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New HR director traveled “long, winding path” to SMC

Fire and ice loom large in the life of Heather Hess, Southwestern Michigan College’s new human resources director. Hess, of Sister Lakes, joined SMC on June 4 after five years in HR at Northwestern Michigan College (NMC) in Traverse City. Her husband, Jeremy, is a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). They are the parents of two young sons.

Hess has an associate degree in fire science from Wyoming’s Casper College to go with a bachelor’s degree from Bentley University in Waltham, Mass., west of Boston. Last summer she also earned a master’s degree in business administration from Grand Rapids-based Davenport University. Davenport partners with NMC, similar to the SMC-Ferris State University alliance.

Hess’ wide-ranging background includes being born in Germany while her father was stationed with the military, growing up in Philadelphia (“the village of brotherly love”) in upstate New York, working in HR amidst the scenic splendor of Grand Teton National Park and living seven months in New Zealand. During college she studied abroad in Spain, visiting the house where she spent the first two years of her life and their former German neighbors.

Hess traveled a “long, winding path” to SMC. “I have a business background and moved out West after college” to indulge her passion for winter and outdoor activities, especially snowboarding and cross-country skiing. Philadelphia sits 90 minutes north of Syracuse, socked with “tons of snow” off Lake Ontario. “When I came for my interview here at SMC, of course I checked out Swiss Valley.”

With her bachelor’s degree in information design and corporate communication, “My first fulltime job out of college was as an HR assistant in the Tetons” mountain range of the Rockies. “We closed in the winter so I could enjoy it as much as I wanted. As I progressed up the ranks, I moved around Jackson,” which is home to three ski areas.

Hess said she and Jeremy moved to New Zealand to “follow winter. We did odd jobs in hostels and stacked shipping pallets for a company like Walmart. We did whatever we could to make ends meet for the time we were there. Experiences like that are so worth it because they bring so much to your perspective.

“When we came back to the US, I wasn’t quite ready to go back to HR, so I became an EMT/firefighter. I’ve been an EMT/firefighter in three different departments,” Hess said. “I enjoyed it. It’s very rewarding work. In Wyoming, it was 30- to 40-percent female, but I was the only female in Allendale. In Traverse City there were one or two other female firefighters.” While it’s tempting to quip about putting out fires in HR, she credits firefighting for “giving me a lot of perspective on what a real emergency is, which helps me keep calm.”

She’s now responsible for all HR operations at one of Cass County’s largest job providers with about 400 employees. “SMC has been a very welcoming place,” she said. “Everyone I’ve met has been very friendly and helpful. I appreciate how supportive everyone has been. My door’s open to anyone with questions or concerns. I’m happy to listen.”