The third-floor ballroom of Missouri Southern State University’s Billingsly Student Center was transformed Wednesday into a department store where students found professional attire and accessories to take home for free.
Financial stress can be an everyday reality for college students who may not have the means to build up their professional wardrobe. MSSU’s career services office began sponsoring the annual Dress to Impress program eight years ago to give students some of the tools they’ll need to succeed.
Donations of new or lightly used professional items are accepted from community members, businesses and organizations during a clothing drive from November through February. Alex Gandy, director of MSSU’s career services office, said the program bursts at the seams in popularity every year.
“The first year, we helped about 100 to 120 students, and now, we will serve nearly 100 students per hour,” he said. “Within the first hour today, we saw 95 students. It’s grown not only in students but also in awareness. It’s really exciting to see the growth in community involvement, and we have some fantastic partners in the community, including banks and health care organizations. There is significant support for this event, which is fantastic.”
Gandy said the event is not only a clothing giveaway but also a learning opportunity for students. Area business professionals are paired with a student to assist them with choosing workplace attire based on their career prospects. There were 40 to 45 volunteers and mentors on hand Wednesday.
“Around half of our students, about 50%, are first-generation (college students),” Gandy said. “When you want to try to help a student feel supported and equipped for their career, it’s one thing for them to become a curriculum expert, but there’s all of these intangibles outside of curriculum like feeling confident upon entering their profession. When we surveyed students on the direct leads that can help them feel more successful in their careers, professional dress clothes was one of them.
“From that, we created two different events — Dress to Impress and then we facilitate a partnership with J.C. Penney,” he added. “We can’t do this every semester, so in the fall, we do Suit Up with J.C. Penney where they can get up to 60% off dress clothes.”
The program is held in partnership with MSSU and the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce. Since its inception, the event has provided professional clothing to more than 1,000 MSSU students and alumni.
“We feel that it’s important to connect with our future workforce and making sure that they’re equipped and set up for success,” said Erin Slifka, marketing and public information manager with the Joplin chamber. “It allows us to connect the community to the students here at MSSU by providing professional attire and accessories to help those students ease into the jobs and the interviews where they can focus on the skills and assets that they’ve acquired.”
The one-day event had approximately 2,000 items to choose from, including blazers, suits, pants, dresses, shoes, ties and jewelry. There’s no item limit per student, which gives them the opportunity to build a professional wardrobe without having to pay a cent.
“When a young man walks out of here and he has a full suit, a button-up shirt and a tie, he feels confident, and when he walks into that job interview, it’s one less thing that he has to worry about,” Gandy said.
Joshua Samuel, a 19-year-old MSSU sophomore majoring in accounting, stocked up with an array of suits and ties for future job interviews and internships Wednesday morning. He picked out a black pair of shiny dress shoes. With the amount of high-quality apparel he had selected, the cost could’ve easily surpassed $300.
Samuel said he was grateful for the community and the university for caring about students enough to host an event like Dress to Impress.
“Going to these kinds of events can save students a lot of money, so I’m very thankful for events like this,” he said. “It’s been a very good experience so far, and I will absolutely come back next year. I think these kinds of events show that the community is willing to give and that MSSU is willing to contribute to students, which to me is very important as a college student. It makes us feel included, more confident and that they want to see us succeed.”
Samuel was paired up with Cameo Harrington, a senior account executive at Stealth Creative Joplin, as a volunteer and personal shopper.
“This is my favorite volunteer day because it’s so much fun to really help these kids feel good about themselves and to feel confident,” she said. “I have a lot of retail background, so I think that helps. The career services team has really done an amazing job growing this event every year.”
Margarita Antillon, a 23-year-old junior majoring in studio art, attended Dress to Impress for the first time and selected a shirt and dress pants.
“I love the fact that this exists, and I hope to use some of these clothes for meetings or for work,” she said. “I work as a gallery assistant, so these are clothes I’ll definitely need. It also changes your attitude. When you dress nice, you feel nice. Especially with professional clothes, you feel more confident, and all of that really helps.”
The Dress to Impress program was established by MSSU’s career services office and Alumni Association in conjunction with the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce’s Young Professionals Network.