Jessica Kartalis ’15 is turning around.
Wearing a cowboy hat and torn jeans, she carries her guitar and sings while strolling starry-eyed (and literally taking a spin or two) past the neon lights of Nashville’s main drag, in the music video for her original song entitled “Turn Around.”
“Sometimes you lose hope / Look around the corner / You never know what’s waiting there / Don’t let anyone bring you down,” she purrs in a throaty soprano, confidently strumming her red-rose-emblazoned guitar.
Could she be the next Carrie Underwood or Taylor Swift? Anything is possible. Recently, she has experienced quite a few ups to counterbalance her inevitable downs. Her spirits and her hopes are high, as is her work ethic.
“A lot of people work hard here, but I don’t sleep anymore,” says the Wagner student who is “studying away” for a year at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee. “I want to be big when I’m 25.”
Kartalis, an arts administration major at Wagner, is the College’s first student to participate in the exchange program offered by the New American Colleges and Universities (NAC&U), a consortium of 21 selective, small to mid-sized schools that share Wagner’s commitment to liberal education integrated with professional studies and civic engagement. In other words, through Wagner’s affiliation with Belmont University, Kartalis has become a domestic (rather than international) exchange student.
“At Belmont University, you can throw a rock from the campus to Music Row, which is all the record labels and publishing companies and all that good stuff, so it’s really a good place to be,” she says. She’s taking courses related to the creation, production, and business of music, while also interning with the artist management company of country music star Toby Keith. “I’m really happy to be able to dive into something Wagner doesn’t offer,” she says.
Jessica was born and raised just a couple of miles away from the Wagner campus. Despite her ambitions, she says, “I never would have left Staten Island if it weren’t for the Wagner-Belmont affiliation. I was a homebody. I would have never come to Nashville on my own. It’s really cool that the exchange program lets people see another world.”
Kartalis, who goes by Jessica Rose (her first and middle names) on stage, started singing in choir as a child. At age 14, she started taking guitar lessons.
The guitar gave her the courage to overcome her shyness and sing by herself. She developed a solid local following, performing in Staten Island venues, at College events, and at weddings.
Then, her mother — Janice Kartalis, who works as an assistant for the College’s human resources department — sent a video of one of her wedding performances in to American Idol’s first online contest to nominate candidates for the show. Kartalis won for New York, and she appeared before the show’s panel of celebrity judges.
They turned her down.
That was last spring. Then, she auditioned to sing at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville restaurant in Atlantic City, and was hired on the spot to perform at the popular boardwalk venue all summer.
A month into the season, all of the summer entertainment was fired.
But, she bounced back. She was hired to perform at Atlantic City’s legendary Steel Pier. Then, Jimmy Buffett’s manager called her, and she got her original gig back.
“You can’t give up,” she says. “Your dreams are devastated, and then one week later you’re double booked, and everything’s great. So that’s why I wrote ‘Turn Around.’ One door closes, another one opens.”
Because of her Atlantic City experience, she sings regularly at the Nashville version of Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville. She is also working with artist manager Rick Barker (famed for getting Taylor Swift’s career started) and performed during the CMA Music Fest in June, a huge country music bash.
Nevertheless, the loyal Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority member says, “Wagner is home for me.” She will return and complete her senior year in the fall, at the place where it all started.