Vanessa Bilenduke (RECL ’12) is an ambitious young alumna whose Brock experience and volunteer roles have led her down a career path dedicated to working with youth. Her most recent project, NEXTNiagara, is a grassroots initiative to attract and retain young leaders and professionals to the Niagara region.
What attracted you to Brock University?
Brock has a strong sense of community. When visiting universities in my graduation year I didn’t know how I’d make the decision of where to go. When I got on campus at Brock I instantly felt comfortable and ‘at home’. The campus was beautiful - and it’s in an amazing location - there’s so much in the Niagara region to enjoy and its very accessible and close to the GTA and US border. Most importantly though, the program choices really interested me and the professors were great and made me feel like a person, not a number.
What activities were you involved with at Brock that were outside of the classroom?
I volunteered with SNAP (Special Needs Activity Program) at Brock and also participated in the ‘Foundations in Leadership’ workshops, which I highly recommend. I also took advantage of the intramural sports, fitness classes and the many facilities available to students for free. I worked with the accessibility coordinator at Brock, as well as with other community agencies throughout my years at Brock. I really wanted to get involved in the community and there were a ton of opportunities available to Brock students. When I started my education at Brock, I was still very unsure of my career path. I owe my final direction to my volunteer experiences for giving me a true sense of what I loved and didn’t love to do. I’m not sure I would have found my passion if it weren’t for those experiences.
How has Brock changed your life?
Since starting at Brock, I have grown in all aspects. Not only was I able to get an amazing education that allowed me to really connect with my professors and TAs but I was able to get involved in the community. I made amazing connections while I went to Brock which led me to some amazing opportunities professionally. I can’t stress enough the importance of enhancing ‘both sides of the brain’ as Brock does. You need to find out who you are, what your interests are and where your passions lie to find out where you should be professionally. Brock allowed me to do just that and I now have an amazing network of people who support me professionally, personally and academically.
How have you been involved with Brock since graduating?
As the regional youth strategy coordinator with the Niagara Workforce Planning Board, I have been involved with Brock quite a bit. NEXTNiagara is a grassroots initiative to attract and retain young leaders and professionals to the Niagara region. Brock has been one of our biggest supporters and continues to do so through various project, events and guidance. The initiative wouldn’t be where it is today without the support of the University faculty, BUSU, students, alumni, etc.
What has been your career/life path since graduating from Brock?
I had an amazing opportunity to travel to Europe for a few months towards the end of my time at Brock and could not pass it up. A few of my Brock classmates and I went to celebrate our hard work. It was an experience that I will never forget! Although I finished the majority of my classes before leaving for Europe, I had two credits to complete before graduating. I have since taken them online and am planning on officially graduating from Brock in June 2012.
My first position was at the Toronto Catholic District School Board, where I was a coordinator of the Focus on Youth programs. I was able to work with approximately 200 students from high priority needs neighbourhoods to provide training, co-op credits and summer employment. I was also able to provide free school space to non-profit agencies to deliver free summer programming to youth within those neighbourhoods.
The networks I created at Brock then led me back to Niagara where I now work on NEXTNiagara which is an initiative to attract and retain young leaders and professionals in the region. We have a Facebook page where you can find more information and become engaged in the Niagara community.
What is the most rewarding part of your career?
I work with or for youth - that’s where my strenths lie, that’s what I’m passionate about and that is where I get the motivation to work harder. I believe strongly in engaging our young people from the beginning and providing them with as much support as possible, as I think it’s the founding years that create a great person and bring out all that they are capable of. With every accomplishment I see, no matter how small, it pushes me to work even harder the next time.
What is your greatest professional achievement?
I have watched my initiative- NEXTNiagara grow from an idea into something that everyone is talking about and wants to be a part of. This has included financial contributions, significant community partners and an advisory panel of highly engaged community leaders that have shared the vision of NEXTNiagara and launched it into something amazing. Niagara has so much to offer to its residents both past, present and future. I wasn’t aware of it all when I was a student at Brock and I want to help showcase to its students that Niagara is a place to live, work and stay when they finish.
What is your “other side of the brain”?
My friends and family are so important to me and so I try to nurture my relationships as much as possible. I spend as much time with the people I love as I can. I like to play recreational sports, whether I am good at them or not! I also spend a lot of time volunteering. I think that allows people to gain a sense of who they are and gain perspectives on people/situations that they may otherwise not have had.
What community service, charities or associations are you involved with?
I currently volunteer with Gillian’s Place in St. Catharines, which is a shelter for abused women and children, where I plan activities with the children once a week. I also sit on United Way of St Catharines & District’s GenNext cabinet. GenNext exists to increase engagement and understanding of United Way in the 20-40 demographic through community outreach and fundraising activities.
What do you want most out of life?
I just want to be happy. You spend a significant amount of time at work if you choose to be a professional and I want to know that whatever I am doing somehow makes a difference. Life is short and I want to take advantage of as much as I can, as best as I can.
What advice do you have for new graduates?
Network and nurture! It is amazing how much your professional achievements become about who you know and then proving yourself once you get there. The word spreads quickly to others in the industry so make roots as quickly and effectively as you can then nurture them. Also, take advantage of your time at Brock. It goes by so quickly and you will regret the things you didn’t do. Have fun, study hard and take the time to explore your options while you’re there. There are a lot of them!