When a high school teacher tells you what career path to follow, they might be worth listening to. Ball State alumna Samantha Rife Wagner knows this all too well.
Wagner began her time at Ball State as an elementary education major. However, she graduated with a degree in fashion merchandising — and experience at one of the most well-known bridal salons in the country.
“When I was in high school, this teacher said to me, ‘Teaching’s not right for you. I could see something in fashion,’” the 2015 graduate said. “At the time I thought she was crazy, but I called her and told her when I switched my major.”
In 2014, Wagner went on a field study to New York City. One of the stops on the trip was Kleinfeld Bridal, the salon featured on TLC’s “Say Yes to the Dress,” where she would eventually complete an internship.
“I didn’t even expect anyone to be interested in me,” she said. “I went on the trip because I had never been to New York.”
Wagner said she initially went into teaching because she loved kids, and one of her elementary education professors, Dixie Denton, was a big inspiration.
“I saw how passionate she was about her work, and it made me question if I wanted to do that, could I have that passion,” Wagner said. “I don’t know why she was a college professor, she was so passionate about kids.”
So, Wagner reevaluated and changed her major to sports broadcasting for about a year, finally settling on fashion merchandising after her sophomore year.
“I always loved clothing and putting together outfits,” she said. “I am willing to drop a pretty penny on my closet.”
Wagner also competed in pageants, and a girl she was competing with had done an internship at the famed bridal salon. She gave Wagner the contact information for the internship coordinator.
“I contacted [the coordinator] as soon as possible, and she said she hadn’t even began to think about the summer internship program yet,” Wagner said. “I had to wait until mid-November and send her my stuff again.”
In December, Wagner traveled to New York with her fiancé, now-husband, for her interview.
“I could not tell you any of the questions she asked me,” Wagner said. “I just remember sitting there, being in the moment. I remember her saying, ‘I just have to have you.’ And it wasn’t connecting, it was unreal.”
During the summer, Wagner was an assistant bridal consultant at the salon. She would assist the consultants to make sure the appointments were running smoothly, asking the brides questions and making them feel comfortable.
“The hardest part is when the bride has no idea what she wanted,” Wagner said. “But it was really cool to see all of the different brides come through and being a part of that special moment.”
Eventually, Wagner said, she and the other interns found the consultant they worked best with, and by the end of the summer she was allowed to help pick dresses.
She also got to meet designers as they came through for trunk shows, when a designer will bring an entire collection and gives personal consultations. Wagner met Hayley Paige, and got to try on her work.
“I got to see how they interacted with the brides and how thankful they were to them,” she said. “Fashion isn’t just pulling clothes off the rack, it’s who you’re designing for.”
Wagner found that out firsthand as well; she got to meet designer Mark Zunino, and he sketched her wedding dress in front of her.
“They were very good to me, as an intern and a bride,” she said. “I think I was spoiled with my only internship.”
After graduating, Wagner got a job as a consultant in the designer collections department at the Saks Fifth Avenue in Indianapolis.
Denton, the elementary education professor who inspired Wagner, still remembers her even though the last time the two were in class together was in 2010.
“She loved working with children,” Denton said. “I remember her smile and positive attitude. I appreciated [Wagner]’s enthusiasm to lead a small group during class projects, and her willingness to answer questions and make comments about the teaching profession.”
Denton also remembers when Wagner told her she was changing her major.
“I told her that I was happy for her. She truly found her spark and followed her dream,” Denton said.
However, Wagner’s dreams changed when the Saks job didn’t deliver everything she was expecting.
“I felt like I was growing up very quickly at 25,” she said. “The hours were horrible and I only got one weekend off a month. My relationship was very strained. Our schedules weren’t lining up, it was like I’d get home from work and Eric would be going to bed.”
Wagner, who was used to change by this point, set out to find something else that would also make her happy.
She looked to community service, which she enjoyed when she was competing in pageants.
Now, she works for Kiwanis International, a nonprofit service organization. Her formal title is member engagement specialist in the Key Club division, Kiwanis’s program for high schoolers. She runs the program’s Instagram, Twitter and Facebook accounts.
“I never really realized that social media was a job,” she said. “Kleinfeld's taught me how to see things from new points of view and get out of my comfort zone. It comes in handy because now I’m the voice of these kids and I have to tell their stories.”
In January, she was an adviser for a new leadership experience in Miami, Florida. She and several high schoolers worked with a local homeless shelter and Action Club, Kiwanis’ program for adults with disabilities.
This time, it seemed that she found something to merge her passions.
The former Miss Pulaski County and Miss Kankakee Valley used the titles as a way to serve the community, which she now gets to do on a daily basis.
“I wanted to be doing something meaningful,” she said. “I used to do pageants for a community service outlet, but now I get to do it for a job.”