Jessica Dombrowski admits it took a while for the news to sink in that she had been accepted onto the Capgemini Women in Rugby Leadership Programme.
When confirmation arrived earlier this year, Dombrowski read the email “four or five separate times” and asked colleagues at USA Rugby to do the same to make sure it said what she thought it did.
“It was super cool,” she told World Rugby. “Through the application process, I felt like I was out of my depth a little bit because of the past records of these scholarship winners, [who] are people that have gone on to do such amazing things and absolutely own the industry.
“To even be considered as part of them was cool but knowing that I got selected was just absolutely surreal, to say the least.”
Formulating programme plans
It is now more than three months since the news was made public, on International Women’s Day, and it is fair to say that Dombrowski’s experience so far has lived up to her expectations.
The American has been able to connect with a network of fellow female leaders across the world, both in the current intake and past participants on the programme.
Those interactions have helped to shape what she wants to achieve on the programme, and her action plan has been tweaked accordingly as she has picked the brains of her peers.
“The last three months have been wild,” Dombrowski said.
“It’s been really cool to actually start to have conversations with individuals and hear what they have done, which has spurred different tangents of thought of what I want to do.
“For me, it’s been a lot of information gathering… Educational opportunities as well as individual networking experience, those are the top two that I’m looking for.
“It’s pretty cool because it's evolved since I started. Every time I have a different conversation with someone or a new message in our group chat pops up, I'm constantly inspired again with something different.
“So, it's like playing Whac-A-Mole with great ideas.”
She added: “It’s cool to be exposed to the whole wider community of things and I think that speaks volumes to the programme as well because it's not a one and done.
“It's not, ‘Oh this is my year, this is going to be the best time and then I'm just going to move on and do what I do’. People want to give back; they want to continue to help the next generation and push forward.
“That to me is a cool thing because it shows the actual investment and the power that something like this can have with the right people.”
Finding a community
Speaking to Dombrowski it is clear the passion and desire that she possesses to give back to rugby, a game she states has provided her with so much.
Growing up Dombrowski felt as though she was the “odd one out” as a woman who enjoyed playing competitive, contact sport.
She would play pick-up games of American football with her male friends but did not find a true outlet for her desires until she enrolled at Illinois State University.
It was there, during a sports fair, that she met then Redbirds captain and current USA Women’s Eagle Charli Jacoby, who convinced her to attend training.
“Having a two-hour-long rugby practice with 25 other females that want to also have contact and physicality, I didn't know that that even existed,” Dombrowski said. “So, I was absolutely hooked from the start.”
Dombrowski was so taken with the oval-ball game, in fact, that she changed her major from criminology to one that would help her follow a future career in rugby administration.
As part of her new course, Dombrowski needed to complete an internship. She applied for one with USA Rugby, got it and within a month had been offered a full-time job.
She concedes that some of her friends thought she was “a little crazy” to uproot her life and move permanently to Colorado, 16 hours from her closest family.
However, if accepting the job was a gamble then it is one that has paid off for Dombrowski, who six years later has risen to become USA Rugby Membership and Affinity Senior Manager.
“I’m kind of a central hub of information,” she said about the role. “I will try and answer [questions] as best I can or connect people with where they need to go.”
Away from the office, Dombrowski is president of the Colorado Grey Wolves, the women’s club she also plays for, and trains with a local men’s team, the Denver Water Dogs.
It means that she quite literally eats, sleeps and drinks rugby, training four nights a week and playing on the weekend.
“I really wouldn’t have it any other way as long as I’m still enjoying it, which I absolutely am,” Dombrowski said.
“[Rugby has] given me my core group of friends and obviously it's put me on a career path that I would have literally never found in my whole life.
“I really enjoy it because outside of the rugby community, it's such an oddity. You know, saying, ‘Oh, I work in rugby or I play rugby’, everyone's like, ‘Oh, I didn't know people actually did that in the States’, you know?
“I enjoy that because it gives me constant opportunities to help educate and spread that awareness, I guess, to other people that we are here, and we do exist, and we are doing really cool things. That, I think, has been the coolest part for me.”
Unsurprisingly, Dombrowski is excited to help spread that message further over the next decade as the USA prepares to host Rugby World Cups 2031 and 2033.
“I think 10 years is a perfectly reasonable amount of time to cast our net a little bit wider and get everybody aware and involved and on board, and I think people are going to just fall in love with it,” she said.
“I think sitting there in the stands 11 years from now, I'm going to be sitting there with my family hopefully and just be like, ‘wow, I remember having a conversation 10 years ago, 15 years ago about rugby and who would have thought that we could be here?’
“Playing even like some small little part of that is just super cool.”