When Dawna Lee-Williams was a high school senior, her guidance counselor encouraged her to interview for a co-op position with Plante Moran. Her first thought?
“Actually, I wasn’t interested,” she laughs. “I already had a part-time job (ironically in that same guidance counselor’s office). I didn’t see the point, but obviously my counselor did. She insisted this could be a good opportunity for me.”
Turns out her counselor was right. For more than three decades, Dawna has been an integral part of the St. Joseph (now Kalamazoo) office — and it’s been quite a journey.
“I started out attending school in the mornings and working at Plante Moran every afternoon while earning — remember this was 32 years ago — the minimum wage of $3.35/hour,” remembers Dawna. “My plan was to finish high school and then join the military. Clearly that didn’t happen. Instead, I opted to take classes at the local college. When my supervisor heard I’d be around longer, he kept extending my job. I stayed through the summer and then part-time while in college. After college, I was offered a full-time administrative position, and I’ve never left.”
Over the years, Dawna has witnessed a lot of changes, most notably, microfiche.
“When I say I handled a lot of microfilm, I mean a lot — years’ worth — of microfilm,” she said. “My daughter doesn’t even know what that is when I explain it to her. Back then, if someone needed a tax file from the past, I had to look it up in the card index file and figure out what role of microfiche it was on. Then I had to set up the projector. Finally, when it was all ready, the partner would come in with a pad of paper to write down what they needed. And then, when those films had to be destroyed, I had to drive to another town and literally sit and watch workers shred our documents in a big warehouse.”
Dawna also remembers “portable” computers that weighed as much as 35 pounds and firmwide paper phone directories that were updated monthly.
“One of the biggest changes I’ve seen is communication,” she recalls. “We only had phones. We didn’t have voicemail or email. You couldn’t call anybody unless you knew their phone number. There was no way to ‘search’ for someone’s contact information. Looking back — wow. If we had those directories today, they’d be pages long and they’d change daily.”
While many things have changed, many aspects of life at Plante Moran have remained the same. For Dawna, her constant has been the people who make up her office.
“At our office, we’re more than just co-workers,” she says with pride. “We’re a family. We’re tightknit. Just this past weekend, we had our MSTSP, the mid-season tax season party at a staff’s home, and then we all went bowling. We have a summer picnic each year as well. And when one of us is ill, we lend a hand — cooking meals and taking care of each other, like you would do for a family member.”
So what about that guidance counselor who advised Dawna to apply all those years ago? Does she know the impact her recommendation made on Dawn’s life?
“Every time I see that counselor out in the community, she laughs and asks if I’m still here,” says Dawna. “I always say ‘Yes, Mrs. Sanders, still there.’ And she says, ‘Well, what did I tell you?’”
“I feel truly blessed that I’ve been able to do the things that I loved at a place that I love. By working in Benton Harbor/St. Joseph, I’ve had my foot in everything. It’s a great place to work, and I’ve been blessed to be here.”