Kaley Vontz (BA 2021 in Communication, Minor in Journalism and Politics and International Affairs)
Operation New Hope, Community Engagement Manager in Jacksonville, FL
Tell us about your current job role/employer and what you’re currently working on.
I was recently promoted to Community Engagement Manager at Operation New Hope. Operation New Hope provides case management, mental health counseling, and job skills training for people with a history of involvement with the criminal justice system, and places them in employment that offers a sustainable quality of life. With over 24 years of experience providing job readiness training and pre- and post-release reentry services in Florida, Operation New Hope is a leader in the field. I am honored to be a part of a nonprofit that has created second chances for over 10,000 people.
My job is all about creating and maintaining community connections, planning fundraising events, and continuing to garner support for our rapidly expanding statewide reentry network. I have the fun job of spreading all the amazing work our team is doing throughout the community.
What personal and/or career experiences did you have prior to landing your current job and leading to where you are now?
I started at Operation New Hope as a Social Media and Marketing Intern in the summer of 2020 and returned as a Grants and Donor Relations Coordinator after graduation in the summer of 2021. Going on my third year at the organization, I feel confident taking on my new role, and I am excited to learn more about the (somewhat daunting) world of fund development. I am so happy to work at an organization that believes in the growth of their employees.
What was the most challenging aspect of your first “real world job” and what did you learn from it?
It’s very difficult to switch your mindset after your sense of validation comes from receiving grades on assignments for the past 15 or so years of your life. There isn’t a detailed rubric to follow on how to get an A+ at your job. It takes trial, error, and trust in yourself to excel in your job. A failure doesn’t “tank your grade,” but becomes one of the best ways to learn.
I began to love learning again for the sake of bettering myself instead of a grade. This shift, though it took me a hot minute, has changed my outlook on the overall purpose of a job. We should always be looking for new things to learn, so that we can better ourselves and, in turn, betters others.
What advice would you give to new Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college (finances, health, values, work/life balance)?
My biggest advice would be to find ways to make yourself comfortable in the uncomfortable. A lot changes after graduation, and it changes before you even have the chance to process everything. I often forgot this myself, but it’s important to remember that all of your friends are in the same situation. Even though you may be in different cities across the country, everyone is facing the same challenges.
For me, creating a routine during the week added a sense of comfort to my day, even if I really didn’t know what I was doing in my job yet. Find a routine, and add in little treats along the way to make your own day. The treat can be an iced coffee, a long walk where you call your friends, or planning fun dinners throughout the week. Having fun doesn’t go away – it just changes forms.
How have you made personal and professional relationships in your city, company, or community?
Having grown up where I now work, I have the advantage of knowing familiar faces and places. However, life as an independent adult in Jacksonville is extremely different than life here as a high school student. It’s kind of similar to the first week of college where you sign up for as many clubs as you can. In my early post-grad months, I signed up to play recreational beach volleyball, even though I’d never seen a volleyball up close. It’s important to get involved, regardless of how silly it may feel.
There’s a theory that all people are separated from each other by no more than six degrees, but I believe it may be even less. Don’t be afraid to bring up the mutual connection that you are both aware of but are too afraid to say. It’s not weird like you think it is, and more often than not, you’ll be glad you spoke up. Many of the people I am closest with today came into my life as friends of friends, and I know that my friends from Wake would say the same in their respective cities.
Have you been mentored by anyone at Wake Forest or in your professional life? If so, what impact has that relationship had on you?
I can confidently say that every professor I had at Wake Forest taught me things beyond the classroom, even if they didn’t know it. While taking journalism classes, I learned the importance of justly telling people’s unheard stories without speaking above them. This inspired my desire to work for a nonprofit and find ways to make an impact that goes beyond my lifetime.
I was largely inspired by Professor Justin Catanoso, who truly practices what he preaches. He showed me the importance of integrity and maintaining what is important to you – a guiding truth in my own personal and professional development.
What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are about to start their first professional job?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Everyone means it when they say there is no such thing as a bad question. Asking questions shows that you care about yourself and others. Asking a question goes beyond getting the answer you thought you were looking for, and it could open a door that you didn’t even know was there. Most often, the answers to questions aren’t what we think they are, and usually, those are the best answers.
What are your future career goals or plans? How are you being intentional about working towards them?
That’s the million dollar question. Right now, with a few years of experience under my belt, I am working towards become a better leader in my organization and in my community. I have recently been accepted to Leadership Jacksonville’s Next Generation Summer Program, where I am learning alongside other young professionals about what it means to be an emerging leader in Jacksonville. Being young in my career is empowering and keeps me motivated to continue working towards the next best thing. I am excited to explore the many possibilities and opportunities headed my way.
Story published in May 2023. For current updates on Kaley’s career path, visit her LinkedIn profile.