Ryan Heater has worked in many different government-related capacities since completing a history degree at Purdue in 2006.
The 2019 Emerging Voice Award winner has worked as a legislative assistant in the Indiana General Assembly. He worked under three different lieutenant governors – Suzanne Crouch, Eric Holcomb, and Sue Ellspermann – as policy and legislative director. And he was the association manager for the Indiana Cable Telecommunications Association.
For more than a year, Heater has served as executive director of external affairs for the Indiana Regulatory Commission. In this role, he leads the commission’s legislative, media, and stakeholder management strategies and also oversees the consumer affairs division and disbursement strategy of the Underground Plant Protection Account fund.
After graduating from Purdue, Heater enlisted in the Indiana Army National Guard, serving with the Long Range Surveillance (Airborne) unit as assistant team leader, and he completed a J.D. in 2012 at the Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law.
Heater was one of three alumni that the College of Liberal Arts recognized with an Emerging Voice Award at a Sept. 13 ceremony. He recently discussed the role a liberal arts background played in his career with THiNK Magazine editor David Ching. Here are excerpts from their conversation:
Q: When you look back on your college career, how did studying history – and liberal arts in general – prepare you for your career?
A: More than anything, it just taught me to think differently or think broadly and to see things from all kinds of different angles. It taught me to research, helped me learn to write. All those different things helped, not only for my career, but also for law school.
In law school, they always talk about how you’re not necessarily learning the law, you’re learning how to think like a lawyer. Much like what history and liberal arts at Purdue did for me, it taught me to think differently. Like how do I approach an issue or anything I’m doing in my regular job? It’s about how to approach it, and it’s taught me to think very broadly.
In many of my roles I’ve done, my primary role is to provide feedback or research or even an analysis, whether it’s an issue or whatever in the policy world. My goal is always to present as much information as possible with numerous different viewpoints. So whoever the receiver of that is, whether it be the lieutenant governor or one of those folks, it’s saying, “Here is how this issue is viewed from many points of view and here’s maybe a way of thinking forward.”
Q: Was it always your expectation to follow the history-to-law school path?
A: To be honest, no. I’ll put it this way: I did not choose history – and I was actually a Law and Society major, as well – with the distinct plan of going to law school. Law school was definitely an option, but I’m not one of those folks who was dead set on going to law school after undergrad.
It was definitely an option for me, I had great interest in it, but it was just a good stepping stone for whatever may be next. Honestly had I not gone to law school, which has been very helpful of course, that liberal arts degree, for the work I have done, has been tremendously helpful.
Q: So when you were in your early days of college, were you still trying to figure out what you wanted to do?
A: Yep. Like a lot of people. I spoke at the SCLA 300 course last week. I took a similar class as a freshman. There was actually a gentleman who was an FBI agent and he spoke. He was a history major at Purdue, went on to law school, and he became a special agent for the FBI. And I thought, “Well that’s an interesting career path.” It was something that sparked my mind to thinking, “OK, there’s a lot of different options where you can go with this.” That’s kind of where I ended up, but I didn’t know exactly what it was going to be for sure.
Q: Did you do ROTC?
A: I didn’t. One of my very close friends did Air Force ROTC during my time at Purdue and I got to know a lot about what he did. I always felt this, for lack of a better word, calling or desire to serve and be in the military. It was kind of weighing on me and finally I think I signed up in 2009. I had no ROTC background or anything like that during college. It was just something I wanted to do.
Q: When did working in government become a career goal?
A: The very first experience was I actually did an unpaid internship with a superior court judge in Tippecanoe County during one of the summers that I stayed on campus for some classes and work. I was over there a few days a week, part-time, and then he had a couple projects for me to do. I mostly just got to observe what he was doing for the bench, as well.
And then my real true taste of it was the following summer, the summer before I graduated I did an internship for Indiana State Department of Agriculture. That’s where I got a taste of it, and I actually was able to connect with some folks who had worked at the General Assembly through that internship. That kind of sparked my interest.
After that internship, when I returned to Purdue, I applied for the next internship at the General Assembly because of my interest in that process, the legislature. And that’s kind of where it went from there. It just started rolling. I was an intern during the session in 2007, got hired on full-time as a legislative assistant, and then continued from there.
Q: As you progressed through different roles in government, how did your perspective on government change?
A: That’s a great question. I think there’s unfortunately a perception about government in general that it’s slow. It can be slow. There’s some bureaucracy, but that’s by design. That’s what government is supposed to do. It’s supposed to be overseeing society.
While there are some of those perceptions about government being slow and lazy and not very helpful, I find that to be vastly incorrect when you get to meet people who are serving – whether they are in an admin role at any kind of state agency or a leadership agency director role or up to the governor or lieutenant governor level. Everybody really, truly does have an interest in providing a service to whoever the constituency is.
I find most people I work with, in working for people who have a problem that needs to be solved or need to just navigate state government, do appreciate it when you can lend a hand and help out. I think most people in that world are ready and willing to help and do whatever their role is that will further society.
Now currently I’m doing more on the utility side, but any realm I’ve worked in, it’s all about improving. I think people have that servant’s heart, if you will, more than the general public probably has an understanding for.
Q: Are you someone who keeps a five-year plan or a 10-year plan?
A: To be very frank, no. I don’t. Of course everybody wants to see their career progress. I have taken the approach that I don’t have a goal laid out where I want to be in the next five years, but I’m in a new position that I just started a year ago. This is kind of one that was a new challenge, it was time for something a little bit different, and I’m taking it as, “OK, this is a role that I really need to sink my teeth into and be focused on for the next five years.”
That doesn’t mean I’m leaving in five, but I’m at that stage now where I’m really digging in and trying to do what I can and improve not only myself, but to help provide assistance to the agency I’m working for and reporting to, and ultimately to the greater administration and to the state.
Q: How often do you get back to Purdue?
A: It’s never as often as you would like. That’s the best answer I have. I did have season tickets for football games, so that was a pull for a long time. But now I have two very young kids, so getting away for a full Saturday is a challenge right now. Hopefully when they get older we can get back into that.
I try to get back for a game or two, both for football and basketball, and then I’m very fortunate to have been invited back by the College of Liberal Arts to either speak or participate in a small panel or attend an event. Whenever I can do that, I try to participate because being on campus, there’s always a lot of energy there and it’s just great to get back and visit.
Q: What advice do you have for history students today?
A: Grades, of course, matter. Make sure you get as good a grade as you possibly can. But sit back and reflect and take time to really take in what you’re doing. Understand the material. Understand that process. I think that will serve you well in the long run.
Sometimes as a student, you get too caught up in preparing for an exam or preparing for the next quiz when it’s better to just sit back and really take in information and better understand what you’re doing, what you’re learning, why. Ask those kinds of questions.