Get to Know: Nekia Jones
Recently, we sat down with Nekia Jones to talk about her incredible journey at UF, some of her accomplishments at work and what inspires her to aim further.
Jones is the assistant to the department chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, or MSE. Watch our video spotlight and read our interview below.
What has been your career path; how did you arrive at your current position?
My career path has always been in the field of administration. I began my career at UF as a clinical service representative I at the Counseling & Wellness Center, then was promoted to HR and finance administrative assistant then to assistant to the training director. Afterwards, I transitioned to the College of Engineering in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Nuclear Engineering Program as administrative support II, assisting the chair, and now as administrative support III.
In the midst of the pandemic, you launched several initiatives that promote diversity, equity and inclusion within the MSE department. Can you talk to us about some of these initiatives? What was the catalyst behind their creation?
During the height of the pandemic it was such an emotionally draining time — it was a year of trauma for so many. There was so much going on and not just the declaration of COVID-19 being a global pandemic. For us Kobe Bryant fans, his death along with his daughter and seven other precious lives, then the deaths of John Lewis, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Chadwick Boseman, the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Jacob Blake and Maurice Gordon. The civil unrest, social justice, politics, isolations, vaccinations, murder hornets, bush fires, wild fires, supply chain shortages, Jan. 6 insurrection, mass shootings — I could go on! We needed an outlet. We needed to not just see good but to do good and this inspired me to start several initiatives.
- Meet a Future Engineer Virtual Reading Program: MSE doctoral students volunteered to read to amazing students at The One Room Schoolhouse. The elementary students knew they were interacting with future engineers but the program was really about them — about opening their eyes to the possibility that they too are future engineers. I am grateful to the administration and staff that allowed us to pilot this program and also to my department chair, Michele Manuel, Ph.D., for her support. First, second and third grade students were able to hear stories of engineers and ask our UF MSE students questions as well.
- IDEA Coalition Snacks & Sundries: I am honored to be a part of the IDEA Coalition in MSE. Snacks & Sundries was inspired by a former co-worker, Joni Nattiel, who worked with our Chair to provide snacks for our students. After her transition from the department, we realized that there are many students struggling with food insecurity and also so many in our department faculty who relied on a quick nibble from that table to get them through the morning, and sometimes the entire day. I approached our Chair with a request to start a pantry and she was supportive — as usual — and encouraged me to find sustainable resources to fund it. Sterling Garcia, our development officer at the time, was able to identify funds from an External Advisory Board Member and department alum, Tyler Lenzi, who gladly donated to our efforts and secured matching funds from Micron. Due to the support of our chair, the generosity of our donors and the heart of a former employee, our pantry was established and runs today. We provide health, hygiene, snacks and resources for greater needs in our community, such as the Field & Fork Pantry.
- Safe Space: After the death of George Floyd I was broken and my heart was heavy. There was this sense of urgency to check on the black students in our department to see if they were okay — and they were not. I was able to organize monthly meetings for our students with a counselor from the CWC — shout out to Dr. Ebony Okafor and Dr. Brittany Hudson, and CWC’s outreach team — along with meetings with the department’s administration. The small meetings were beneficial to students and the following semester we decided to open Safe Space to all students in the department.
- Wellness activities: UF has amazing resources and I would love to spotlight UF’s Wellness team! Along with some of the activities promoted through the Wellness Program for employees, we were able to also mimic some of those for students by organizing seminars that focused on financial literacy, wellness through Gatorwell, CWC services, crucial conversations with Dr. Amelia Dempere and a virtual block party.
- Canvas onboarding: I created a Canvas onboarding site for new employees to make the transition into the department during the virtual only stage a smoother process. I am now actively working to turn that site into a training space where all the admin assistants’ training information, templates and resources are housed for my team.
You recently joined the UF Academy for Emerging Leaders; what motivated you to apply and what do you hope to learn from the program?
I was encouraged by my supervisor, Michele Manuel, professor and chair of MSE. I applied last year and was not accepted, but she encouraged me to apply again. I am beyond thrilled to be part of this program and hope to come away with new and innovative ways of management, and to implement effective leadership strategies while increasing my confidence.
What has been your biggest accomplishment or most memorable experience at UF?
My biggest accomplishment thus far is being awarded the University wide 2022 Superior Accomplishment Award for Diversity & Inclusion. It was a very humbling experience. To be nominated and recognized at the division level, and awarded on the university level with so many other amazing people — humbling!
What advice would you give your younger self as you prepared to embark on your career path?
Dearest Nekia, don’t be so hard on yourself, live and learn in spite of what you see and what you’ve heard. Remember, God’s plans are to prosper you not to harm you, to give you a hope and future. You have choices so choose wisely. You have a voice, use it — people will listen!
What motivates or inspires you?
I am motivated by opportunity, it is everywhere. It is available in positions, trainings, mentorship, networking and disguises itself in challenges, obstacles, issues and aggravation. Opportunity allows us to grow. We find out things about ourselves that we did not realize we were capable of. Opportunities aren’t always given, they are also found and are created, and it feels amazing when you are able to create one for others. Then, I am inspired by my family. My amazing husband Casey Jones and our children. Their love, encouragement and support pulls me forward on days I don’t feel like standing. I have seen them adapt, evolve, weather storms and blossom — they inspire me to do the same!
What hobbies or interests do you have outside of work?
I love interior design! Definitely a DIYer.
What advice would you give to someone who just moved to Gainesville?
Take the time and explore the city and Alachua County. As a Gainesville transplant, I always tell people this county is a great place to raise a family. We are centrally located to major cities, beaches and world-famous attractions! If you are open, you will not just find a city to call home but a community that will become a family.