Inspiring Graduate Willa Rodencal, B.S. Retail and Merchandising Management

'The polytechnic environment is one that we are taught in from day one.'
January 17, 2023

Inspiring Graduate: Willa Rodencal (’22)

Willa Rodencal will soon start her career as a merchandiser for Gap Inc. in San Francisco and will enter the Rotational Management Program for nine months, to get a deeper understanding of the retail industry. After completing the RMP program, she will be an assistant merchant with Gap Inc.

Rodencal earned her bachelor’s in retail merchandising and management, having graduated with honors from UW-Stout on Dec. 17, when she served as commencement speaker to her fellow Blue Devil graduates.

Choosing which university to attend was a decision Rodencal didn’t take lightly. “I needed somewhere that would support my value of education as much as I do. I wanted a college that would fit my learning needs,” she said.

Rodencal grew up in a nontraditional learning environment, from home schooling with her mother and older sister to teaching herself in free online classes. At 16, she enrolled in Waukesha County Technical College, taking prerequisite general education courses to prepare for a classroom setting.

“What originally attracted me to UW-Stout was the polytechnic experience. The intimate class sizes and hands-on educational experience drew me to this university and helped me succeed here as a student,” she said.

Willa Rodencal speaks at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Dec. 17.
Willa Rodencal speaks at the undergraduate commencement ceremony on Dec. 17. / UW-Stout

How has Stout prepared you to work in your field?

As most young people enter their chosen career field, we experience anxiety and imposter syndrome. I remember starting my internship at Gap feeling like I was unqualified for the job I was hired for and worried I would not succeed.

I am glad to say that I was wrong to have those anxieties and that I was more prepared for this job than I ever expected to be. Classes such as Trend Tracking and Forecasting; Information and Communication Technologies; and Finite and Financial Mathematics with Applications were the most beneficial courses in preparing me for my field of work.

What does Stout’s polytechnic spirit mean to you?

UW-Stout’s polytechnic spirit shines through the campus, the professors and the students. My dedication and determination, as well as that of the faculty and staff, have inspired me to exceed even my wildest dreams.

Most would say that polytechnic education only is related to class sizes, hands-on labs and encouraged group work. But the polytechnic experience is so much more than that.

The polytechnic environment is one that we are taught in from day one, and it is alive in the way that students feel encouraged to help each other during classes or offer to tutor peers outside of class.

You can make a friend just walking down the street or with the person sitting next to you at a football game. We are encouraged to get to know one another and lean on each other for help, and it shines through not only in our academics but in any Stout student's personal life and experiences.

Previous to Stout, I was worried I would not be prepared or able to succeed in a career. I was worried that I did not have what it would take to achieve greatness. Instead, I can leave confident in my abilities and prepared to face the world ahead. I have made lifelong friends who have inspired me to push myself and be the best person I possibly can be.

I would not be who I am today had it not been for attending UW-Stout.

How did your involvement at Stout impact your experience?

At the end of my first year at UW-Stout, I was recommended by my English professor to join the Stout Ambassador Program. I worked as a student representative with the Alumni Association, in collaboration with the chancellor's office, to bring positive change to the Stout campus as well as, raise money for scholarships and future campus improvements.

I am most proud of working as a Stout Ambassador and starting the Stout Impact Project, which entailed the creation and design of a wearable product, as well as the marketing and selling of the product to raise funds for the Student Emergency Fund. Our first year, we were able to raise more than $3,300, granting scholarships for students with extenuating circumstances. I am incredibly proud to help raise money for the students at this school, because no one should have to choose between paying for an extenuating circumstance and their educational experience.

Willa Rodencal at commencement.
Willa Rodencal at commencement. / UW-Stout

How did you overcome the challenges you faced in earning your degree?

During COVID, the retail field was not considered to have essential workers within corporate offices so most internships and co-op opportunities were canceled or no longer available. It was extremely difficult to acquire an internship during this time. I had applied to more than 40 internship positions and was only granted one interview opportunity with Gap.

I managed to move on to several more rounds of interviews and made it to the final round, in which I was unfortunately denied an internship. I was utterly crushed by this decision and felt that I would not be able to graduate if I was not able to get an internship. I continued applying, reaching out to advisers and HR for retail companies, with no success.

Five months after being denied my dream internship with Gap, they reached back out to me saying that a slot had unexpectedly opened, and they wanted me to do two 45-minute interviews with the heads of their merchandising department. I held mock interviews with friends and faculty, all while updating my resume and preparing with Career Services.

I was offered a paid internship with Gap in San Francisco. Looking back, I am very grateful for the life lessons that this scenario prepared me for.

This opportunity taught me a lot about perseverance and utilizing the support that surrounds you in life.

What message would you like to share with your classmates?

During our education here at UW-Stout, we experienced an extraordinary amount of turbulence that turned our lives upside down. But we as Stout students persevered and came out the other side stronger.

We came to this university unsure of what our futures would hold, but we leave prepared, educated, and inspired to face the world and start our careers. I am so proud to graduate with this class of extraordinary students who have overcome challenges against all odds.

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