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Nonprofit program director: How I got my job and where I'm going

Kelly Peaton talks about her path to become a program director, the importance of mentors and networking, and growth opportunities in her field.

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Video transcript

How I got into this career was definitely a process. I did not start college thinking that this is the direction I wanted to go, so I definitely started out on an academic route. I thought that I would finish college, get a Masters and then a PhD and maybe be a college professor. It was through my undergrad experience and getting involved in a student group that did alternative service trips that I became far more interested in doing something that involved social impact with my career. And many of my peers were doing AmeriCorps programs or Peace Corps or City Year or Teach for America which is what I ended up doing, and it was in the process of doing Teach for America that I became more committed to education and closing the achievement gap as the central problem that I wanted to attack through my career, and then it was through a process of talking with other people in the Teach for America network and seeing what they were doing. Seeing what they'd done after Teach for America, doing informational interviews, and then going on to getting a Masters in Public Policy on the advice of some of my mentors and some of my friends, and it was in getting that Masters in Public Policy that I learned about different opportunities and different areas where I could interact with the education system, and eventually found my way over to this job. This job in particular I got through my network. So I was getting my Masters in Public Policy and I was looking for an internship opportunity in between my first and second years of my program. And I was going through the traditional routes, applying to different summer internship programs at different big businesses, different big nonprofits, different name brands, but I was also sending out my resume to my network, to friends that I'd met from college, through Teach for America, and letting them know I'm looking for a summer opportunity in these areas. If you know of anything, let me know. And I was actually getting a little disappointed cause I was getting rejections back from some of the big names I was applying to, but one of my friends out here in California sent my resume to the then Chamber of Commerce who was looking for someone exactly like me. They were looking for someone with experience in education, experience in policy, because they were looking to expand what they were doing in education and workforce development. And so when my friend shared my resume with the Chamber they were like this is who we're looking for. And after a quick phone interview, we were like this is a perfect fit and so I came out here for the summer to do an unpaid internship though I did get funding from my university to help cover it. And then it was through my performance in the internship that I got my job offer at the end of the summer. They asked me to come back and work here as the Director of Strive San Jose and sort of carry on the work that I'd started over the summer. The growth opportunities in the nonprofit space are interesting. If you're in a very sort of established nonprofit, then there might be a traditional career ladder. I'm a program director, so moving up would be the executive director of the entire nonprofit. But otherwise if you're in a smaller nonprofit, like we are at the moment, your growth opportunities come from growing the program, increasing the scale and increasing the funding for more positions and basically to fundraise your own pay raise and your own bonuses. My aspirations are to continue working on the opportunity gap, the achievement gap, and the American public education system. So for me what that means is continually upgrading my skill set and my knowledge of the education system and the efforts at play and always looking for the opportunities and the leverage points that I think are going to help me impact the system. And actually close achievement gaps, close opportunity gaps. So my aspirations are to continue working in this field and hopefully see change over my lifetime. People who are interested in my field, I definitely recommend getting as much personal experience as possible. Doing Teach for America and spending two years in the classroom, I didn't realize how valuable that would be in terms of really understanding sort of understanding maybe why things haven't changed in education and getting a more in-depth understanding of the system. So definitely if you're working in the nonprofit space, you're working in the social impact space, there's no substitute for personal experience. So I definitely recommend that. Probably one of the things that I wish I'd had more experience with and a broader skill set in is data analysis and data visualization, so I mean very specifically being proficient in Excel, learning tools like R or Tableau, basically being comfortable with data and statistics because these are powerful tools for answering questions about the effectiveness of your program, if what you're doing is working, if it works better for some people versus others. That's one skill set that I sort of continuously try and upgrade, but wish that I'd sort of done more of that in undergrad maybe. And then other parts of being successful in this role and preparing yourself for something in this role is definitely community engagement. I think often people sort of have this idea that they're gonna come in and save things and make everything better and it's really just not the case. You have to come in and think that you're committed to helping solve the problem but that you're going to be working with a group of other people who are committed to helping solve the problem, and that other people are the experts in their own lives and in the systems they're operating with. So coming in with that mindset that you're not there to save anyone, you're not there with a brand-new solution that's gonna fix everything and make it better. You're there to get in and do the work with them.