Natalie Vega O’Neil graduated from Ball State University in 1998 with a bachelor’s degree in Telecommunications. Natalie has had a very successful career working for nonprofits all over the nation including Save the Children, Make-A-Wish Foundation, the YWCA, and Thrive Washington. Currently, she serves as the President and CEO of Junior Achievement of Washington. She has been able to help over 570 schools around the state provide their students with work-readiness, entrepreneurship, and financial literacy skills. In addition, Natalie is the first female and first person of color to lead Junior Achievement of WA in its 69-year history.

Time as a Student

Natalie entered Ball State through the Telecommunications Department with the hopes of becoming a news anchor someday. This program was the foundation for Natalie’s future and paved the way for her to be a successful communicator and leader. Although her career has led her down a different path than media communications, Natalie has found that the core lessons she learned in her classes and through her time on the campus news channel have applied to every part of her career journey.

“Ball State was so impactful on my life. The experiences and people I got to interact with shaped me into an effective leader. Throughout my time at Ball State, my personal and professional development was supported and cared for.”

Natalie was greatly impacted by many of the professors during her time as a student. One specific instructor, Jim Culbertson, was responsible for mentoring different students in the TComm program including Natalie. In addition to his teaching and mentoring, Jim led an annual study-abroad trip to Mexico. The goal of this trip was to show media students how culture and history could impact the stories they told. This trip opened Natalie’s eyes to what the greater world was like as she had never been out of the country herself. This trip was life-changing for her and allowed her to better connect with her heritage. For the first time, she truly understood how to connect people through the use of language and media and discovered her heart for serving those around her.

“This trip helped me define who I wanted to become.”

This was not the only class experience that shaped her worldview. In one course, the students were sent out to interview adult prison inmates and to tell their stories of how they were trying to better themselves for their life after their sentence. Although this task was originally outside of Natalie’s comfort zone, she found it so impactful because it brought a sense of humanity to these people and she was able to shape her story to share this new perspective with others. Overall, Natalie loved the classes she took as they built resilience and a strong work ethic. The professors were incredible as they were so intentional with each student. Natalie stated that she felt respected, appreciated, and as though the instructors were genuinely curious about her future.

Outside of the classroom, Natalie received the opportunity to grow her communication and media skills through the campus news channel. Under Steve Bell, Natalie got to experience what it would be like to run and anchor an actual evening news operation. The news channel was student-produced and student-driven, which taught her a great deal of responsibility and how to tackle challenges and difficult news stories that came her way. She loved working with her peers to create something truly wonderful. To this day, Natalie firmly believes that her strength in public speaking is due to this experience.

Journey to Junior Achievement 

After graduating in 1998, Natalie moved to Chicago where she worked briefly at an advertising sales company for cable television. She quickly realized that this line of work was not her passion, so she transitioned to Make-A-Wish Foundation. It was at this nonprofit that she realized she wanted to dedicate her career to working for mission-oriented organizations. This realization has remained true as she has worked at a variety of nonprofits including her current post at  Junior Achievement of Washington.

Junior Achievement of Washington is a global organization with affiliates all over the country and the globe. The goal of this organization is to help students realize from an early age their potential and provide them with the skills necessary to make their dreams a reality. Natalie has loved her time as President and CEO because she gets to be part of positive change in the education industry, and she gets to work with an amazing staff. Her team is passionate and has never given up even when times were hard during the pandemic. She feels honored to represent the dedicated people she works with and to be the leader of such an amazing cause.

Advice for Students

“Study the things and skills that will serve you well as a leader, such as speech and communication. Follow your interests and passions, and learn how education can lead to career success.”

Natalie’s career path has been shaped by her decision to stay in the nonprofit sector. She encourages students to find the things that have meaning to them and connect these themes and ideas to help them determine where they will be successful in life. In addition, she urges students to take core classes that will prepare them to be effective communicators and will help them learn basic skills that are applicable across the professional world.

For her, Ball State provided the foundation of who she wanted to become and helped her find a path to get there. She hopes that current and future students lean into this and allow Ball State to provide the support and development that each student needs.