EMU launches Career Closet offering free dress clothes for job fairs and interviews

Eastern Michigan University's University Advising and Career Development Center recently launched a Career Closet to provide free professional clothing to students and alumni.
Cash-strapped college students can often barely afford ramen, much less dress clothes for job fairs and interviews. In an effort to remove barriers to student success, Eastern Michigan University's (EMU) University Advising and Career Development Center (UACDC) recently launched a Career Closet to provide free professional clothing to students and alumni.

Logann Dolan, career coach with the UACDC, says she remembers what it was like being a financially insecure student.

"I can remember being nervous about the upcoming career fair and not having the financial means or reliable transportation to go to the store and buy an outfit," she says. "Professional clothing can be a huge financial barrier for students, and we are happy to break down that barrier here at EMU."

The EMU Career Closet is located in 200 McKenny Hall on EMU's campus. It accepts walk-ins from 1-4:30 p.m. Monday-Friday, or at other times by appointment. 
John Carlson in the dressing room of the EMU Career Closet.
Students are invited to take an entire outfit, or about four pieces, once per semester. That not only includes pants, skirts, jackets, and tops but also shoes and accessories like ties and handbags. A private, gender-neutral dressing room is available a few doors down the hall.

"We would like to destigmatize asking for help and normalize shopping in the Career Closet just like they would in any other retail store," says Temii Tellis, senior corporate relations manager for EMU.

John Carlson, senior corporate relations manager for EMU, says his staff has been making plans for the Career Closet for about two years, and officially launched it with a grand opening Sept. 27. 

"We facilitate a number of job fairs every year ... and there was a recognition of the need for affordable professional wear," Carlson says. "And it's working. Students are showing up."

Fifty-three students came to shop just in the first six days the closet was open, says UACDC Assistant Director Crystal Walrath. Staff ask shoppers to complete a survey when they check out, and response has been overwhelmingly positive. 
The Career Closet at EMU's McKenny Hall.
Quotes from the survey include comments such as, "I think that it was convenient and really awesome to have a place to come to before the job fair and find a suit, so I can have something to wear when I see employers there" and "I love love love this career closet! These are things that I would have never been able to purchase on my own." One of the few negative comments requested more women's plus-sized items. 

Walrath says the UACDC has been publicizing the closet, but students are mostly hearing about it through word of mouth. Two classes have come for a tour of the closet, which included an activity in which students picked out what they thought were the best and worst interview outfits.

"I know a lot of them went and told their friends because they thought it was better than they anticipated it to be," Walrath says.

Staff will offer a mobile version of the closet at all job fairs hosted by the UACDC, before students meet with employers. In early October, UACDC took a rack of career closet items to an IT/STEM job internship fair, where Carlson says the clothing was well used.
EMU fashion marketing innovation student Hannah Smalley at the EMU Career Closet.
The Career Closet has engaged several partners to make the program available, including Dress for Success of Michigan. Another partner is JCPenney, whose Suit-Up partnership offers students 60% off career and professional items each semester. Briarwood Mall and accounting firm UHY have also donated to the closet as corporate sponsors. EMU staff and faculty and community members have also made donations.

Carlson says he's concerned that the closet is not highly visible to students because it's inside the UACDC office without a window where students might easily happen to see it. Staff hope to transition into a visible storefront in McKenny Hall in the near future, possibly across the hall from the UACDC in a now-empty cafe space.

To make the Career Closet sustainable, staff need donations of new or gently-used clothing as well as monetary donations. The closet is especially in need of plus-sized women's clothing, and button-up shirts, dress shoes, blazers, belts, and trousers for men. 

UACDC staff accept clothing donations at 200 McKenny Hall from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday. Monetary donations can be made here. Students or alumni can sign up for a time slot or find additional information by calling the UACDC at (734) 487-0400 or emailing career_services@emich.edu.

Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and editor in Ypsilanti Township and the project manager of On the Ground Ypsilanti. She joined Concentrate as a news writer in early 2017 and is an occasional contributor to other Issue Media Group publications. You may reach her at sarahrigg1@gmail.com.

All photos by Doug Coombe.
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