Ask an Alumn: Orange County Commissioner Emily Bonilla

Last December, Orange County swore in two newly-elected commissioners to its governing board, and as it turns out, both are Valencia alumnae. We can’t say we’re surprised given the decades of exemplary work by Valencians, who’ve helped make and enforce laws, both for Central Florida and the entire state. We recently sat down with Betsy VanderLey (District 1) and Emily Bonilla (District 5), and each described a unique journey with unexpected career changes. Both, however stressed the importance of compromise, especially when encountering people of differing backgrounds and opinions. Last week, we learned about District 1 Commissioner Betsy VanderLey’s life after Valencia. This week, we head over to District 5 to hear Commissioner Emily Bonilla’s story.

District 5 Commissioner Emily Bonilla, Class of 2001

What made you choose Valencia College?

I was studying to be a medical doctor or psychologist.  My family wanted me to be a doctor, but I didn’t like blood, so I double-majored in biology and psychology to be safe.  Right at the same time I found out I was expecting. So I thought, well, I’d want my child to grow up believing that he could do whatever he/she wants, and that inspired me to do what I really wanted to do, rather than something I was being pressured into doing. Later, I decided to go back to my original passion: film and writing. I found out Valencia had a film program, so I decided to go there. It was affordable and a great option that gave me an opportunity to save some money on tuition while figuring out what I really wanted to do.

I learned a lot. There were a lot of politics in the film program. You’d be surprised how competitive it was. You had these professionals coming to Valencia College from New York and L.A., and it’s one of the best film programs in the country because of that. Students get to begin working on a film with real jobs and real positions rather than just being an intern on a film project, which makes the positions very competitive. The position I wanted – script supervisor – had only one opening.

The film program director, Ralph Clemente, was amazing. He was a great mentor..In that class, we were all close to Ralph. I had written a script which was really thick, because it was a full-length movie. I gave him the script, and he just lifted it up and dropped it on the floor. I was terrified. “He didn’t read it and he hates it already,” I thought. And then he says to the class, “You hear that? That is hard work and determination.” It turns out he was really impressed with my work!

After Valencia?

I transferred to UCF but didn’t get accepted to the film program. So I chose the creative writing track. It was a smooth transition. The Valencia film program was very intense; twelve hour days prepare you for almost anything. At the writing program, we were writing 10 page papers two or three times a week.

In order to pay for my expenses at Valencia and UCF, I spent my Saturdays in the wedding videographer business. I started with another company and thought, “Well, this is great. I’m making a lot of money.” So I decided to start my own business and ran it through college. After UCF, I grew the business to be one of the biggest wedding businesses in Central Florida. We offered wedding photography, DJing and planning. I did that for about 10 years.

How did you get into politics?

I closed that business, did marketing and business consulting, then I went to Full Sail University to get a master’s degree in internet marketing. I didn’t want to go to L.A. I had raised my family here in Florida and wanted to stay here. I’d always wanted to live on a farm, so we got six acres east of Alafaya Trail. That’s when I got into the political arena. Right when I bought the property they told us there was going to be an urban development in the area, and I thought, “no way.” I’d just bought this house, attained my dream, and now, it was going to change.

I showed up at the community meeting. No one wanted it there. So I started a group called “Save East Orlando” that gathered different neighbors at strategy meetings, started a Facebook page, a website, and got more than 2,000 followers in just one month. That got us attention, media interviews, and I started learning about the comprehensive land-use plan for the county, using the planning rules to get ahead of them and stop [development]. That’s how I got into politics.

When did you decide you wanted to be a commissioner?

I thought the only way to give the community what they deserve is by being in [the commissioner’s] seat. I felt that, with my diverse experience, it was something I could do. I have a business background, so I thought what a lot of candidates think, “It’s just like running a business.” It’s not like that at all. You learn that pretty quickly. You could do some things like a business, in terms of efficiency. There are a lot of other rules and legislation that prevent you from running it like a business. It’s just impossible.

As a commissioner, I have a full schedule. I decided to do this full time. I’m one of the only commissioners here doing it full time. I come into the office or go straight to a meeting. I tell my aides to try to schedule a lunch break for me. But I spend most of my days going from meeting to meeting, meeting with people. I’m still learning, so I’m trying to have meetings with the different county departments to learn what they do as well as community groups and leaders in different sectors.

What projects are you working on as a commissioner?

On the east side, I’m working on rural boundary protection to keep the area rural.

We’re trying to solve the water pollution issue in Bithlo. We have areas in the middle of the county that are still on septic tanks, but they’re next to utility lines, so these need to be updated.

An existing policy states that there can’t be unpaved roads, but for some communities that’s not feasible for them to do. That needs to be looked at.

I proposed looking into access to financing for increased energy-efficient homes and businesses in the county.  PACE is one option, but there are other nonprofit options that have worked well in other Florida Counties.

What do you take from your time at Valencia, and what advice would you give to current Valencia students?

At Valencia, I learned how to deal with office politics and different groups. In high school, people separate into different groups, but in college you have to actually interact with the different groups. We had to work with each other.

My advice is that we have to learn how to work with others no matter how different they may be from you. You are always going to have to learn how to work with others, whether it’s your client, your boss, your landlord – it is part of life. You can’t work in a silo – it is best to learn from others, share ideas and when you think about it that is how the best work gets done, collaboratively, with fresh ideas and room for creativity and innovation.

Where would you like to see Valencia go in the next 50 years?

I think Valencia has been a great asset to anyone trying to get a college education, because it’s like an entry level way into that phase of education. If you’re not ready to jump into a four-year college or university, Valencia has the middle ground that gives you the basics you need to prepare you for that four-year education.

I know there will be a lot of new jobs in environment restoration. I think in the future we’ll have to look more towards restoration. We’ve been trying to do preservation and conservation, but a lot of damage has been done. So we need to look at restoration. Lakes have been damaged. How can we restore them? [We need] environmental scientists who can assess the problem and come up with new solutions, technology that can help the situation. Perhaps Valencia should look to increase its efforts in that area as it has done so effectively in response to change and demand.  We also see more and more young people or people that wouldn’t otherwise think about the environment really thinking about the future of our planet and local communities.  There is an opportunity to engage them and capitalize on this new level of consciousness.