most recently I was taught a powerful lesson about the power of simply showing up.

Recently, I went to Sierra Leone to work with a nonprofit helping empower women to get out of the sex trade and into vocational school. By all western standards, this nonprofit is still in its infancy and growing into its own. Prior to landing in the country, I held some skepticism about the impact that could possibly be accomplished at this stage in the organization. And then we landed and spent the next two weeks watching what real impact looked like. This fledgling little organization was having more direct impact on the women in Bo, Sierra Leone than dozens I knew back in the US. It was a powerful illustration that simply showing up, standing in the arena, can sometimes make all the difference.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

My favorite quote were the 11 words that fell out of my mouth at a conference in 2020, “We hold the keys to the cages we build around ourselves.” It’s a daily reminder that everything in life is a choice. There are easy and obvious choices and there are devastatingly hard choices. Somewhere we seemingly can’t lose and somewhere no choice is without consequence. But if we want something bad enough, we have the power to make it happen.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

I have had the privilege of giving my time, talents and financial resources to dozens of worthy causes around the world. From handicap ramps in Florida to food banks in Colorado; from women’s empowerment training in Africa to building houses in Nicaragua; there is literally no place I will not go for the causes I care about. To that end, I am currently working on raising investor capital to make a short documentary that highlights impact organizations around the world and how they connect humanity in unique and beautiful ways.

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview about travel and personal growth. Let’s dive deeper into these together. Based on your research or personal experience, why do you think travel can lead to personal growth? Can you share a story?

I can’t imagine a more powerful way to learn about yourself and others than through travel. Travel has proven to be a priceless commodity to who I am as a human, teaching me culture and traditions, vulnerability and openheartedness, creativity and solitude. I have been privileged to witness the best of humanity and the evil remnants of the worst. While

I believe each and every experience I have used my precious capital to provide is an investment in my future self, albeit of a different kind — the intrinsic kind that can neither be fully explained nor fully appreciated by anyone but me. It is my literal take on you only live once.

A recent survey from Psychology Today showed that over 80% of participants found that travel helped them with problem-solving or decision-making. Why do you think this is true for so many people?

Travel gives us space to be outside the confines of our everyday lives. Anytime you allow yourself space to think outside the box, that space will reveal new answers and ideas.

Do you think travel enhances our mindfulness, optimism, or sense of gratitude? How? Can you please explain with an example or story?

Similarly to space for problem solving, sometimes that space we give ourselves, that openness, can reconnect us to our soul. There is optimism and gratitude within all of us, but it can be crowded out by the hardships of life or even simply the daily grind.

In 2019, I trekked to Everest Base Camp, a trip that is 8 days up and 6 days down the mountain. Along the way, I would often end up alone on the trail for long periods of time. Perhaps the most time I have spent with only my thoughts in years, maybe ever. Not only did that trip change my life trajectory intellectually as it became the foundation for my memoir, Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation. But it also changed my life’s emotional trajectory. That space allowed me to realize how much international travel and service was a part of who I am as a human and the primary way I want to leave my mark on the world. Only by getting quiet could I have heard that tiny voice speak to me.

Surely not everyone who travels automatically becomes an exemplar of human decency. What are a few reasons why some people completely miss out on the growth opportunities that travel can offer?

Far too many people choose to only travel in carefully cultivated tourist experiences. Many times, these bring along the creature comforts of our western society and simply place them within new scenery. For me, I want travel to be a fully immersive experience. I want the sights, sounds, and smells of the country. I want to look into the eyes of the people and better understand the totality of humanity.

Thank you for that. Now for our main question; What are your “5 Habits You Should Develop In Order Make Travel Into An Opportunity For Personal Growth?”

  1. Get outside your comfort zone.

Europe, the Caribbean, and the like are wonderful places to visit, but often provide such cultivated tourist experiences you rarely need to utilize any stretch muscles. Begin thinking about personal growth right from the beginning planning stages of your trip. When you place yourself in the uncomfortable, it forces a level of personal growth you simply cannot escape.

In 2015, I joined a group of 22 others on a two-week excursion to India. This trip changed me in so many beautiful ways, but all of it can be attributed to getting out of my comfort zone. From the intermingling of the religions to the completely different tastes of the food; from the choreographed chaos that is the transit to the magnificent ancient sites; everything about this trip was gritty and authentic and that allowed me to look inside myself at those parts with a new light.

2. Do your homework. I am not a believer in researching every ball of yarn that you are planning to see on a vacation to the minute details. However, doing some basic googling about cultural norms can really help you gain more depth from the adventure. A few places to start: look for the latest new stories from reputable news sources to know what is current and pressing on their society, look for traditional recipes to see what people are eating there and how it differs from your usual diet, look at popular artists, musicians and authors to know what is trending for them. Everything you learn in advance will help you dive into the culture and retain more of what you experience from there.

One of my favorite travel memories is a trip I took in 2010 to Russia. At the time I was dating a professional skydiver who was competing in the world championships there. Knowing nothing about the culture, and feeling intimidated by that fact, I did all the things I listed above. The result was a deeper understanding of the things I was experiencing in the moment. I understood the people better, I was prepared for the cultural norms, I learned new pieces of their political and social policies and history. All of it enriched my growth. And I am glad I did, it is likely with the current world situation that I will never be able to go back to Russia. Thank goodness I took advantage of every second from my one opportunity. That in itself is a lesson.

3. Disconnect and go within. Travel can be a full game of hustle when you are packing in as much of a country or city as possible. But don’t forget to intentionally make time to disconnect. Whether that is a journal on a hotel balcony, a quiet stint on a park bench in thoughtful contemplation or sipping espresso and watching people pass on the street. Build in a little time in every vacation to absorb what you are experiencing. Allow your soul to really drink it in. You will be surprised how rewarding that will be.

4. Consider service. There is something truly magical about connecting with others through community building or service. I have had the great privilege of serving others in a variety of ways around the world. And it has changed me forever.

In February of this year, I spent two weeks in Sierra Leone working with women sex workers, helping them get into vocational schools and find a way to a better life. The stories of trauma these women share with us were hard to hear. But in their eyes, I saw hope. Hope for something better for themselves and their families. And I learned so much about myself. I learned the kind of women I can best connect with through shared experience. I learned I am capable of thinking on my feet even in dangerous situations. I learned just how much empathy drives me as a person. No one could have told me these things. I had to feel them myself by doing the hard things.

5. Go with open palms. This is my absolute favorite phrase for life and for travel. No matter how hard we try — and trust me I try HARD — we cannot control everything that happens to us. We can only control how we respond. I try to live my life the same way I enjoy my travel, by seeing it as an adventure. By embracing every experience with an open heart and an open mind. Open palms is my literal and metaphorical example of that openness. It’s my willingness to take in all the beauty, but also all the gritty, raw, ugly pain as well. To use it all to grow my soul and help me connect with the depth and breadth of humanity.

From your experience, does travel have a negative impact on personal growth too? Is there a downside to travel?

I think anything in life can be mutilated from something beautiful into something ugly if we do not have an open heart. To keep this from happening, we must remain open to learning and experiencing new things. If you recoil from things that make you uncomfortable, simply because you do not understand them, you are at risk of losing the beauty of travel altogether.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them :-)

There are so many powerful women that have been an inspiration to me over the years, it is nearly impossible to choose just one. But at this current moment, I would love to share a meal with Julia Cameron. Her book, “The Artist’s Way,” is one of the most important creative works I have ever read and continues to be a guiding light in my writing to this day.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Readers can find me on Instagram at @inpursuitmelsue; purchase my book, Incongruent: Travel, Trauma, Transformation, on Amazon; or view my full portfolio at

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent on this. We wish you continued success.

About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at To schedule a free consultation, click here.



Maria Angelova, CEO of Rebellious Intl.
Authority Magazine

Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl.