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Jennifer Heppel recently wrapped up her first year as the Executive Director of the Patriot League. Prior to her appointment, she spent time at the Big Ten and Georgetown among other stops. In talking with Heppel, she conveyed to us the importance of continually challenging yourself throughout your professional career.
On Her Journey
Like many, Jennifer Heppel began as a student-athlete, a Division III Hockey player at Wesleyan University. “I graduated college and wanted to do something in life that I was passionate about, and being a student-athlete had defined my college experience. I wanted to stay involved not just with athletics but with higher education.
“It would be easy to look back and I could do a revisionist history and say that there was a grand plan, but there wasn’t. I had a lot of thoughts about what might be challenging or what might be interesting, but zero experience and coming out of Division III, everybody coached. There were no pure administrators in the department other than the athletic trainer, so I didn’t even have a sense about what the opportunities might be, so I did what just about what everybody does at 22 years of age, having some grand ideas, no experience and not a lot of substance. I went to (grad school).”
On Career Challenges
“I think the challenges for me have been primarily internal. I want to be challenged at work. I want to feel like I provide a level of value to whatever the organization I’m working with is, and I have always been less focused on title and more focused on responsibility, the actual work that I’m doing. I think that means that I’ve always challenged myself to look for expanding work responsibilities and trying new things. Narrowing that and keeping a level of focus is important… but it’s not always a natural thing to do.
“I would say that the challenge is the challenge itself; it’s continuing to challenge myself to try new things and be exposed to different work responsibilities. When I’ve been in a job that I actually really like and I’m comfortable in, it’s fighting that comfort in favor of challenges.”
On The Mentors Who’ve Guided Her
“[My] athletic director at the time, John Biddiscombe, was also the wrestling coach, but he was the first person I ever really came across who had an interest in women’s sports. I was captain of the team, and I remember he was about a year into being AD. He set up times with us to meet and speak about our experiences, even while his resources were slim and especially for a sport like women’s hockey. I could see that he knew that we were working just as hard and were just as competitive, and he did what he could. It was a slow turn of the ship in the early 90’s, but I look at the women’s programs at Wesleyan now, and there are unbelievable experiences for those student athletes. John Biddiscombe had a lot to do with that. So I have a lot of respect for the groundwork that he was laying down.”
On Advice For Aspiring Professionals
“Be more conscious of the smaller impacts that you can have that you don’t even realize that you’re having on individuals. Whether it’s student athletes or coaches or co-workers, older, younger, same age. I have found that it’s the smaller interactions that have impacted me the most, and I try to be cognizant of that.
“If I look at my career, it’s not just one single person; I get asked the mentor question a lot, and I struggle with it because I wish I had an easy answer. I wish I could point to one person, but I think instead what I point to is the culmination of ripples that really led me to have, not only the experience, but the confidence and the ability and the guts to say that I can do this. There are other people doing this. The accumulation of ripples that build into these big waves that push you forward. For me, it’s been a lot of little interactions.”
When speaking in regards to what jobs people should take an interest in, Heppel had this to say: “Smaller is bigger and smaller is better in the long run because the smaller the organization, the bigger the opportunity and responsibilities you’re going to have within the organization. The smaller the operation, the bigger the the responsibility and the more you’ll have to work with. Go to the ‘un-sexy’ job. Smaller gives you more experiences and gave me a better sense as to what interested me. I got that at the Big 10 because it was once a smaller operation. And compared to its member institutions it still isn’t very large. When there’s a big event, it’s all hands on deck. It’s different; I had four responsibilities at the NCAA and that’s what I did. It was a great experience, but it was a very different experience. For me, the smaller works better.”
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