Fabric in Their Hands: Students Learn It’s Not Just Fashion

by Nancy Wehrbein (’75)

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Honoring the efforts of workers who need better jobs, not just jobs, was in the mind of Adjunct Professor of History Christine (Hancock) Dempsey (’92) when she taught last fall’s Liberal Arts Seminar, “One Size Fits All: the Role of Clothing in Creating Human Identity.” Dempsey assigned students to go to the shopping mall in unconventional clothing to see how people responded to them; they learned appearance can cause judgments. Dempsey next assigned students to go shopping for clothes suitable for a job interview within a professional setting.

“What we found was that it wasn’t easy to get a nice business outfit for under $70,” reported Allyson Barnes, a first year student from Lincoln.

The topic led easily to a service project proposed by the students that would provide additional lessons. Barnes was among those taking a major role. The class decided to conduct a clothing drive on campus for interview-appropriate clothing, then take the clothing to an agency for distribution. The students planned the project, promoted the drive, amassed and sorted the clothes, and took them to the People’s City Mission distribution center. They oversaw the process of allowing clients to select up to 15 items for themselves.

It struck us that probably many of these people had jobs but did not have enough money for the clothes they needed for work.

That final step brought many surprises to the students, Dempsey said.

“The face of poverty was not what they expected. Some of the people had put on their best clothes to come get the donated clothes. It struck us that probably many of these people had jobs but did not have enough money for the clothes they needed for work,” said Dempsey. “There were lots of single parents there.”

Moreover, in keeping with Liberal Arts Seminar goals, students were awakened to how they could have a role in meeting others’ needs.

“Some had never done a volunteer project, having been so busy with activities in high school,” Dempsey noted. “They saw how many people it takes to do something effectively, but also how the project could succeed with only two or three hours per person. It was work spread across many.”