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Leadership experience prepares alum for HR career

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Nothing could better have prepared Jessica Pettry Smith for a career in human resources than living and studying at Purdue. Her studies culminated with an undergraduate degree in hospitality management and a Master of Science Degree in Human Resource Management (MSHRM). Her living arrangements as a resident assistant, both as a graduate and undergraduate student, honed her interpersonal skills and her ability to deal with difficult situations.

“I probably learned as much outside the classroom as in it, but both aspects were great,” says Smith, an HR business leader at Northrop Grumman in Maryland. “As an RA, I became sensitive to how pressure can affect people, and that has helped me in my professional career.”

Born in Cairo, Illinois, (pronounced KAY-roe, it’s where the Mississippi and Ohio rivers converge), Smith envisioned a career in the hospitality field. After earning her undergraduate degree, she spent six months as a conference planner at Arthur Andersen before taking a position as a marketing consultant with Ungerboeck Systems, an event-management software company located in St. Louis.

Smith’s path took a detour in 2002. When the tourism industry took a huge hit following 9/11, she found herself without a job and looking for direction. As a stopgap, she worked as an administrative assistant for a construction and trucking business (“I did sales and collections,” she says, “but I’m only 5-foot-1 and I couldn’t drive the trucks”) while applying at graduate schools.

Smith was considering an MBA program in the St. Louis area when she visited friends at Purdue around the holidays in 2002. One of her mentors from her undergraduate days, entomology Professor Alan York, suggested she apply to the Krannert School. Smith had decided that she wanted to specialize in human resources, so she decided to enter the MSHRM program.

“It was a great decision,” says Smith, who cites Mike Campion and Brad Alge as two of her most influential teachers. “I was surrounded by students from the MBA program, and many of them had technical experience as engineers or similar occupations.

“It really helped prepare me for my future roles, because if I was going to be successful, I had to be able to formulate my thoughts and express them on a level equal to my peers.”

Smith took a rotational assignment with defense and space giant Northrop Grumman straight out of the MSHRM program, and she now works in the Cyber Intelligence Division of the company. She focuses on strategic initiatives for HR, looking, for example, at gaps in skill sets within her client base.

Married in late 2011, Smith is enjoying her life in the HR field. “It’s exactly what I wanted to do,” she says. “I wouldn’t have changed a thing about my time at Purdue and what has happened since I left.”