Brett Bieber never owned a suit before becoming a student at California University of Pennsylvania. Going into his senior year as a secondary education major, he knew that needed to change. Although he works for the university’s Welcome Center and does odd jobs, such as house painting, to fund his college career, the cost of dress clothes was a little distressing until he heard about the Campus Closet.

Located inside the Career and Professional Development Center near the center of campus, the cherrywood-adorned “closet,” which officially opens this school year after a COVID-19-induced delay, holds floor-to-ceiling racks of professional clothing, shoes and accessories. All are free to Cal U students simply by making an appointment in advance through the school’s online career center called Handshake.

Although a grand opening is planned for Sept. 23 — complete with online classes in tying bowties and tutorials on different levels of professional dress — students such as Bieber have taken advantage of the closet for the past several months.

“We want our students to be focused on academics and their personal and professional growth and not on the financial stress of finding professional clothing to wear for interviews or internships or even the first day of a new job,” said Rhonda Gifford, director of the university’s Career and Professional Development Center.

Although she was instrumental in securing funding and general support for the idea, she shifts all credit to her assistant director, Bridgett Nobili, who led the closet’s creation after noticing the need for this kind of resource.

Nobili had planned Dress for Success events at the university for years. The first was so successful that the annual one-day event grew to three consecutive days. But even that didn’t meet the demand, especially considering the nonprofit only serves women. That’s when she thought of the Campus Closet.

The center “saved up” beginning about five years ago and received additional funding from Enterprise Holdings — a parent company best known for Enterprise Rent-A-Car — to refurbish a room in their department. The polished cherrywood molding was an extra expense but one worth adding to support the center’s vision.

“I didn’t want there to be a stigma,” Nobili said. “I want it to feel like you’re walking into a brick-and-mortar place, to give that boutique feel.”

Beginning in fall 2019, she solicited donations and distributed plastic bins around campus to collect them. Faculty, staff and members of local professional organizations curated their personal closets to rally around the effort.

Those donations easily filled the closet with everything from business casual to formal attire. But even for some working adults, it’s difficult to make the distinction between those levels of professional dress, which is why Campus Closet shoppers get a trained personal assistant.

Cal U graduate student and graduate assistant in the department, Katelyn Victor, 24, of Luzerne Township, Fayette County, is one of those trained to assist students. To her, it’s like doing “a little shopping right on campus,” almost like you would do with a friend.

“Being able to see these students come in and be a part of something as simple as a set of clothes and knowing that’s one less thing they have to worry about financially, it feels so good to be a part of that,” she said.

To prepare for student teaching this fall, Bieber, 22, of Watsontown, in central Pennsylvania, who participates in numerous on-campus organizations, selected a single-breasted navy blue suit, two polo shirts, a few dress shirts and brown dress shoes, which saved him “easily $200 to $300.” And he’s telling everyone about it.

“As a university tour guide, I tell every single group that comes through to go into the closet,” he said. “The goal is to graduate from Cal U as a young professional. One of the big steps you can take is going in to get free professional attire from the Campus Closet.”

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