NORFOLK, Neb. – Students at Northeast Community College who feel they may need to step up their game for a job interview or a special event have a new resource to turn to on the Norfolk campus. The Career Closet opened this spring in the College’s Union 73 to offer both business and business casual attire at no cost to students.

The Career Closet, stocked with donations from people across campus, is the brainchild of the College’s Professional Business Leaders (PBL) chapter. Angie Shaffer, business Instructor and PBL advisor, said it is a place where students can get gently used clothing that is donated by Northeast employees and other students. She said there are many students who can't afford to buy business attire.

“We created a survey and sent it out to students to determine what kind of need there is, and we heard back from over 150 students,” Shaffer said. “Almost 30% of them said they don’t have the funds to purchase business type clothing while 43% said they know others who are in a similar situation. Nearly 88% of them said they would definitely use it.”

Shaffer said there are several objectives behind Northeast’s Career Closet.

“The primary goals are to promote professionalism in our student body, provide opportunities of success for the students attending Northeast Community College and remove the financial hardship of buying professional dress,” she said. “We aimed to provide Northeast students with an opportunity to access and utilize professional gently used attire. Because we understand that college students’ funds are often limited, all the items in the Career Closet will be free.”

Shaffer said it also provides PBL students an opportunity to create a business, market services and know what it is like to maintain a business in the future.

“This endeavor will allow our members to take the knowledge and skills they have learned through their business classes - such as marketing, management, sales, business communications, accounting, and technology - and apply the knowledge to a real-world business scenario through the creation of this non-profit business.”

Allison Perrigan, business student and PBL Club president, Norfolk, said the Career Closet allows students to have the opportunity to excel in the workforce through interviews and summer jobs or just other events where they may need professional dress.

“And then we as a business club are able to promote professionalism through interview prep of what type of outfit to wear to what type of interview,” Perrigan said. “And when a student comes into shop, we coach them by saying ‘Here's your outfit to match the setting and what type of job it is.’ So, we go a little bit further than just free clothing.”

The PBL students also connect Northeast students who come in with some of the program’s community partners, such as the Norfolk Rescue Mission, Orphan Grain Train and Kato, which have also donated clothing and racks to display items in the Career Closet.

The inventory is generally a mix of business casual to business professional. PBL students keep refining the inventory to create the best professional appearance. If anything has a stain or rip, it gets discarded.

“It really depends on our club members making good decisions on what clothes to keep and what clothes to donate,” Perrigan said. “Any clothes that don't meet our criteria for professional dress get donated back to Orphan Grain Train. That way, it completes the loop of nothing's wasted and nothing gets thrown away.”

The Career Closet operates at a time when society has drifted away from formal attire in a business setting. However, Perrigan stresses there are still instances where it is necessary to step up one’s appearance.

“Some businesses have been dropping those standards, but we believe that professionalism is so important, and we want our students to have access to it so it's not so expensive for them. You can still get a good deal at a clothing store, but you can easily spend more than $100 on a nice outfit, versus they can come in here, even if it's just for a one-time use, and not spend $100 for one job interview. They can come in, feel comfortable, and maybe even get two outfits - so they do have some options.”

If they would choose, the student taking the outfit is welcome to keep it and use it as part of their job or for other occasions. Perrigan said the goal of the program is to work with the students so they are comfortable in what they may take from the Career Closet.

“We don’t want to set super big boundaries on what they can take because every case is different. If a student comes in and says, ‘I just started a job as a receptionist and I have to look nice every day,’ then we understand that it's a little different than maybe someone who's in sports and has one event a year. So, we'll let them take one outfit versus the other student who might get seven outfits.”

There is no cost to students to use the Career Closet, but if they would like to contribute to the program, there is an easy way.

“Clothing wise,” Perrigan said, “we always say, ‘Hey, if you want to donate, donate some clothing back after you're done with it or something that's the wrong size. That's how you can give back.’ Otherwise, there are no monetary transactions.”

After its soft opening earlier this spring, Northeast’s Career Closet is garnering attention. In February, a generous donation of $500 was provided by H & H Hospitality of Norfolk. Shaffer said the donation was greatly needed to purchase supplies for the endeavor. She said the Career Closet is planning to create more relationships through connections already being explored with local businesses.

“One of them is with Tanner Lancaster of State Farm Insurance in Norfolk. A former Northeast PBL member is working in the office and is committed to serving as a drop off point for business attire for the community. Also, our members have reached out to Kelle Tichota with the Norfolk Area Chamber of Commerce. She has expressed excitement to partner with chamber businesses to receive clothing donations from Chamber members,” Shaffer said.

The Career Closet has also been recognized by a statewide collegiate business association. This spring, Northeast PBL students entered the project in the Community Service category at the Nebraska PBL Leadership Conference in Kearney. Perrigan and club members Tyra Bonneau, and Olivia Meaux, both of Norfolk, earned first place. They will now compete in the Community Service Project category at the National PBL Leadership Conference June 24-27, in Chicago.