Melissa Mischke

"Not long after I returned to teaching, my husband commented ‘I don’t know if I’ve seen you this happy in a long time.’ It’s true. Teaching makes me happy. It’s my life.”

Back in her chemistry classroom after seven busy years as dean of students and a year-long sabbatical, Science Instructor Melissa Mischke is in her element. Working with students brings her joy. So does performing her favorite experiments — ones that explode. Her favorite, nicknamed “the fire breathing dragon,” demonstrates rates of reaction, creating a small fireball by igniting lycopodium powder. Another involves warming a gummy bear in a test tube containing potassium chloride; the reaction causes the candy to shoot across the classroom. “It’s not just playing. It’s real chemistry,” Mischke says. “People know my talent is blowing things up. I couldn’t do that as a dean.”

Exploding chemistry experiments may endear Mischke to students, but her passion for teaching is evident. It’s integral to who she is. A New Hampshire native, she received a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a master’s degree in education from the University of New Hampshire. She came to Exeter in 1994 after teaching in area public schools. “I knew coming to Exeter would push me,” she says. She served as associate dean of students in 2006 and was named dean of students in 2012, a post she retained until 2019.

As dean, Mischke was immersed in two different worlds: taking care of students in every aspect of their campus lives, from classroom to dorm life; and overseeing administrative tasks like budgeting, forecasting and long-term planning. She embraced the challenge. “It’s a lot like chemistry — it’s problem solving,” she says. “You’re trying to find a good, productive solution to problems.”

Under her leadership, Exeter instituted its weekly student advising process and adopted all-gender dorms. Mischke is quick to credit her team for these accomplishments, seeing herself as an ally to students and faculty during both transitions. “I learned a lot about myself (as dean),” she says. “As a teacher, you’re focused on the classroom. As dean of students, I came to understand the importance of budgeting and planning and how everything we do with the kids, from activities to dorms, fits into the larger picture. I’m always a strong advocate for students.” During her time living on campus, Mischke was dorm head of Moulton House and lived in Amen and Langdell halls. She also coached boys varsity tennis and served as a day student adviser.

Mischke’s sabbatical coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic but gave her time to relax and recharge. She’s an avid collector; she and her husband, Erick, collect antique books, lamps, glass bottles and more (a dream is to open an antiques shop). The couple participated in a 2015 Lamont Gallery show of faculty collections, showcasing some of their whimsical push-pin wooden animals and hand-carved Italian figurines. Mischke also paints and creates mixed media collages, an art form she embraced during the pandemic. “Slapping paint or gluing something down really helped me emotionally,” she says. “I filled out more journals than I have in my entire life.”

Always interested in guiding students along their academic and social journeys at Exeter, Mischke serves on the Academic Advising Committee, working one-on-one with students and helping implement student support plans. She also serves on Exeter’s admissions committee and one night a week can be found in the Learning Center in Phillips Hall, offering chemistry help to students. She’s happily ensconced in her classroom routine.

“Not long after I returned to teaching, my husband commented ‘I don’t know if I’ve seen you this happy in a long time’,” Mischke says. “It’s true. Teaching makes me happy. It’s my life.”