“When traveling with my family, I would always wonder who made our bed and cleaned our room,” Hiller said. “It was like magic to me. I knew I wanted to work in a hotel and make magic, too.”
She was unaware that an undetected medical issue would be a huge obstacle in her way of “making magic” one day.
In high school, she worked in a human resources office at a hotel. There she learned more about the hospitality industry, as well as her passion for the profession.
“The rest was history,” Hiller said.
She received her bachelor’s degree in 1996 in restaurant, hotel, institutional and tourism management; and her master’s degree in 2003 in business administration.
Living the ‘suite’ life
For the past 20 years, Hiller has immersed herself in the world of hospitality management.
She landed her first job out of college as an assistant reservations sales manager at a hotel attached to a theater in Indiana. Many entertainers came through, but Aretha Franklin was the most memorable.
“She called in to make her reservations herself,” Hiller said. “She called me ‘Jo’ and even followed me to Trump Hotel and Casino to stay when she realized I no longer worked there.”
Hiller traveled to places like Mexico, Canada, Paris and Hong Kong as a trainer for global hotel companies.
“It was in this role that I realized I had a passion for teaching,” Hiller said.
Hiller eventually combined her “good, bad and unusual” experiences in the hospitality industry in three published books.
In 2014, Hiller became an instructor at MSU in the hospitality leadership department, and soon went back to school herself.
Overcoming the obstacle of a lifetime
While pursuing her doctoral degree, Hiller received news that her right leg needed to be amputated. She had a hole in her heart undetected since birth and had major blood clots.
“I thought ‘can I continue working on my degree as an amputee?’” Hiller said. “It has been a very long and challenging journey, and I’m not sure if I even believe it yet.”
Hiller completed her Ph.D. in hospitality management in September 2018 at Iowa State University.
She said her amputation affected every aspect of her life.
“Even simple everyday tasks, such as checking the mail or taking out the garbage or going grocery shopping, became well-orchestrated events,” she said. “Imagine having to think through every step that you make while wearing a prosthesis not understanding how it works.”
Hiller still kept her positive and passionate outlook throughout the journey, and even gained a new “friend” along the way.
“I was told early on to name my prosthetic so that my doctor’s visits wouldn’t be so clinical,” Hiller said. “My leg is named Sabrina and I truly have coped with things by giving her a personality, laughing at my ups and downs, being sarcastic and sharing my experiences.”
Recently, Miz CEO, a society for entrepreneurial women in business, nominated Hiller for ‘Authorprenuer of the Year.’
“When you do things in an effort to help others, any recognition makes you feel humble and encourages you to do more,” Hiller said.