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Social Mobility: Poli Sci Major Makes Complex Simple
by Chuck Gordon

Taylor Rodier ’20 is going to hate this piece.

Sure, it’s flattering, accurate and informative. It does a pretty good job of telling the story of a first-generation college student from a small town who absolutely killed it in grad school. But it’s so wordy. If there’s anything Rodier has learned in the past seven years, it’s to keep things short and to the point.

Over the course of four years at Wingate and two years of grad school, Rodier became a master distiller (of information). She learned from Wingate professors how to synthesize information, store it for later, and share it in a concise way when the need arises. At Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy (where she finished top of her class, by the way), Rodier did two internships for the State Department that required her to boil down reports into bite-size chunks for busy higher-ups.

To cope with the daily workload, Rodier fell back on the demanding classes she had as a political science major at Wingate.

“Everything I learned at Wingate was a necessary building block for the things that I learned in my grad program and the things I did in my internships,” says Rodier, now a government-relations associate with Drake Software. “Writing succinctly for the State Department? Couldn’t have done that unless I knew how to synthesize information the way that Dr. (Jake) Wobig taught me. Dr. (Joseph) Ellis’s exams were these short essay exams, where he would ask a very broad question, and you would have to remember the right information and write four sentences about it.”

Recall, revise, regurgitate, repeat. 

“When you’re in a meeting with the undersecretary of state,” Rodier notes, “and she says, ‘What do we know about blah, blah, blah?’, and you’re able to go back, think of three sentences about it, and just spit it out, it’s invaluable.”

In the summer of 2021, Rodier found herself sitting in her apartment in New Jersey, reading cables from Afghanistan, where the U.S. was in the midst of a chaotic withdrawal after two decades of war with the Taliban. With the extremist group set to fill the leadership vacuum, U.S. allies were in certain danger if they stayed in the country. The U.S. had implemented the Allies Welcome program to resettle them, and, after she beat out a couple hundred candidates for the internship, Rodier’s job was to keep the undersecretary for civilian security, democracy and human rights informed of events on the ground during this time.

Rodier would process the reports and repackage them in short, clear language. She specialized in the “BLUF” statement: bottom line up front. “My supervisor put it like this: ‘The undersecretary has three minutes to read this. Pick out the most important things – what she has time for,’” she says. “That’s a very specific way of writing: no extra words; very straightforward.”

Taylor Rodier sitting and talking

That internship came on the back of another one, with the State Department’s Global Engagement Center, in which Rodier spent her days reading dense, 100-page academic research reports about disinformation campaigns waged by Iran against the U.S. and writing equally pithy reports about what she’d discovered.

Because the internships were performed remotely, rather than in person, the pool of applicants was huge. And yet, Rodier stood out.

When she showed up at Wingate in the fall of 2016, Rodier would have never dreamed that she’d one day work in the State Department. Along with clothes and bedding and a shower caddy, she brought with her a few doubts. “I didn’t even know if I was smart enough to come here,” she says. “I felt average in every sense.”

That’s not an unusual feeling among freshmen, especially first-generation college students who are looking to climb a couple of rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. Rodier hails from Marion, N.C., a charming small town that rests on the eastern edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Named for the Revolutionary War hero Francis Marion (the “Swamp Fox”), it was built on the backs of manufacturing labor, before the big industrial shift overseas.

Rodier’s mother handles payroll for the McDowell County Schools; her dad works with contractors for the local Department of Health and Human Services. Neither went to college, but they were adamant that Rodier and her brother, Bryson, earn bachelor’s degrees.

“I watched my parents work hard and be very dedicated to their jobs but be passed over for promotions because they didn’t have degrees,” Rodier says. “Whether that’s right or wrong, it’s just what happened.”

The Rodier kids did their part by making good grades, and when it came time to enroll, their mother stressed that they needed to be smart about their decision. “You need to go to a school where you know who your professors are and they will know who you are,” she told Taylor, “where you’ll have a chance to be somebody at school and not just be one out of a million.”

Entering ‘rarified air’

Before she got to Wingate, Rodier wasn’t just unsure of whether she belonged academically; she wasn’t sure what she wanted to study. Her grandfather had worked in Naval intelligence, and his stories of the Cuban Missile Crisis and his wall map of the world, pins stuck in all the places that had come up in family conversations, had always fascinated Rodier, so she picked political science. Besides, she says, “it sounded like I’d get to argue with people in class.”

After a year or so, Rodier found her footing. “Her first few semesters she was relatively quiet,” says Wobig, associate professor of political science. “When she came in, we had a very strong group of upperclassmen who were fairly intimidating. She learned quickly that there was a standard of achievement that there was a model for, and she figured out how to get there pretty quickly.”

Rodier stood out for her writing ability, preparation and diplomacy. “She showed an early commitment to professionalism, and it showed in all her work and how she interacted with others, combined with confidence and a generosity toward other students,” Wobig says. “Not every high-performing student is as good at patiently working through complex topics with other students who aren’t getting it.”

Rodier’s organizing, researching and writing skills were on full display in a 24-page research paper she produced, as a senior, on the Syrian refugee crisis. It was so good that she was asked to present it at the annual meeting of the North Carolina Political Science Association. Wobig beamed as Rodier presented what he said was the best undergraduate paper at the conference. “This was rarified air to get a paper of this quality, even at the senior level,” he says.

“It’s still overwhelming to this day, when I think about it. All they had to do was teach me. That’s all they were obligated to do, and they did so much more."

Rodier entered Seton Hall in the fall of 2020, at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic. Uncertain about the length of the pandemic, she went ahead and secured housing in New Jersey – and, because of Covid, she didn’t often leave her apartment, despite having easy access to Manhattan. “Part of the reason I chose that school is because it’s so close to Broadway,” says Rodier, who in her spare time does community theater and has even appeared in a feature-length film. “I didn’t see my first Broadway show until September of 2021.”

Far away from family and friends and unable to experience the buzz of the Big Apple, Rodier concentrated on her studies, and she excelled. More than excelled: She graduated at the top of her class with a 4.0 GPA and did exemplary work in her internships.

She’s occasionally still stunned that she did such meaningful work at the State Department, honing her skills alongside grad students from Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

“It was unbelievable,” she says. “I had a secret clearance, so I was working on stuff the average person doesn’t know about, which is cool and adds a whole other layer to this.”

A year ago, she started working for Franklin, N.C.-based Drake Software, one of the country’s largest tax-software companies. It might sound mundane, but Rodier loves it. For the past year she has been poring over regulations, traveling the country to meet with state governors and IRS bigwigs, and keeping her finger on the pulse of the constant legal changes to tax laws.

A quarter of tax returns in the United States are filed using Drake software, and to make the company’s products work smoothly for customers, it’s Rodier’s job to get to the nub of the Byzantine tax regulations in each state and boil them down so everyday folk can understand them.

“I think I like it because it’s just so complicated, and I am so nosy,” Rodier says. “I mean, I love to find the truth of something.”

Taylor Rodier sitting and laughing

The tax business isn’t exactly the State Department, but political science opens a multitude of doors – not just law school or a Ph.D. Rodier wanted to do exactly what she’s doing now: research and write.

In fact, Wobig believes that Rodier’s path – to an interesting job, wherever that is – should be the norm.

“When political science was created as a discipline 100 years ago, it was imagined as a liberal arts curriculum, designed to prepare people for anything, not just for one certain path,” he says. “I think that in the past 30 years, there’s been an attempt by some quarters to professionalize it, to make it more of a preprofessional discipline. I think that’s misguided.”

Rodier also has many more options now than her parents had. She gives Wingate a lot of credit for that.

“I would say I was as prepared or more prepared than a lot of my colleagues in grad school,” Rodier says. “I think that’s just a function of coming from somewhere that if I had a question or needed clarification or really wanted to work on something and make it great, I was given that opportunity, with such grace every time. Every time.

“I was also able to find the grad school that was perfect for me with the guidance of that faculty. Dr. Ellis and Dr. Wobig were instrumental in me even looking at Seton Hall as an option. I think it was Dr. Ellis who told me about it. And the whole department came together and helped me get my recommendations and write my letter of interest, do my resume, make sure it looked good, do the application. Because I didn’t know how to go to grad school.

“It’s still overwhelming to this day, when I think about it. All they had to do was teach me. That’s all they were obligated to do, and they did so much more. I could email Dr. Ellis today and say, ‘I think I might want to go to law school now,’ and he would say, ‘How can I help you do that?’ He’s under no obligation to do that. I’m 24 years old. He’s got no reason to do that, but I know he would.”

Surely that’s worth a few extra words on the page.