March is Employee Appreciation Month. In that spirit, each week we have put the spotlight on an outstanding staff member who is instrumental in keeping our institution moving forward—even when faced with monumental challenges.
When it comes to tackling “other duties as assigned,” most staff members don’t envision driving 254 miles to a cornfield in Indiana to pick up Bernina sewing machines. But for Rainie Jiang, costume shop manager in the Department of Theater at Case Western Reserve University, this task was well worth the effort.
Her passion for her work stems from a deep love for the arts that took root while growing up in her grandparents’ home in China. There, Jiang was surrounded by eye-catching Peking opera costumes—brilliantly colored and richly embroidered robes once worn by her grandfather, who was a famous performer of the traditional Chinese opera.
“My grandfather would hold me or put me in his lap while my grandmother sat across from him doing sewing work or reading,” Jiang recalled. “[He] would start to sing Peking opera to my grandmother and put me to sleep.”
The pair only had 13 years together, but their shared passion for the arts influenced the trajectory of Jiang’s life.
Today, she mentors more than 10 student volunteers, costume shop assistants, and those in a theater practicum class at Case Western Reserve, teaching them how to hand sew and use sewing machines.
“Rainie is a great mentor,” said Angelina Herin, resident costume designer and associate professor of theater. “She finds things that students have done really well and applauds them so they feel that value and pride in their work.”
Herin also noted Jiang’s reputation for having a great attitude and her dedication to going the extra mile—as evidenced by her willingness to gather those Bernina sewing machines in Indiana.
“It’s an industry-standard machine, but they stopped making them so it’s like gold if you can find them,” Herin said. “We had a student call every dealer for this machine in the country, and after hours of calling they found some in Indiana. When she got there, they packed her car full and Rainie drove them back.”
That wasn’t the first or the last time Jiang went the distance for her students.
When classes shifted online at the beginning of the pandemic, many work-study students couldn’t be on campus. Jiang felt strongly about making sure they didn’t miss out, so she would meet students and drive to their homes to give them a project to work on.
Also during the pandemic, Jiang helped fourth-year theater major Clara Johnson design her first show, which took place virtually. Johnson wasn’t on campus at the time, so Jiang acted as her eyes and ears on the ground.
“Rainie has a lot of people who will stay in the shop for four years, even if they’re not a theater major, because she’s fun to be around and she teaches us a lot,” said Johnson, who has worked with Jiang since her first year. “Even if they’re not interested in costume design, she’ll have them set goals because she wants them to improve.”
Jiang’s students also appreciate that she keeps them well-fed with treats—boxes of Girl Scout cookies can be spotted around the shop, and she always makes sure to provide a delectable fruit cake on opening nights to thank students for their hard work.
For Jiang, it’s an easy trade-off—she brings them cookies and her students bring her joy.
“I like to work with undergraduates because they bring a lot of energy and they remind me I’m still young and energetic—and that I’m still young in this field and I can do more,” said Jiang, sporting a Lilo and Stitch patterned apron and face mask.
Jiang earned her Master of Fine Arts from Michigan State University in 2017 and was offered her job at Case Western Reserve right before she graduated (she credits the good luck her late grandmother brings her for that).
When she started, she worked part time and her office was not much bigger than a closet. Now, her position is full time, she’s running a costume shop that’s three times the size of the original, and she’s growing daily in her new role as a manager. Plus, she spends her days fashioning costumes that remind her where her passion began—back in her grandparents’ living room, dozing off to the sound of Peking opera.
“I love CWRU. It’s not only because of the people I work with—we love theater, we love students, we always work [hard] together to make each production happen—but also because I see growth [here],” Jiang explained. “Everything that we’ve [thought] of to make the department better, it’s come along.”