To find proof that Ashlee Rzyczycki had the attention of her audience, all you had to do was listen.
Rzyczycki, the director of St. Thomas University’s Fashion Merchandising program, recently hosted Hialeah Gardens High School’s fashion marketing class. When Rzyczycki told the group about STU’s scheduled 10-day trip to fashion houses in London and Paris this May, one student could no longer contain her excitement.
“Oh my God!” she shrieked.
And so it went. Rzyczycki had all 25 of those high school students riveted, and at least one of them – Kayla Baez — revealed that she will apply to STU on the strength of the campus tour.
“It’s a hands-on type of school,” said Baez, a senior. “It seems like they care about their students, very personal.
“They want to set up internships that align with their student’s interests, and you don’t see that a lot. But it’s great that when you actually join the workforce, you can do stuff you already know about.” STU requires experiential learning before graduation, internships being one of the possibilities to meet said requirement.
Baez said the trip to Europe would be a dream come true, especially since one of the fashion houses the STU class will visit belongs to Vivienne Westwood in London.
“It’s amazing they are going there,” Baez said. “I’m in love with Vivienne Westwood. I own jewelry from her line. I really hope my peers felt inspired by (Rzyczycki’s) speech, and they want to come study fashion at St. Thomas.”
Rzyczycki, who started STU’s Fashion Merchandising program in 2021, already has 40 students, including majors and minors.
The STU fashion major requires just 57 credits, which is much less than some schools that can go up to 120. STU’s smaller requirement allows students to minor in another discipline more easily, or to complete a double major.
But there are many more selling points to STU’s fashion program beyond a trip to Europe and the ability to double-major.
Rzyczycki told the Hialeah Gardens students about a 2014 Gallop-Purdue report that revealed only three percent of people polled had a “magical college experience.”
STU, Rzyczycki said, has what it takes to make that magic happen due to three key components:
1: Mentoring faculty
2: Character formation
3: Experiential learning
Rzyczycki said there’s a 15-to-1 student-to-teacher ratio at STU.
“I can tell you about every single one of my students — what their career paths are, what they want to do when they graduate, what their hobbies are and what their skills are,” Rzyczycki said. “So, I can match them, based on those things, with internship opportunities.”
Rzyczycki said there’s a family atmosphere in STU’s fashion program, and the students hang out with each other.
As for character formation, Rzyczycki said it goes back to STU’s distinctive mission statement.
“We want to build ethical leaders for a global community,” she said. “We want our students to be change agents.”
Rzyczycki said STU’s clubs – such as Fashion Society — help build character and leadership skills.
In addition, the first class for every fashion student – starting fall semester the first year — is public speaking.
“You not only learn how to speak but also how to create PowerPoints, resumes, and interview techniques — everything students will need to be successful.”
The third component in a magical college experience is experiential learning, which is where we get back to internships and trips – such as the one to Europe commanding the attention of the Hialeah Gardens students.
To graduate, all fashion majors must complete at least one internship.
“From what I’ve seen,” Rzyczycki said, “if students don’t have industry experience (that they can earn in an internship), they are less likely to get a job.”
Rzyczycki believes in teaching concepts in the classroom and then using projects, internships, field trips, guest speakers, photo shoots and other forms of experiential learning to reinforce those lessons.
“As much as I love my students, I don’t want them for more than four years,” Rzyczycki said. “I want them to graduate, get a job, and make a positive impact on the fashion industry.”
Isabella Barana, who is in a fashion club at Hialeah Gardens High, would certainly love to have that type of influence after college.
She said she’s interested in becoming a fashion designer, and she loved hearing Rzyczycki talk about the STU program.
“When she started talking, everyone’s attention went straight to her,” Barana said. “I liked hearing about all the programs. I didn’t know there were so many things you could do in the fashion industry. It was really encouraging to me and my friends.”
Natalie Garcia, who teaches the fashion marketing class at Hialeah Gardens, said her class was enthralled with Rzyczycki’s presentation.
“I know my students well, and the St. Thomas program lines up perfectly with many of them,” Garcia said. “The presentation was amazing and informative, and I’m very excited to get my students involved.”