The transformative power of UW Tacoma

Five years ago, Tom Rochat, ’13, was foraging for mushrooms just to get by. Today, he’s on the fast track to senior-level management at a global IT company — and he credits it all to his time at UW Tacoma.

Read the story

At UW Tacoma, it doesn’t matter where you came from. Once you’re there, you’re starting over. Once you’re there, you’re part of a family.

When Tom Rochat, ’13, purchased his first home in the sleepy, waterside town of Kingston, Washington, he wasn’t caught up in the three bedrooms or the endless backyard or the wood-burning stove. He was concerned about one thing, and one thing only: signal strength. He did his homework — complete with maps and diagrams — and calculated exactly where he’d get the strongest internet connection. Only then did he sign the papers.

When you work from home as an operations service owner at Avanade — a test bed for the latest Microsoft technologies — connectivity is key. Rochat, a magna cum laude graduate of UW Tacoma’s information technology program, made sure solving global IT problems from his remote office wouldn’t be an issue.

But before he found his way at UW Tacoma, Rochat was faced with a much heavier issue than a weak signal: how he and his family were going to escape homelessness from one month to the next.

The four-story fall

— and a knack for hacking

Rochat was supposed to be a construction worker.

He’d always found solace in working with his hands, so after the Poulsbo, Washington native completed his tours of duty as a paratrooper in the Army, the decision to go to Olympic College for welding technology was an easy one. He earned his associate degree, with plans to hop on a construction site — then the economy tanked. “I was ready with my tool bag and my welding hat, but suddenly there were no more jobs,” he says.

So he went to work in apartment maintenance instead, painting walls, unclogging toilets and, in a cruel twist of fate, upgrading the downspouts on a four-story building’s shiny metal roof. He slipped, fell and crushed his knees, already beat from years spent jumping out of airplanes. “I was literally on crutches trying to hold up sheets of drywall and patch roofs so I could put food on the table,” says Rochat. “But I was too injured to work and didn’t have health insurance, so I got laid off.”

His $12,000 annual salary — the salary that supported his family — was slipping. He needed a new job. One that would keep him off his feet.

Enter Office Depot, or maybe Staples.

“I decided maybe I could be a tier one help desk guy,” says Rochat. “The guy you call when your device is broken who says, ‘Turn it on and off again.’ I’ll be that guy.”

It made sense: Rochat had loved computers since he was a kid. When he was 6, his father convinced his mother to buy one for the family. By 8, Rochat was writing his first program thanks to hours spent poring over books with his dad. At 15, he traded teaching a company how he’d hacked them in exchange for dodging prosecution.

“I had no idea I had all this computing power,” says Rochat. But he knew computers made him happy, and he knew he needed a job. So he went back to Olympic College and earned a two-year computer science degree in nine months, armed to join an office supply company’s customer service team.

His instructor, says Rochat, had other plans. “He looked at me and said, ‘You’re writing papers for me on chipset compliance for wireless security. You can do so much more.’”

With that encouragement, Rochat applied to UW Tacoma. “In a million years, I never thought I’d be accepted. UW Tacoma was the pinnacle,” he says. “Two weeks later, I was sitting in my first class. I didn’t even know how I got there.”

Top of the class at UW Tacoma

— and beyond

Rochat’s cohort was one of the first to go through UW Tacoma’s brand-new information technology program. “I thought I was going to be a bottom-rung student and need everybody’s help,” he says. “I quickly found myself near the top in almost every class. I didn’t realize what was common sense and easy to me was actually an extremely valuable skillset.”

UW Tacoma saw what I was capable of before I knew my own potential. They really fostered my confidence, and I now understand my worth.

Rochat threw himself into campus organizations, joining the Safe Secure Computing Research Group and becoming the chief technical officer and eventual president of the computer security–focused Greyhat Group — all while selling foraged chanterelles for gas money just to make it to class every day. “I took every possible opportunity because it was a massive opportunity for me to even be at UW Tacoma.”

Seizing those opportunities paid off; Rochat wrote a white paper about next-generation security systems with the Safe Security Computing Research Group, and UW Tacoma flew him to Florida to present his work. An employee of Avanade, a Microsoft partner and test bed, saw Rochat’s presentation, called his boss and said, “You need to hire this guy right away.” Rochat had a phone interview with Avanade that day, and they hired him as an intern on the spot.

I never would have had these opportunities if I hadn’t received scholarships to attend UW Tacoma. It’s all thanks to this place and these people.

Six months later, his status changed to senior analyst. He was working full time before he even graduated from UW Tacoma, switching between homework and work work. Three years and five promotions later, he’s an operations service owner up for another promotion — this time, to manager.

“UW Tacoma didn’t just give me an education that led to a career,” says Rochat, who plans for a long future at Avanade. “They improved my life and my health. They gave me the means to support my family. The ways UW Tacoma has transformed my life, and the ripple effect that that’s had has been incredible. This place has completely changed everything.”

Now, Rochat pays it forward, purchasing school supplies for families who are struggling, lending a helping hand to family members when they need it most. He mentors the next generation of UW Tacoma graduates, guest lecturing on campus a few times a year. “If it wasn’t for the support UW Tacoma gave me, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I’m happy to give back to UW Tacoma any way that I can.”

The history — and
future — of Tacoma

At its height, Tacoma was a living, breathing labor union town, ripe with blue-collar jobs and a strong industrial pulse. A city held tightly by navy waters and purple mountains, driven by the railroad industry that chugged through to Union Station — an awe-inspiring, Beaux-Arts beauty. As it happens, it was the very fact that Tacoma was chosen to be the western terminus of the Northern Pacific Railroad that the city earned its late-19th-century nickname, the “City of Destiny.”

But 30 years ago, the “City of Destiny” was a city of lost hope. It started with the collapse of the railroad industry after WWII. The jobs left, and Union Station was forgotten. Interstate 5 came through, followed by the Tacoma Mall. Retailers fled downtown for the new shopping center, and in the midst of everything, the beautiful old structures that made up the core of Tacoma became blighted old structures as squatters, street gangs, crime and drugs moved in.

But then, it happened. The University of Washington was going to create UW Tacoma, and they were going to put it right where Tacoma needed it most: the downtown core. UW Tacoma held its inaugural classes in its one degree offering — liberal studies — in 1990.

Since then, UW Tacoma has blossomed into a Washington Monthly–crowned “best bang for the buck” university. With nine schools and programs and an urban-serving campus that preserved and revitalized the city’s historic warehouse district, UW Tacoma has earned a reputation for transforming not just the brick-and-mortar bones of Tacoma, but the students who learn there, too.

And it’s growing. In the next 25 years, UW Tacoma will continue to provide financial aid to students who straddle the qualifying line, meaning those who are strapped for resources can have a well-rounded student experience and a future that once felt out of reach. It will grow in its offerings: STEM programming, engineering degrees, a business incubator — opportunities that will fuel economic growth and innovation in a wanting world. And just like UW Tacoma transformed Tacoma, it will continue to transform the lives of students like Tom Rochat.

Tacoma voices /

Jason Atherton


Pop Up Coffee

I’ve really loved seeing the startup and entrepreneurial community grow. There are a lot of great organizations that have been popping up over the last few years, from creative business incubators to tech companies and everything in between. Tacoma is a blue-collar, community-powered city with a lot of art, music and cultural projects bubbling under the surface, and UW Tacoma is a really big part of that.”

Tacoma voices /

Pat McCarthy


Washington State Auditor

  • Washington State Auditor and former Pierce County Executive
  • Bachelor of Arts in Liberal Studies, UW Tacoma, ’92
  • Distinguished Alumni Award recipient, ’05
  • Storied supporter of education in Tacoma, including a six-year term on the Tacoma School Board and a six-year career as the administrator and advisor for UW Tacoma’s Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences program

Really, UW Tacoma services a large part of the South Sound. Their technology programs really do help support the entire region, the Puget Sound region. It will grow bigger and bigger, and I’m happy to see that happen. But it still feels, you feel pretty darn connected to your instructors, to your professors, and that’s all really great. I think it’s fabulous. It’s one of the best things about UW Tacoma.

Read full transcript

Tacoma voices /

Jack McQuade


The Swiss Restaurant & Pub

  • Owner of The Swiss Restaurant & Pub, a 23-year-old tavern in a UW Tacoma–owned 1913 building that once housed the Tacoma Swiss Society’s general store, saloon and creamery
  • Tacoma born and raised

What’s great about UW Tacoma’s campus is that it’s an urban campus — businesses will always be intertwined with classrooms, and as the future unfolds and UW Tacoma expands, there’s only going to be more of that. The Swiss is like a second home for people from all walks of life, and we feel really fortunate to be right in the heart and soul of campus where we can give back to this community in our own way.”

Tacoma voices /

Erik Hanberg


Side x Side Creative

  • Owner of Side x Side Creative, a boutique marketing firm specializing in medium-sized businesses and nonprofits
  • President of Metro Parks Tacoma’s Board of Park Commissioners
  • Long-time champion of Tacoma’s cultural scene, creating opportunities in film, theater, media, entertainment and entrepreneurship in the community

Tacoma really feels like a small town. But I like to say that Tacoma’s small enough that you can make a difference, but it’s big enough that that matters; That someone can come in here and say like, I’m going to do this, whether that’s art or politics or something, and everyone’s going be like, yeah okay, do that. And it works. That ability for people to come in and actually make a dent in the universe and do something here is pretty cool. And I see that the people coming out of UW can really make a difference. And the more people that come to UW and then stay in Tacoma is good for Tacoma. Sometimes I feel like the whole ‘jobs of the future’ thing is kind of a joke, but here it’s actually real, where you see the computer programmers and you see all of those people who are doing those new jobs, those ‘jobs of the future,’ and they’re getting trained here. And hopefully that means that they’ll stay and contribute to the local economy.

Read full transcript

Originally published January 2017

What you care about
can change the world

The University of Washington is undertaking its most ambitious campaign ever: Be Boundless — For Washington, For the World. You can help UW Tacoma transform the lives of more students like Tom Rochat by contributing to these funds.