Legacy Series: Siler Finds Her Home at HRM

Posted: Tuesday, September 12th 2017 at 11:01 AM

Portrait of Suzanne Siler“I was the Queen of Cleaning by the time I was 18,” Suzanne Siler ('94) shared, her smile lighting up her face. Siler, currently HRM’s program director for Internships and Career Services, reflected on where her life in the hospitality industry began. But as she describes it, life didn’t truly begin until she found her home at Northern Arizona University’s School of Hotel and Restaurant Management.

“I started in hospitality when I was 12-13 years old. The three kids were responsible for cleaning my mom and dad’s rentals in Tucson when renters would leave– houses, triplexes, duplexes – prepping it, painting it, resetting it for the new renters,” she said.

After high school, Suzanne went on to start her own full time cleaning business in Tucson for private homes as well as commercial cleaning. By the time she was 28-29, she had a son, had been divorced for several years, and was on her own making ends meet with part time jobs waitressing, cocktailing, and bartending as well as cleaning hotel rooms on the weekends. She found she was hitting a wall.

“I wasn't able to move any further into management because they said I didn't have a bachelors degree. So that's when I started researching. In 1990, a friend told me about the HRM program up here that had opened in ’87. I said ‘Well I'm gonna check that out.’

“I met Peter Van Kleek, then-dean of HRM. He tried to convince me not to come because I was a single mom. I think it was reverse psychology because he really made me put my heels in the ground and say ‘No, I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna do this. This is what I want to do.’

“By fall of 1991, I had moved my son here; I was in family housing; I had quit my three jobs; and I moved my cleaning business up here. In my first semester I started working part time at the Inn at NAU. I was back of the house intern manager for a semester and through the summer during that time, as well as a student manager during my last two semesters.

“HRM was still pretty much in its infancy. I loved the small Inn at NAU. That's where I feel like I really grew up and became a more mature adult. I am forever grateful for Ken Heerding, general manager of the Inn. He is my mentor to this day. He saw in me what I couldn't see in myself. From my experience that I had early on I was able to reconfigure housekeeping and make it flow better and purchase equipment that was badly needed in order for it to have efficiency and effectiveness. He was flexible with me as far as me being a single mom. I did a semester shift as night audit, and I would come in at 10 or 11 and work ‘till 7 in the morning. I'm very grateful for his willingness to share with me and be honest. His sense of humor was phenomenal, and it always kept the team going.

“I’m also grateful for Galen Collins, another mentor. Frannie Hill, Bruce Urdang, Paul Wiener, Rich Howey – I had all of them as instructors when I was here for school. Julene (aka Ms. Jo) Boger and I worked together at the Inn and then she became GM, and I worked under her. Chef Don Carlson – everything I learned from him and his management strategies and all the recipes that he knew. I gathered experience from everyone. It was just phenomenal,” she said.

Siler completed her bachelors in three years and graduated in December of 1994. She wanted to stay in Flagstaff. She worked as the supervisor and coordinator for renovation of all rooms and back of the house management at the Inn Suites, a 138 room property on Route 66 but kept in touch with Heerding. In 1997, she moved into the Inn at NAU’s housekeeping manager position and helped with the rest of hotel management.

She started her Masters in Education in 2000. While earning that degree, she volunteered as an academic adviser because she realized that she wanted to move into internship, career services, and academic advising.

“By the time I finished my masters in 2005, I had worked three years as an academic adviser as well as housekeeping manager, and I was still doing my cleaning business and waitressing part-time. I also lectured part-time, back of the house, for two classes, two semesters a year. In 2005 I had the opportunity to take Ken’s position as internship coordinator as he retired. I was then in charge of internships and continued to lecture up until 2009 when I moved over to administration full time.

“My life really began as an adult and to have direction when I came to HRM at age 29. To have the opportunity to come here, get my degree, move forward, have direction, learn about options really resonated with me. To help others with that, to help them be on their way in their career paths before they reach 25, is phenomenal,” she said.

As director, Siler has built up the program for internships and career services, developing connections with employers. She’s evolved the Hospitality Career Fair and facilitated new events such as special guest speakers, Spotlight visits from employers, and the Franke College of Business’ Pathways events.

When she took the position in 2009, it was the first time in her life that she worked just one job.

“I could actually spend more time with my son who graduated from high school in 2005, and he was transitioning into his own adulthood. I was finding other ways to develop myself as well. What I grew up with was my work ethic. It was everything. It's just been in the last 10 years that I have learned to find work/life balance, trying to maintain that in today's work culture at NAU.

“I volunteer about 10 hours a week, working very closely with people in substance abuse and alcoholism. I counsel as well as sponsor individuals trying to get their lives back on track. It's like another job but it’s a passion, it's a love that I have to give back to the community. I very much enjoy that.

“I always have something to do. I don't know that I've ever been bored. I love the four seasons. I love the outdoors and camping, and I love animals. I work with pets and training them – love to do that – although I don't get to do it very often,” she said.

Ken [not Heerding but her husband] was a part of her “outside the rooms” experience.

“I bought my first house when I got my job at HRM in 2005. He lived two streets down, and I had a dog that I would walk every day after getting home from work. He was always tinkering with cars in his garage. Two years later, he asked me out. We’ve been married six years, last June.

“My son is now at the University of Arizona, finishing in spring of 2018 with a degree in social sciences and a minor in mathematics and statistics. He'll be working with people who do sociological studies, nationally and internationally in regards to societies and divisions and groups of people, hoping that he can bring the world together with these studies and his statistical data. *laughter* I’m not quite sure how that's going to happen, but he's got a passion for it. He's on his way. I said, you know Zach, it took me until I was 32 to figure out what I wanted to do, so you're ahead of the game. *laughter* I'm excited for him.

“It's been a great life and there's so much more to look forward to. I like to think I'm half way there ...maybe I'll find another opportunity that would allow me to spread my wings and grow even further. The whole reason I came to school was to gain the skills to have my own bed and breakfast, and I still have that business plan. I feel like by the time I'm ready to retire at 65 or so, I'll be ready to do an Air BNB in Flagstaff, Arizona. You can't go wrong. This is a perfect vacation environment, whether it's winter or summer. There’s really no shoulder seasons here.

“Since I arrived on the NAU campus in 1991, I knew at some level that I was home, that I was right where I was supposed to be. Never wanted to leave. I hope to continue to contribute to HRM as well as NAU and Flagstaff. I love the growth in the Flagstaff community as well as on the NAU campus. The campus is its own little city. I still love the feel of it and what makes it so inviting and personalized. It's certainly not what I came into in the early 90's but it's better. It's just right for those that are coming in now. I have my memories, and I look forward to seeing what's going on in the future.

 “I love this family of HRM. It's where I became a responsible leader in the community, and learned to be of service to others. I listen to the alumni who come back and join us for events and fairs and have the opportunity to share with me about where they've gone. Some of them are general managers, some of them own their own businesses, and some of them are consultants in development at 25 years of age. I love to hear about it.

“I hope that I can leave a piece of me here at HRM, some kind of legacy and have that footprint on HRM. Not out of ego but out of, ‘gosh I was a part of this.’ I'm so appreciative of that.

“I haven't published any books; I haven't published articles; I don't do research, but I feel like my contribution has been in my connections with the people that have been here, that are still here, and the students that have moved on and in developing the programs that we have today to help students get the placements that they have.

“Hospitality – being of service, working with people – is my home and my passion,” she concluded, as a contentment settled over her.


Categories: legacy series legacy series: siler finds her home at hrm suzanne siler 2017 summer 2017 ken heerding