College Of Arts And Architecture’s Kendall Mainzer Creates Magic, Guides Students Forward
Kendall Mainzer is a storyteller. She lives and breathes creativity and making dreams come true. She teaches a class about Disney and works for Career Services within the College of Arts and Architecture.
When Mainzer was around 6 years old, she told her parents that she wanted to be president. Not of the United States, though, she wanted to be president of Disneyland. Although she may not be president of Disneyland yet, her journey from nearly playing Olympic soccer to law school to working for Disney and ending up in Happy Valley is nothing short of magical.
“I walked in [to Disneyland], and it was just this moment that made sense,” Mainzer said. “Everything made sense. And I remember being 6 or 7 and thinking, ‘I know what I want to be when I grow up.’ I walked into Disneyland and I looked up to my mom, and I was like, ‘I want to be the president.’ As a little kid, I didn’t know that was a real job, but it still stayed in the back of my mind.”
Mainzer tried ballet, tap, and gymnastics as a kid, but those didn’t work out due to her spitfire personality, and she was asked not to return. Her parents decided to have her try a sport instead, so Mainzer started playing soccer.
“It was everything. It just jived with my whole soul,” Mainzer said.
Mainzer played very competitive soccer, including on a boys team, on traveling teams, and on the Olympic Development team. She was even coached by players from the U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT), notably Brandi Chastain, and played a friendly against the Argentinian team with her club team.
She went to a U.S. vs Brazil game in the 1999 Women’s World Cup where she sat with the families of USWNT players. Mainzer got tickets from Chastain’s husband, who she knew from the Santa Clara University soccer camp that she was very involved with.
During her recruitment process in high school, Mainzer garnered a lot of interest from top programs. While she was recruited by Division I schools, she ultimately ended up picking UC Davis, a Division II school that was headed to the next level. Picking UC Davis allowed Mainzer to continue playing club soccer while also focusing on the Olympics.
“I love being with underdogs,” she said. “I thought, if I go to Notre Dame or UConn or Santa Clara, they go to the Final Four all the time. But what if I could help a team that doesn’t? I loved the leadership opportunities on the field,”
Mainzer redshirted her first year of college so she could play a national tournament in Phoenix, Arizona. In the tournament, Mainzer’s squad faced a team from Kansas, whose players were all getting full-ride soccer scholarships to Division I schools.
Ultimately, they went on to beat one of the best, if not the best, youth women’s soccer teams in the nation in a 4-1 game.
Unfortunately, about a month after the tournament, Mainzer started experiencing limb numbness and back pain, showing signs of an injury that she could not recover from, thus ending her soccer career.
Mainzer needed to rethink her path in college because while she was there to play soccer, she didn’t know where else to go when that was not an option.
“I was majoring in English, but I wasn’t really vibing with the department,” Mainzer explained. “I was really struck by how big of a loss soccer was and having that plan. The only other plan I had was wanting to be president of Disneyland, and at 18 years old, that sounded stupid in my brain.”
As a first-generation college student, Mainzer didn’t know how to use all the resources the university had to her advantage. She started doing poorly in school. In her second year at Davis, Mainzer received a letter telling her that she was on academic probation. Mainzer was devastated by this, and for a minute, she considered dropping out.
Mainzer went to the academic advising office with the letter, not really knowing what to do with it and holding back tears.
“The woman at the front desk…She looked at me and said, ‘If you don’t know what your question is, how do you expect us to help you?'” Mainzer said. “It was devastating, and I walked out and I thought about dropping out. But instead, I pulled out the bulletin and started talking to my peers.”
She took classes on topics across the board, from human sexuality to companion animal behavior and geology — which wasn’t about dinosaurs like she thought — to history.
Mainzer hadn’t been much of a fan of history in high school, but that history class surprised her and stuck. The class was all storytelling, something that Mainzer has always loved and felt was meant for her.
“It’s been the failures and the mishaps that have yielded me every meaningful opportunity,” she said. “And it’s been those moments when I had to say, ‘OK, everything’s broken. Now what do I do?'”
While she was at UC Davis, she got her first management position for a student-run bus company she loved. Then she got the opportunity to be a part of the Disney College Program.
“Nobody from my school had ever done it before, so the recruiter came out, and we had a really great conversation, and I was one of the first three people from my school to do it in Florida. So I just flew to Florida,” said Mainzer.
Mainzer said she had an amazing experience in that program and always recommends it to students who can fit it into their academic plan. The College Program gave Mainzer her first taste of working with Disney on a more professional level.
“I look back and think, ‘What an adventure that was.’ But if I hadn’t been kind of an obnoxious brat, I wouldn’t have played soccer. And if I hadn’t gotten injured and then failed classes, I wouldn’t have gotten to Disney World and started that job. It wouldn’t have launched that part of my career,” said Mainzer.
Mainzer loves “Frozen 2” and Anna’s song, “The Next Right Thing.” She said she lives by that and always makes the most out of how things have gone.
“I just tried to figure out what’s the next right thing for me, even when all my plans have broken and shattered,” she said. “And the next right thing may still not have worked. But a lot of times, it yielded me things I can look back on and be so glad that didn’t work out because look what I got.”
After Mainzer returned to Davis, she still had some school left to complete and decided to apply to be a manager at Starbucks. It was a demanding job, and juggling that with her last year of school with a full course load and a thesis was no easy task.
Ultimately, Mainzer graduated with a 2.76 GPA and a history degree, although she wasn’t completely sure what she was going to do with that.
She continued to be a manager at Starbucks because she liked the job, but Mainzer thought she’d take the LSAT just to see what would happen. Even though she had already graduated, Mainzer attended a career fair at UC Davis, where she met some law school representatives and told them her story. The representatives encouraged her to apply.
“I took it and I didn’t get a great LSAT score. I got a solid one, but seriously, a solid average. It was enough. I got a full ride to law school based on my story and how I was able to take my shortcomings and the failures and make things work anyways. Being a storyteller has unlocked so many doors for me and connected me to that dream that I had when I was 6,” Mainzer said.
Mainzer went to law school at Ave Maria School of Law. She wanted to go to a school that was ideologically very different than how Mainzer thought about the world. She desired to help people find happiness, and Mainzer understood people who already thought like her, so going to Ave Maria was an opportunity to understand people who didn’t think like her.
“I loved the experience of being around people who saw things differently than I did,” Mainzer said. “It really helped me advocate for the things I cared about better because I learned how to empathize with people who just saw things differently.”
From law school, Mainzer spent some time as a juvenile public defender, did asylum and immigration work while in school, and then moved to Washington, D.C. She moved during the recession, so finding work was difficult. Mainzer picked up what she could and worked on the American Disabilities Act litigation. She liked it and thought it was cool, but it just wasn’t what she really wanted to do.
Fortunately for her, Mainzer’s boyfriend at the time, who had done his undergrad at Penn State, was moving back to State College to get his master’s. He offered to have Mainzer move with him, but she wasn’t that interested in moving to central Pennsylvania.
Mainzer decided to move to Florida instead to see where that would take her. She was fine doing front-line work, and she knew that Disney valued people who were willing to work their way up.
In April 2010, Mainzer walked up to casting at Disney World and applied to be an attractions hostess for Spaceship Earth. They called her and asked why she wanted to work in attractions when she had a law degree.
“I said it’s because I want to run Disneyland someday, and I want to know how it works,” Mainzer said.
That was the start of her nearly five-year-long run working for Disney. From the start, Mainzer told every single person she met that she wanted to be the president of Disneyland, thinking that if she doesn’t tell anybody about her goals, then nobody can be there to help her.
After a few months, Mainzer got a full-time job and moved to Soarin, where she started cross-training to work on Living With the Land. One day, she was sitting in the cast cafeteria when EPCOT’s vice president sat down next to her thinking that Mainzer was new.
“He sat down next to me and introduced himself, and I said, ‘I know who you are. I’m Kendall, and someday I want to be the president of Disneyland,'” said Mainzer.
Because she told everyone she met that she wanted to be the president of Disneyland, she quickly moved up and gained mentors. She wanted to be the very best that she could be at any role she got put into. As time went on, people started to compare Mainzer to Meg Crofton, the highest-ranking female executive at Disney.
Mainzer got to move to a backstage role doing resort parks sales and services where she did contract work and helped plan special events. She also got a leadership role with the flagship resort as a concierge services guest services manager and was a part of a top-secret special project team. On this team, Mainzer helped roll out Magic Bands get guests used to using an app to navigate the parks.
Mainzer also got the opportunity to be the executive events coordinator for the Walt Disney World Resort. In this role, Mainzer planned every executive meeting that took place in Florida. She was in charge of making sure that Bob Iger, the former CEO of The Walt Disney Company, and three other highe-ranking Disney executives had their name tags at special events. She also planned red carpet events for movie premieres and got to hold Jane Goodall’s hand at the “Chimpanzee” premiere for DisneyNature.
From there, Mainzer became a Disney Storyteller as a special activities VIP tour guide, where she worked with celebrities, dignitaries, and executives. This role is known as a legacy role because Walt Disney himself held this position.
“I was their fairy godmother. I got to guide them around, that was my gig. But I also had to tell them the story of the company and become an expert,” said Mainzer.
Mainzer’s history degree made a reappearance here because she didn’t need to just have dates memorized for this job. She needed to contextualize the events and understand why what she was talking about mattered. This job then in turn reappears now that she is at Penn State, where Mainzer teaches a seminar class called Magic By Design, which is about Disney placemaking.
“I wish I could claim that I did it all on purpose, but I kind of had a north star that I tried to ignore. Every experience that I had along the way unlocked something later,” said Mainzer.
While Mainzer was working for Disney, her boyfriend (and now husband) got his master’s and moved to Florida even though he wasn’t the most excited about living in Florida. He came back to Penn State to get his Ph.D. in 2014 and was offered a tenure-track professor job. This brought Mainzer’s family to State College.
“I’ve been very fortunate that Penn State’s afforded me the opportunity to be the magic-maker that I am,” she said. “I’ve helped to create some really great student services opportunities and been really privileged to work with arts and architecture students because it’s like being at Disney. I’m with creative professionals all day.”
Mainzer is now the advisor for the Disney Club at Penn State and serves as the Career Services and Student Engagement Officer for the College of Arts and Architecture. She is also a coach for the Student Engagement Network.
When Mainzer was at Disney, one of the executives pulled her into his office and said that she reminded him of a coffee bean. When you boil an egg, it gets hard. When you boil a carrot, it gets mushy. But when you boil a coffee bean, it changes the water. Mainzer embraced that, internalized that, and owned it. When things get tough, she reminds herself that she is much like that humble coffee bean, and so are her students.
Mainzer still has the dream of becoming the president of Disneyland, but she also gives students at Penn State advice and helps them embrace their inner storytelling.
“Just taking one step at a time, finding that next right thing, it’s never clear when it’s happening,” Mainzer said. “That’s so scary, but sometimes magic can happen when you feel like you’re messing everything up.”
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