Kio Ortega: Creating her Own Story at Harvard University

A single mother and program coordinator at Harvard, Kio bet on herself to reach her full potential.

As a program coordinator at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, Kionelie Ortega, who goes by Kio, sees how leaders from around the globe venture into new territory for the potential to change the world. It’s a concept that Kio knows well: she left the safety of what she knew, took a chance on herself, and discovered the life-changing magic of a fulfilling career.

“I can’t express how much Year Up means to me,” said Kio, who graduated from Year Up Greater Boston in 2019. “They’ve given me the opportunity to put myself out there in a way that people wouldn’t have recognized as me before.”

Kio was working as a dental assistant when her cousin posted on Facebook about her positive Year Up experience. As a single mother, Kio was wary of leaving a full-time job and the apartment where she and her son lived—especially since she thought what her cousin said about Year Up was too good to be true.

Still, Kio strived for more, and she saw an opportunity. She knew she had to fully commit to get what she wanted out of the program. So, Kio left the job, moved back in with her mom, and applied to Year Up.

I didn’t see myself at a dental office for the rest of my life; the work didn’t excite me anymore,” she said. “It was the hardest decision, but it was a short-term sacrifice for long-term success. I’m so glad I took the risk.” 

At Year Up, Kio specialized in Project Management Support, learning project management techniques, analytical frameworks, and project management tools such as Gantt charts and Microsoft Project. She also developed her business communication skills, such as email etiquette, public speaking, building relationships with managers and teams, and following up on meetings and tasks.

Those business communication skills, along with Kio’s grit and resilience and a tight-knit support network, formed the foundation of her work at one of the most prestigious universities in the world. As an executive education intern at Harvard, she put a priority on making connections and staying organized: writing everything down on “millions of sticky notes,” keeping her calendar up-to-date, and setting reminders. 

I worked my butt off. It was really challenging,” Kio said. “Taking the train two hours each way, surviving off of a stipend, and giving my all to this opportunity while holding a family together, there were days that I wanted to quit. I felt inadequate for my position. But I had everyone—my internship rep, my coach, my supervisor—call me and say that you’re enough, you’re here for a reason, and you’re doing great.”

They were right. Harvard hired Kio full-time as a program assistant the day after she finished her internship. Now, Kio is one of more than 185 Year Up graduates that Harvard has hired since partnering with Year Up in 2004. The relationship with Year Up is part of Harvard’s commitment to removing unnecessary barriers to education, creating more opportunities for young people, and serving the local community; the school has hosted more than 365 Year Up interns in that time and leverages Year Up talent across nine schools and more than a dozen departments.

One of Kio’s main tasks at the Kennedy School is helping to facilitate the school’s Public Narrative: Leadership, Storytelling, and Action program. This online program draws hundreds of participants from around the world who want to strengthen their capacity to lead, and Kio manages two sections of the course.

I’m managing anywhere between 40-60 people all over the world. It’s incredible and insane at the same time,” Kio said. “It’s really empowering. Creating a space for these people to share their stories, hear their ‘why’s,’ and see what they’re doing in their communities to create change. You’d be surprised how well you can still build personal relationships with people through a screen.”

Her work with the Public Narrative program also positioned Kio to serve in an integral leadership role when all Harvard education pivoted online in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I was already trained and equipped for online programming, so I was in a position to help other departments manage their online presence,” Kio said. “I spent time with the faculty and helped them assist other faculty members with ways to get participants to engage through remote learning.”

Engaging on many levels at the Kennedy School has also inspired Kio to pursue higher education in public administration.  

“I work with people in the private, public, and nonprofit sectors, and I’m drawn to what they do for the community and what I’ve learned from them,” she said. “I may just be a program coordinator, but the work that I do helps create bigger changes in the world. I’m part of something that’s equipping professionals around the world to make change. I’m proud of that.”

Her family shares that pride, and Kio hopes it inspires her siblings to follow in her footsteps and pursue Year Up.

“I didn’t have any role models growing up, and now I am one to my son, and I can provide the guidance to my siblings that I so lacked” Kio said. “My goal was that I didn’t want to be a statistic of a young single mom living on government  assistance, struggling to make ends meet. Now, I’m not. I’m breaking generational curses of poverty, aiming to be the adult that I needed growing up, and working on being that person every day.”

“I had my son at 17. I was born into a broken family,” she continued. “But your story is yours and your life is yours. Regardless of what you were born into and how your story started, you have the power to change how your story ends. I’m still creating mine.”

In March of 2020, Kio was promoted to program coordinator and is excited about continuing to grow her career at Harvard alongside her pursuit of a degree in public administration.

Kio is just one of the thousands of Year Up graduates ready to grow their professional careers. Tap into top talent today.