Heather Wilson walks into a room of young South Dakota School of Mines & Technology alumni with a big smile as she makes her way to each one, shaking hands.
She jokes with one young man about a rivalry between mechanical engineers and metallurgical engineers which gets the whole room of close to 20 people laughing and chiming in about who is better.
Only a few weeks into her new job as president of Mines, Wilson was sitting at a table at a local company started by a Mines alumnus who makes it a point to hire other Mines grads.
She answered questions — some pointed — from the former students. She asked them about their experiences, eliciting candid, in-depth responses. It's clear these alumni care deeply about their alma mater, and Wilson makes sure they know she does too.
She is charismatic, competitive, ambitious and charming. A master politician and surprising choice for president of Mines. But the former congresswoman from New Mexico has big plans to turn Rapid City's small university from a hidden gem to a crown jewel.
Less than a year ago, Wilson had never heard of Mines.
But after a second bitter defeat for a New Mexico Senate seat, Wilson was on the hunt for a job in higher education. The 52-year-old Rhodes scholar said it was always her plan and now seemed like a good time.
"I always expected to spend some of my life in higher education," Wilson said shortly after she started in June. "Most Rhodes scholars do. I chose a different path. And I always felt called back. I anticipated that it would be after serving in the United States Senate, but it turned out to be in lieu of or before."
Wilson stressed that her time pursuing political office is over.
She hired a headhunter and then she heard about the presidency opening at Mines. She said she sent an email to her former Republican colleague, South Dakota Sen. John Thune.
"I think I wrote something like, 'Yo, tell me about the School of Mines.'"
She said he replied with something like, “Exceptional school, hidden gem.”
Wilson said that after her research, she became more excited about the opportunity to lead Mines. She knew she needed to sell herself and hope the hiring committee was open-minded.
"The school didn’t need someone to revamp curriculum," Wilson said. "They needed someone from the outside to hold up that mirror so they can see what a great school it is. And remove it from under that bushel."
When the South Dakota Board of Regents announced the four finalists for the presidency earlier this year, Wilson said she still thought she stood a slim chance against the seasoned academics she was up against.
“Well, it was like 'Sesame Street,'" Wilson said. "One of these things is not like the other.”
She brought her husband along on a trip to Rapid City as “arm candy” and to introduce herself to the regents, the search committee and the Mines community. But she said she thought at the very least they got a short vacation out of it.
“We thought, 'Well, let's go up there and have a nice weekend in the Black Hills.'”
But now, as she settles in to her position as the 19th and first female president of Mines, she knows why she was chosen and she has big plans for the small school that is starting to get national recognition for academic excellence, education value and return on investment.
Board of Regents Executive Director Jack Warner said Wilson has the connections, smarts and ability to take Mines to new heights in every aspect of what a top-tier university strives to be.
"I would say that both the community and those at the School of Mines, including the faculty, staff, students and all other constituencies, were quite taken with her intelligence and her grasp of the issues," Warner said. "You would not describe her as a higher education insider, but we were very impressed that she ran a complex state agency, and also that she had the kind of connections externally that would benefit the institution."
Warner said when they started, they were not sure exactly what they were looking for in a president.
"What happened is we cast the net broadly," Warner said. "Then her name surfaced so the firm contacted us. And we thought she made an effective case for her leadership of the institution."
Wilson may not be an higher education insider, but she is a Washington insider.
She spent 10 years representing New Mexico as a Republican in the U.S House of Representatives. She was one of the few women in Congress and made history as the first female veteran elected to Congress. She served on several committees and subcommittees, many having to do with national security.
She received national attention in early 2006 when she criticized the George W. Bush administration over the secretive wiretap program being run by the National Security Administration.
She was the first member of Congress to speak out about the need for greater oversight of the program.
She told the New York Times that she had "serious concerns" about the program with a deepened sense of apprehension over whom the program was monitoring and why after dealings with the Bush administration withholding information about its operations.
This led to a wave of other lawmakers joining her. She was praised for voting her conscience over toeing the party line.
She gave up her seat in the House when Sen. Pete Dominici announced he would not see re-election. Wilson lost in that primary to Republican Steve Pearce, who billed himself as a more conservative candidate. Pearce then lost the general election to Democrat Tom Udall.
She ran again in 2012 when New Mexico Democratic Sen. Jeff Bingaman retired. She won the GOP nomination but lost in the general election to Democrat Martin Heinrich.
Wilson still has ties to Washington, as she was picked by House Speaker John Boehner to serve on the Advisory Panel on the Governance of National Labs and Nuclear Security Enterprise. The board has yet to convene, but it is tasked to “examine options and make recommendations for revising the governance structure, mission, and management of the nuclear security enterprise.”
The five-member advisory panel is supposed to draft a final report by Feb. 1.
As with most public and political figures, Wilson has had her share of critics and controversy.
She spent time early in her political career defending the movement of a personal file containing sensitive information on her family during their time as foster parents to a more secure location at the New Mexico agency she led. After the issue surfaced during a brutal campaign season in 1998, the former district attorney went on record with the Albuquerque Journal to say an investigation found Wilson did nothing illegal. Bob Schwartz, the former prosecutor, said the actions were improper, however.
There were other incidents over the years.
In 2007 Wilson was tied to a Bush Administration scandal in which several U.S. attorneys were fired and an investigation was opened to determine whether the White House ordered the firings for politically motivated reasons.
Bush political advisor Karl Rove alleged that Wilson asked him to fire New Mexico federal prosecutor David Iglesias because he was not moving fast enough in a case against a Democrat. Wilson denied this and only admitted to calling Iglesias. Iglesias accused her of pressuring him.
After leaving the House in 2009, Wilson created a consulting firm and used her experience in national security to serve as a contractor to several national laboratories and defense contractors.
Days before taking over the presidency at Mines, Wilson was named in a Department of Energy Inspector General's report that stated her federally funded contracts with four national labs did not meet basic reporting requirements.
Her contracts — totaling $450,000 from 2009 to 2011 with Los Alamos National Laboratory, Sandia National Laboratories, Oak Ridge National Laboratory and Nevada National Security Site — were found by the IG to be lacking the proper documentation of work provided.
Wilson asserted that everything she did was in compliance with the contracts she signed, and she could not give details to the media about work provided because it's classified
Chris Sanchez, Wilson's campaign communications director for the 2012 Senate race, sang Wilson's praises as an employer and a mentor.
He said the attention she gave the interns for her political campaign was something he had never seen before.
"Often times interns don’t usually get attention from the candidate," Sanchez said in a telephone interview. "Heather, on the other hand, was really great with the interns. She came in every morning and talked to them, picked their brains and inspired them to be bold about where they want to go and who they want to be."
Sanchez recalled that at the end of the summer, they took the four or five interns out to lunch.
"She bought a book for each intern," he said. "Each one was tailored to the interests of the intern, and she wrote a note inside for them."
"She is just very thoughtful, very caring, and that is something I've never seen before. Heather is smart and she gets along with wicked smart people, but her real strength is listening and finding the gifts everybody has and relating to them."
Something that may surprise those who have not met Wilson or do not follow her on Twitter or Instagram is that she is funny.
"She is absolutely hilarious," Sanchez said. "Traveling on the road with her was one of the highlights of the campaign. We would go to these small towns, find the weirdest things and take photos. For example, we found a shop in Las Cruces that serves donuts and menudo, which is sort of a weird combination. So she took a picture and posted it on her social media accounts."
Sanchez said Wilson required no coaching on how to use social media, like some adults over a certain age might.
"She is very savvy with the social media. She did it all herself. I think her personality really shines through that way."
Wilson lists three major goals: To increase enrollment, expand research and build housing.
The way she sees it, a university president has to be able to do four things simultaneously.
"You have to be able to fund raise particularly when a school is growing, you have to be able to steward research, you have to be able to do the administration work of a school, and you have to be able to relate to community," Wilson said.
Wilson also wants Mines students to compete with students around the world. She wants to encourage Mines students to apply for prestigious awards like the Rhodes scholarship, Harry S. Truman Scholarship, Gates Scholarship, Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship and more.
Wilson hopes to build "Mines Pride" from the inside out.
“We’re nerds and we’re proud of it,” she said.
And while that might sound like sports team spirit, Wilson said there is just as much fun and spirit behind other competitions that involve science, engineering and design, things like the concrete canoe competition among others.
“Some of the kids need to be taught how to have fun-I understand that. There is a lot of fun to be had with science and engineering.”
Wilson also plans to get Mines students more involved in the community. The 400 incoming freshmen will participate in a large service project as a way to build relationships with each other and with the community.
”If you notice the campus sort of faces inward," she said. "It needs to face out."
Her son is in college and daughter, Caitlin is almost 17 years-old and finishing high school at a private Catholic School in New Mexico. Wilson said it was important to Caitlin to be able to finish high school and continue to compete in events with her debate team.
Husband, Hone, will stay and work at his law practice in Albuquerque. Wilson said being a military family, they are used to deployment type situations.
Wilson was born in 1960 and grew up in Keene, N.H. While attending high school she decided to go to the Air Force Academy when the first class of women was accepted in 1976, her junior year of high school.
She would be the first in her family to graduate college.
Her childhood in the Granite State was spent with her mother, a stay-at-home mom and operating room nurse, her two brothers and her father, a commercial pilot and experimental aircraft builder.
Wilson's father died in a car accident when she was 6 years old.
"I remember him laughing, building things, loving airplanes and riding a motorcycle," Wilson said.
Her mother's inability to pursue the profession of her choice because she was a woman had a big impact on Wilson.
"She had wanted to be a veterinarian as a teenager in the 1940s, but her high school guidance counselor told her that a woman couldn't be a veterinarian, so she went to nursing school," Wilson said. "I think her experience and the women's movement of the 1970s made her quite determined that I be allowed and encouraged to be anything I wanted to be."
Her paternal grandparents came from Scotland to America in the 1920s and were very influential in her young life. Wilson has fond memories of her grandmother, Nana Wilson.
"She loved me unconditionally and always reassured me that everyone has a talent and that I would find mine," Wilson said.
But she more closely followed in her grandfather's footsteps.
He flew for the Royal Flying Corps, which later became the Royal Air Force, during World War I and he then flew for the U.S. in World War II. He was also a barnstormer and commercial pilot.
"He lived to see me go to the Air Force Academy," Wilson said. "He was a pretty tough guy who had two sons, five grandsons and me. The only time I ever saw him cry was the day I left for the Academy. I went to see him to say goodbye. He told me some flying stories and a single tear etched his face.
"He was very proud of me."