Resilience Under Pressure

ISD HR Generalist Michelle W. Hornbacker is a self-described introvert who speaks three languages (English, Thai and French) and loves helping her colleagues learn from each other’s cultural differences and perspectives.


Michelle W. Hornbacker is no stranger to higher education.

Growing up in Hatyai, Thailand, she developed a deep love for the arts and sciences from her parents, who were librarians at a local university. “From an early age, they stressed the importance of academics,” Hornbacker said.

Hornbacker set an example for her three younger siblings by graduating from one of Thailand’s most prestigious universities, Thammasat University in Bangkok. After graduation, she started working for international firms: “my first boss moved to Thailand from France… I worked in a very international environment. I enjoyed meeting people from different cultures and learning how we can be different, but similar at the same time.”

While she was living in Bangkok, the country of Thailand was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, which claimed the lives of more than 8000 people. Hornbacker volunteered to help the survivors.

It is this experience that helped her find strength and resilience even in the most trying situations. She likes to see herself as a bamboo timber: “The deep roots take time to grow, it may take years to fully develop. When it starts growing it may appear small but it’s very resilient. It can grow in snow, in hot weather, and every season it always comes back stronger.”

That can-do attitude helped her to make the transition across the ocean from her native country to Michigan. The idea of permanently moving away from her homogenous homeland, away from family and friends, to one of the most diverse countries in the world in an often cold climate would have been overwhelming to most. 

Not to Hornbacker.

“My strengths are a strong foundation and being able to bend when I need to and keep coming back strong,” Hornbacker said.

She lives by the old Chinese proverb, “the higher you grow, the deeper you bow.”

She maintained a commitment to helping others in the United States, where she regularly participates in charitable races and events. She also volunteers for the Humane Society of Huron Valley in Ann Arbor, fostering cats and visiting cats at the shelter.

Helping New Employees
Hornbacker joined the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business as a hospitality contractor in 2009. Feeling encouraged to develop her career further, she was soon promoted to a position in Human Resources. At the same time, she enrolled at Eastern Michigan University, where she would eventually graduate with a Master’s Degree in Human Resource Management and Organizational Development. She remained a contractor for a year before moving to the U-M’s Shared Services Center. One of her favorite tasks at the Center was hosting new employee orientations at Wolverine Tower. 

“Everyone is excited about starting their new jobs,” she said. “I still have colleagues come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I remember you. You were one of the first people I met at U-M.’ I love helping to answer employee questions. Helping to figure out the issues. It’s very rewarding. I’m privileged to help contribute to the success of the university and develop the leaders and the best.”

From 2017-19, she worked for Michigan Medicine Human Resources before joining Integrative Systems + Design in 2019 as an HR Generalist. Today, she seamlessly helps multicultural and multinational ISD faculty and staff with all of their human resource needs, from onboarding through offboarding, and everything in between. 

“ISD impacts the world from developing sustainable energy to fighting climate change to creating effective processes to help industry,” she said. “We focus on innovation and agility in service of the common good. We integrate resources and different knowledge bases. It’s a privilege to be a part of ISD’s mission, and I am excited to see the leaders that come out of our programs.”

Living and Promoting DEI
One of Hornbacker’s missions is to create an environment where all employees feel authentic, welcomed, supported, listened to, and that they belong regardless of their identities. She leads ISD’s DEI Xteam, dedicated to promoting Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.

“At ISD, we are all about innovation and creativity. From an organizational development perspective, DEI is essential in promoting new ideas, increasing collaboration and cultivating a positive work culture” she said. “We celebrate our differences and I believe we all bring amazing things to the table especially when we feel we can be our authentic selves and are given opportunities to shine.”

Facing Down Prejudices
As an Asian American woman, Hornbacker is no stranger to prejudice or racism, although she would like to stress that her experiences working and living in Ann Arbor have mostly been positive. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought a wave of anti-Asian sentiment to the United States, and Hornbacker has been very concerned about the reported rise in hate speech and physical violence against Asian Americans and negative impacts on other marginalized groups.  

“Many Asian American groups experience discrimination on a consistent basis,” she said. “It’s important to make people more aware of these issues. As an international person learning and understanding American culture, I am distressed to find violence increased significantly during the pandemic.”

In addition to Hornbacker’s personal awakening, the University at large has been working to identify the extent to which systemic racism is embedded in American culture. To improve awareness and understanding, ISD DEI efforts include incorporating best DEI practices into the hiring process, highlighting heritage months and celebrating culture at monthly staff meetings, offering DEI enrichment events, hosting the DEI Action Summit, and providing space for ISD community members to discuss DEI challenges they see. 

“Any small progress we make is good progress,” she said. “We listen. We learn. It is important to keep individualities and intersectionality at the forefront of DEI efforts. There are extensive cultural differences and DEI dimensions between different, “diverse” groups, so generalized discussions are largely unproductive. Also, It can be a challenge to seek out diverse voices without tokenizing individuals. It is important to provide a platform to speak if individuals are seeking a chance to speak, while respecting that some might instead prefer to keep a lower profile”

What’s next?
Hornbacker is passionate about travel and would love to visit her family in Thailand once it is safer to travel long distances. But that is not the only destination she has in mind: “I like to travel,” she said. “I love Southeast Asia and Europe. My ideal vacation is going to Greece. I used to obsess over Greek mythology growing up.”