Highlighting Jessica Villegas ’13: How She Overcame Bleak Beginnings and is Now Thriving
Jessica Villegas ’13, has made it her life’s work to help others overcome patterns that are barriers to living their best lives.
By Camille Dolan ’98
Jessica Villegas ’13 was born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina. The picturesque, antebellum town was founded in 1711. Located close to Parris Island, home of the US Marine Corps Training Depot, the community ebbs and flows just like the tidal pools that surround the tiny town.
Villegas, a first-generation college student, moved to Orlando when she was 20 because the small town did not have big opportunities.
“There was not a lot of good decision making in my family or in my peer group. I come from a town where you either struggle or you do very well. There is not a lot of middle ground.”
It’s also a town that made the national news earlier this year with the trial of Alex Murdaugh, an attorney who was on trial for several crimes, notably the murders of his wife and son. Villegas went to school with some of the Murdaughs.
“There is generational power in that small town,” Villegas says. “The ‘good old boy’ network is very much alive in the South.”
Villegas says she felt stuck in Beaufort. She wanted to venture outside its salt marshes and generate a new world view for herself. She was destined for opportunities she hadn’t yet manifested.
In Beaufort, Villegas realized that unless one was to the manner born, it would be difficult to rise above one’s circumstances. She lived all her young life in poverty with family addiction problems, and a parent who is incarcerated in a federal prison. She moved 27 times before she was a senior in high school.
And even though Villegas had the intellect and drive to rise above her Beaufort status, she knew that it might never be possible.
Villegas speaks matter-of-factly about her time in Beaufort and her desire to break free from its chains of poverty, abuse, and drugs.
“I knew, once I was in about the tenth grade, that no one was going to help me. I would have to help myself,” Villegas says. “I was very stuck, very lost and confused, and I didn’t know how I was going to make it work. But I did graduate from high school, and that gave me a boost.”
She began working toward a goal, but she wasn’t sure what that goal was exactly. She worked three jobs, as well as attending college. She began saving money. But, after a few courses at the Technical College of the Lowcountry in Beaufort, she switched her own course and got out of town. Villegas had tried Atlanta on for size, but the big city wasn’t quite right for her. She continued south and launched herself into a new life in Orlando.
“I discovered Valencia College,” Villegas says, “And it just felt like a little bit more of a softer transition for me, coming from a small town.”
When Villegas discovered that she was eligible for DirectConnect to UCF, she decided that she was going to find a way to make that happen for herself and her family, who now included two young daughters. She was determined to cast aside the legacy with which she had been born, and to create a new, healthier story to overwrite her past.
The Power of Education and Hard Work
She worked in Orlando’s booming hospitality industry for nine years as a student, rising through hourly roles into management and corporate training positions. By the time she graduated from UCF, she was 31 and had amassed 365 college credits (most undergraduate degrees at UCF require 120 credit hours). She had changed her major so many times because she didn’t really know who she was or what she wanted.
When she graduated from the Nicholson School of Communication and Media with a degree in interpersonal/organizational communication and leadership studies, she knew this was the missing piece in her life that would be the key to a successful future for not only her, but also for her family. She never looked back in the mirror.
Villegas became a logistics coordinator in supply chain management and was heading up two departments within about three years. Her skills were sought after by another company that hired her; in less than a year, she had saved them nearly $10 million by improving their processes.
Discovering Her Inner Entrepreneur
During COVID, Villegas was briefly out of work, and while that slowed her trajectory for a while, she came face-to-face with her younger self: family members reminded her where she came from and that despite her education, she wasn’t any better than they were.
“I was just met with so much condemnation,” Villegas recalls. “I had to sever many of my relationships because I just cannot be an effective person in my community and in my home with negativity and hatefulness.”
Villegas decided to hone in on the qualities that her employers had recognized her for, and came up with the idea for HiLite Coaching and Consulting. She wanted to help young people realize that they need to “understand more about who they are, where they are going, and how they can get there.”
She created a program called ETA (Empower, Transform, Achieve) to help teens and young adults understand what their values are, and to craft a vision for their own life.
“It is possible to reverse-engineer what seem to be large, overwhelming goals,” Villegas says. “For me, it was, ‘I need to get out of this town.’ Once I broke that down into manageable steps – working as much as I could and saving money, getting an education – the big goal seemed not so scary.”
Villegas and her team of coaches work with their clients to help them develop and attain their big goals by helping them with their little steps, as well as helping them create their own mission, vision, and values.
“The program I developed helped not only my younger self heal, but it also helps others who are just like me connect with the things that are important to them. Just like I learned that I have to show up in my own life, I am teaching my clients that they, too, need to be active in participating in their lives.”
Villegas started her company in January 2022, and since then, Hilite has grown to a team of eight, with offices across the country. She and her team have worked with over 125 families.
“After going through our program,” Villegas says, “Our clients have breakthroughs that help them realize that their own power was there all along. We just gave them the permission and the tools to utilize it. It’s very powerful for them – and it’s just as rewarding for us.”
Helping Others Succeed
Recently, one client was struggling with taking the ACT, Villegas says. She had a mindset that she wasn’t going to do well, she didn’t know where she wanted to go to college or if she even wanted to go to college.
“She and I both knew that she wouldn’t be happy with an office job,” Villegas says. “She had a small idea in the back of her mind that maybe, just maybe, she wanted to be a forensic psychologist.”
Eventually, Villegas says, this individual worked through her fears and self-doubts, and scored very well on the college entrance exam. She was accepted into five different colleges.
“Our client recently started classes at UCF,” Villegas says. “She is so confident, and she feels so good about her future. And I got the pleasure of being there to see her grow from indecisiveness to confident decisiveness. I can’t wait to see what this Knight is going to do with the rest of her life.”