Introducing our New Associate Director

A Conversation with Jeni Onley

We welcomed Jeni to the optiMize full time staff this past August. Jeni has done incredible work for entrepreneurship at the University of Michigan and has been a supporter of optiMize since our conception. In her first week, we sat down with Jeni to talk about her background, motivation, and hopes for her new position. Introducing our new Associate Director, Jeni Onley.


Zoya: Welcome Jeni! We’re so excited to have you. To start, why are you interested in social innovation?

Jeni: For the past few years, I have gotten to work alongside students who were intrinsically motivated and passionate about certain problems that either they faced personally or saw in the world and have felt compelled to say “I want to do something about this.” A few years ago, I didn’t have the language really to coin that as “social innovation.” I just thought of it as being around people who are passionate, and that has really stuck with me. Now that optiMize has grown so much, I think this organization has really changed the narrative on campus and become the place to go for thousands of students with what we now think of as a “social innovation” mindset — and that’s just incredibly inspiring. 

Even before optiMize got to the scale it is today, that energy is what drew me to the organization, and it’s why I continually promoted optiMize in the work that I’ve been doing at U-M for the past several years. And now to be able to actually join optiMize and to be a part of that whole process, I get excited just talking about it. You know, it’s that age old idea that when you love what you do, it’s not work. So, to be able to just talk to people about the things that excite them, it’s just fun. I guess that’s the way I’d describe it — it’s fun, when you’re working with people who are passionate, you yourself are passionate about supporting their work. 

Z: Do you remember what you first heard about optiMize?

J: I heard about the first social innovation challenge, where MUFI (the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative) received funding. I remember hearing that they actually bought land in Detroit and were acting on this idea that they had. I was struck by students having an idea, seeing an opportunity to make an impact, and doing it–– it just held so true to the mission of optiMize. Seeing something so tangible as a team come through the first challenge, and feeling all the momentum and energy, was inspiring.

We also worked with team Leesta the year after, which was two women working in social impact and in academic space. At the time I was working very closely with academics, and I got to see Leesta do work about something so personal to them and be supported by a community of people to chase their aspiration. optiMize wasn’t skeptically asking them “how are you going to do that,” but instead said “great, let’s do that,” and that was really unique. 

At the time we were building a brand of Innovate Blue and those were the types of stories we were hearing about optiMize. We could tell there was an impact on students, who were then making an impact on real people in real communities, and it was just authentic to talk about. 

Z: Building on that, how do you think project work or entrepreneurship work supplements the academic part of the college experience?

J: This is the part I love the most!

In my own personal career path, I was a hall director but then I was an advisor. In conversations with first year students about their academic career path, a lot of time the students would come in and have no idea what engineering was. They just said, “oh, someone told me I’m good at math and science, so I should look into engineering.” 

It’s only really through experience that they start to apply the skills they have learned and see how it all comes together––kinesthetic learning. So as these students were getting involved with design teams or student organizations or project work, they were having immersive learning experiences outside the academic classroom. 

That’s why I do the work that I do and why I chose to pursue a career in student affairs.To me, an organization like optiMize is saying, “We care about you and your ideas. We’re going to help you fold in your academic experiences and learning and theories into this idea that you can use to make change.” Academics supplements your idea, your passion, and your other learned skills.

Z: You’ve been around U-M for eleven years now. Why have you stayed here?

J: It sounds super cliche, but it is absolutely because of the students. 

I’ve never worked anywhere else professionally, so I can’t necessarily compare it to other institutions. But from the places that I did graduate work or internships in grad school, what I love about U-M is the culture and history of advocacy and activism. Not just the students, but the staff and faculty are constantly pushing the bar and setting a new standard for ourselves, for what we expect of one another and what we choose to give attention. For example, DEI (Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion) is a constantly evolving conversation that we try to bring the entire community into, with the students at the center. I love that I can bring my whole self to work here and know that my values are in line with the University’s. 

There are also just always great experiences and fun things happening here. For example, celebrating the bicentennial a few years ago– it’s really exciting just to know I was here during this time of celebration. Something I will always remember is the specific staff recognition they did. They put a sculpture piece dedicated to the staff at the university, and that recognition was really powerful, because to many a University is just comprised of students and faculty. It’s not that I need the recognition, but it was nice to feel celebrated, especially because I personally was celebrating my tenth year here. When I walk by the sculpture, it means something to me. 

Z: We talked about students being your motivation for staying here, but what or who else inspires you?

Jeni with our new leadership team and full time staff members Jeff and Lisa.

Jeni with our new leadership team and full time staff members Jeff and Lisa.

J: Being an advisor the past couple of years and creating the entrepreneurship minor, I’ve gotten to have a lot of one-on-one conversations about different experiences–– let’s say they didn’t get into the first program of choice, they apply to something and they didn’t get in, and now they are left in a moment of “well, what do I do now?”. And to see how they go through that process of creating a path for themselves, and find themselves in that process, that inspires me. It’s the process of efficacy, of how students engage and self-author their own experiences. 

Then to go a little softer, I remember one of optiMize’s welcome back events, probably three years ago, when I brought my family to the event at the UMMA. I grew up in a pretty homogenous area in terms of diversity, and my husband did as well. But standing with my kids at this event with optiMize, celebrating the Kickoff, looking out into this sea of students, mentors, and community members, it was diverse on so many levels. I just felt very connected in that moment and being able to expose my kids to something like that was tremendous. 

And so my kids are also my inspiration. Being able to tell my girls about how I support students in achieving their ambitions, and having them hear their stories is inspiring.  

Z: That’s so sweet. What are you most excited for in your new role?

J: Oh, just the unknown. And being a part of an organization that is so motivated by their mission. 

I have an excitement for working with students every year and bringing them into this mission of “why not me?”. On an organizational level, it is interesting to see what its path will be at this university and beyond. How do we take this mission and expose it to other universities, other centers doing social innovation? I am excited and intrigued around the model that optiMize is using to invert higher education and center students as the decision makers. How do we expose other higher education institutions to this notion, even in this University and its departments?  That would really bridge the notion of working with social innovation and my background with higher education and student affairs. 

Z: Is there anything you would like to tell the optiMize community about yourself?

J: I think what I have to say is that this community is absolutely inspirational, and has always inspired me to do my best work and to be their biggest cheerleader. I believe  so much in the students and in the team and what they’ve accomplished. 

So keep doing what you’re doing, know that I’m in your corner and happy to be a part of the effort of leading that way, too. This is something that I feel very strongly about, and I’m also excited to be in a position where I’m not on the outside anymore, but central within the core experience. 

Z: Well we’re very excited to have you!

J: I’m so happy, and thank you for your support and advocacy.

If you’d like to chat with Jeni, feel free to sign up for her office hours or stop by the optiMize office!