In dorm rooms and apartments across Starkville, the unofficial college uniform dominates closet space: athletic wear, game-day gear, date-night duds and T-shirts. Oh, so many T-shirts.

These threads have everything one might need for running to class, tailgating or hitting the Cotton District but leave something to be desired when the destination is the boardroom. And when the time comes to break free of their denim shells, even the best dressed students might find themselves suddenly sartorially challenged.

For Emily Moak Ferril, this realization came her junior year when the requirement to dress “business professional” for a class presentation resulted in a wide array of clothing choices among her classmates.

“I realized that statement meant different things to different people, whether it was from a lack of resources or knowledge or both,” Ferril recalled. “But knowing what kind of dress different situations call for, and being appropriately equipped for it, seemed like something those of us in the College of Business should know.”

Seeing this need, the Vicksburg native began to look for a solution—a way to not only educate students about appropriate business dress but also to help them obtain it. She reached out to her social network, including her mother who was a consultant for a direct-sales women’s clothing company. With her help, Ferril was able to start building an inventory of professional pieces to be awarded to students with a need.

“I wanted our students and graduates to be the best representation of the quality education we receive at Mississippi State in any situation or function,” the 2012 graduate explained. “I thought that if the challenge for our students was truly resources, then hopefully this would help alleviate some of the stress associated with events that called for professional dress.”

Despite the success of those first clothing “scholarships,” Ferril said she knew the endeavor would have to expand to make a true impact on the students in her college. She reached out to Dean Sharon Oswald and development officers within the college to find alumni support, which came in the form of significant donations of clothing or gift cards to retailers that specialize in men’s and women’s professional attire.

“Their generosity was tremendously helpful in making the closet what it is now and impacting the students that benefit from it,” Ferril said.

Today, Ferril’s innovation is known as the Dress Your Best Closet and is housed in an office-sized room in a newly renovated wing of McCool Hall. Complete with mirrors and sewing kits, the space is lined with clothing racks filled with jackets, slacks, skirts, blouses, ties, dress shirts, belts and shoes available to be checked out by any College of Business student. The clothes range in size from 0 to 22 in women’s and 39 to 48 in men’s suits. Students are allowed to borrow the outfits as long as needed and the college takes care of the dry cleaning once they are returned.

The closet is used an average of 50 times a semester, primarily for Career Days and end-of-semester presentations. Senior finance major Emily Green, who first used the closet when interviewing for an internship, said it is an invaluable tool when resources and time are limited.

“I’m a student, so unless I ask my parents to pay for something I don’t have an income to buy a professional outfit,” the Memphis native explained, examining the black sheath she usually borrows. “I don’t have a lot of black in my closet and that’s usually the one color you go for professionally.”

Even if money wasn’t a concern, many students simply don’t have time to seek out appropriate business clothing. Green said she can easily pop out to a local boutique to buy a new shirt for gameday but finding professional outfits would require a two to four-hour drive. Plus, she added, the way students’ sizes fluctuate while in school it wouldn’t be a sound investment.

“If I had bought something my sophomore year, the first time I needed business professional clothing, it wouldn’t fit me now,” Green said. “If I’m going to invest in something, I’d rather wait until I’m a more steady size. These outfits are so accommodating to different body types, so I feel like it’s been really useful.”

Ferril said she is proud to hear stories like Green’s and know she had a small part of giving back to the college that gave so much to her.

“When you look great, you feel great,” Ferril said. “Knowing students have the confidence to put their best foot forward because of this is truly the most rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced.”

 

BEST FOOT FORWARD

As assistant director of Mississippi State’s Career Center and liaison to the College of Business, Kelly Atwood knows firsthand how important personal presentation is to a student’s job prospects.

“It’s about making a good impression,” Atwood, a 2002 marketing graduate, explained. “It helps the employers to know students are invested in the process, and it helps students feel comfortable and confident going into the situations.”

Atwood said not only does dressing professionally make a good first impression, it also makes a lasting impression by showing an understanding of what’s expected and a willingness to go the extra mile. She offers the following advice for creating an interview-appropriate business-professional outfit.

  • For both men and women, “business professional” always means a suit.
  • Don’t let the outfit distract from what you have to say. Avoid bright colors, loud patterns or lots of jewelry.
  • Make sure shoes, hems and cuffs are in good condition. It shows attention to detail.
  • A man’s shoes should match his belt.
  • Women’s shoes should be closed toed and low heeled.
  • While the rules for business professional are fairly straightforward, Atwood said business casual is more ambiguous.

    “I think business casual is where most people err,” she said. “There’s a wide range within the category.”

    Atwood offered the following as tried and true possibilities:

  • slacks, a skirt or a dress, with or without a jacket;
  • nice, well fitting sweaters;
  • a button-up shirt, with a tie and no jacket or a jacket and no tie;
  • or a dress with a sweater or cardigan, adding that it’s best to not be sleeveless in a business situation.
  • When in doubt, Atwood recommends veering to the more professional side as it’s better to exceed expectations than fall short. However, she said asking about appropriate dress, as well as directions and parking information, is always acceptable when setting up an interview, especially if it involves a site visit.

    Atwood said she and the other Career Center staff are always available for students and alumni who want to put their best foot forward to take the next step in their careers. Alumni are eligible for full center benefits, including mock interviews and resume critiques, for up to two years following their graduation. However, all Bulldogs—no matter their graduation year—are invited to take advantage of the center’s job exploration and search programs.

    “We have so many companies for which we’re a target school, meaning they recruit our graduates across disciplines, and it’s not all entry-level jobs,” Atwood explained, adding that some alumni even come back to campus to recruit for their companies.

    “We love when Bulldogs come back to hire more Bulldogs,” she said.

    For more information about the Career Center opportunities, including ways to find your company’s next great hire, visit www.career.msstate.edu.


    By Susan Lassetter, Photos by Megan Bean, Video by David Garraway