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Veronica Rodriguez with packages she's wrapped Veronica Rodriguez, who won a national gift-wrapping competition earlier this month, lent her talents to some packages under the departmental tree at the Richmond Field Station. (Linda Erskine photo)

Richmond Field staffer Veronica Rodriguez's gift for wrapping nets her top prize at national competition

– In the five years she's been a part-time gift wrapper at Macy's in Richmond's Hilltop Mall, Veronica Rodriguez has grown used to working quickly and in front of an audience of customers.

But Rodriguez, 23, an administrative assistant for the College of Engineering's operations and facility management unit at Richmond Field Station, is unaccustomed to wrapping odd-shaped items - which was exactly the challenge she faced at the Scotch Brand 2006 national gift-wrapping contest, held last week at Rockefeller Center in New York City.

"I didn't go in there thinking I could wrap whatever they threw at me. I just wanted to do well," explains Rodriguez, who beat seven amateur and professional competitors to take home the $10,000 grand prize.

Gift-wrapped pony
Rodriguez's prize-winning wraps in the national contest included this "Scottish kilt" look on a life-sized toy pony.

Rodriguez's inventive approaches to covering a soccer ball and game board, a pedal-powered airplane, and a life-sized toy pony earned her first place. Unlike the packages she routinely wraps at Macy's, each object in the contest, except the game board, was without a box. And in place of time-conscious customers hovering in front of her, Rodriguez was made nervous by a timekeeper who counted down remaining minutes and seconds.

In the third and final round - in which Rodriguez faced off against one other competitor - she used the allotted 15 minutes to outfit the pony in a skirt ("It looked like a Scottish kilt at the end," she said) and draped a sash over the plush pet, adorned its head with bows, and trailed tissue paper off its back. Judges assessed the contestants' package-prettifying skills by three criteria: technique, appearance, and speed.

Rodriguez has come a long way from her early days at Macy's, when she had no idea how to wrap, she said. As she wrote in her entrance essay for the national competition, she "could have been named 'America's Least Gifted Wrapper'" - until coworkers showed her how to wrap packages and tie bows. "Because I'm such a perfectionist, I wanted my gifts to look perfect," explains Rodriguez, who now considers herself "an expert at gift-wrapping. I know how to maneuver around the most difficult of packages with ease and grace to make the package look the best it can."

Although Rodriguez has worked at the Richmond Field Station for only two months, her supervisor, Linda Erskine, went to lengths to arrange coverage for the two work days her staffer would be attending the competition. She was motivated to do so, she says, by the positive impact and impression Rodriguez already has made at the workplace. "When I think of talent, I think of someone who's willing and wants to learn, a person who enjoys what they do - whatever it is - and takes pride in what they do, whatever it is," ssys Erskine. "That's what Veronica does."

Wrap artist dreams of becoming a legal eagle

Following her win, Rodriguez resumed both of her jobs, but life hasn't exactly returned to normal. Next week, she's being flown back to New York to be interviewed on the ABC News show "Good Morning America." And although Rodriguez said her award has been a "huge thrill and surprise," much of her focus instead is on February, when she'll be taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT).

Rodriguez's dream of a career in immigration law is rooted in personal experience. Nearly 20 years ago, when Rodriguez was four, her parents brought her and her younger sister, Angie, from Mexico to live with relatives in Richmond, Calif. Bad advice from a lawyer caused the family to defer the naturalization process.

Veronica Rodriguez's
wrapping tips
• Gather your tools — tape, scissors, wrapping paper, ribbon, and gift tags — and have gifts and boxes on hand before starting to wrap.
• Measure the box before cutting the paper. Using old ribbon, measure all the way around the box and twist the ribbon to mark the package's size. Lay the paper flat on your work surface, and cut the paper an inch longer than the twist in the ribbon. This technique ensures the paper will fit the package snugly (and that paper won't be wasted).
• Line up the seam of the wrapping paper with one side of the box (rather than with the middle), because it creates a cleaner line.
• Use a lot of tape, especially on the seams. The more seams you tape, the crisper the package will look.
• Use wired ribbon — it's easier to work with.
• Decorate the package with a little ornament for a professional touch. Rodriguez uses candy canes on her packages.
When Rodriguez met a lawyer in a high school training program who asked her to assist him on a project, she declined the invitation to cover up the fact that she wasn't here legally. Upon learning that Rodriguez and her family had lived under the legal radar for more than a decade, the astonished lawyer contacted an attorney who would take their case for a low fee.

With that attorney's help, the family secured temporary work permits and Social Security numbers. It then became embroiled in a nail-biting immigration process that lasted five years and involved two separate trials - one for Rodriguez's parents and the other for herself and a younger sister. "For a moment I thought the government was going to split us up," recalls Rodriguez. Eventually, the Immigration and Naturalization Service dropped its case, and the family members received green cards.

Once Rodriguez obtains a law degree and passes the bar exam, she plans to practice criminal law and then switch to immigration law. "That way I won't have to charge people a lot of money," she says, explaining that most immigrants, when first landing in the United States, lack the financial resources to navigate through a costly legal process.

Her father has urged her to save her wrapping winnings to help pay for law school, but the gift-minded Rodriguez says she has another idea: "I'm going to take my family on a trip. My family has always given me so much love and support, and now it's time for me to give back to them."