Paving the way

Graduate student Zach Ashby finds his direction at Wright State

Graduate student Zach Ashby found the perfect option to pursue his career goals in Wright State’s graduate human factors and industrial/organizational psychology program.

“Go west, young man,” is a phrase credited to newspaper editor Horace Greeley in the 1860s to call attention to opportunities in the American frontier. Fast forward to today: Zach Ashby was out west but went east to find his opportunity at Wright State University.

He went as far east as Ohio, where Ashby, his wife and their toddler daughter settled in at Wright State University with no friends or family.

Wright State offered the perfect opportunity for Ashby, and thanks to fortunate circumstances, his education and his personal drive, he is putting that opportunity to good use during an internship.

Ashby is pursuing a master’s degree in human factors and industrial/organizational psychology, with a concentration in human performance and effectiveness in Wright State’s College of Science and Mathematics. It’s a non-thesis track program, which is important to him.

Before enrolling at Wright State, Ashby and his family lived in Provo, Utah, where he helped people find employment as an operations supervisor for a vocational rehabilitation agency. He earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Brigham Young University, where his wife, Samantha, who studied elementary education, also attended. They have a 2-year-old daughter, Melanie.

“I was drawn to Wright State because of its combined human factors and industrial/organizational psychology program. I had been torn between which of those to go into, but Wright State had both, and the non-thesis option,” he said. “From what I found, it was the only place that offered the combined program.”

They arrived in Ohio for the start of the 2023 Fall Semester, and he began his studies in earnest. The plan was for him to land a job and Samantha would stay home with Melanie. But as the months passed, the list of job applications that led nowhere grew.

“It was a little bit frustrating,” he said.

Then a person he connected with at his church invited him to work at a local paving company as a consultant on a project that fit his skillset: analyzing and interpreting employee survey data and offering observations and suggestions on how to proceed.

Ashby started the project at Barrett Paving in December, reviewing data from the surveys of about 100 employees across nine company locations. In January he presented his findings to company executives.

His project went so well the company asked him to replicate it in their other regions nationwide. Ashby started an internship at the end of January and continues to work for the company over the summer.

“I’ll work on follow-up projects from the survey, especially gathering additional information,” he said. “Their goal is to make work the best it can be for their employees.”

He said his dual fields of study will come in handy.

Human factors focuses on how people interact with their environment, such as ergonomics, safety and decision making. Industrial/organizational psychology focuses on how people interact in work environments, such as motivation, engagement and performance.

Ashby will work alongside front-line workers to learn the employee experience from the ground up.

“I’ll have the opportunity to travel to other states and introduce what human factors and industrial occupational psychology is all about – making work better.”

Debra Steele-Johnson, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Psychology at Wright State, said Ashby’s graduate program will provide him with knowledge and skills that greatly benefit his employer.

“Add to that Zach’s initiative, intellectual curiosity and ability to effectively communicate psychological ideas and concepts to others, and I completely understand why Zach’s employer snatched him up before another employer could,” Steele-Johnson said. “I think this is a good match in that Zach brings really useful knowledge about work psychology to the employer, and the employer can provide substantial career opportunities and growth for Zach.”

Ashby called the internship a blessing.

“Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t get any of the other jobs I applied to. Even though it was a long wait, this one is so much better in every way,” he said.

“Wright State has been great,” he said. “So has Ohio in general. The people have been nice. I love the hospitality. We like it here.”

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