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Doing the Work: Actualizing Equity, Accessibility, and Inclusion for Underserved Students through the COPE Clothing Closet

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Equity, accessibility, and inclusion are common theoretical concepts within academic settings. While many of us support institutional progress toward these important notions, actualizing them can be challenging. We all know that actions speak louder than words, and I wanted to make some decent noise. Therefore, during my first few years at Texas Woman’s University (TWU), I began to look for ways to engage in the actual work of equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Since we are a Hispanic-serving institution (HSI), I wanted to ensure that my work supported the “serving” component of the HSI designation.

Through my interactions with our students, I realized that although they receive some strong support at the beginning of their college careers, they often lack support toward the end of them. This was especially true for our underserved and marginalized students. This is how the COPE Clothing Closet was developed. The closet provides professional attire to students who are nearing the end of their academic careers and in need of professional wardrobes for internships and job interviews.

Within the College of Professional Education (COPE) at TWU, we house programs that are mainly focused on service-oriented fields: teacher education, counseling, library sciences, and family studies. The acronym COPE suddenly took on new meaning after the COVID-19 pandemic hit because so many of our students were just trying to “cope” with their academic and professional requirements while also dealing with the personal toll of the pandemic. While this is true of most university students during this time, it is even more so with our students. In addition to being an HSI, we serve a student population of 85 percent women, who are often mothers and caretakers.

I work specifically within teacher education, where students are required to do semester-long unpaid internships at the end of their academic program. The internship, often referred to as clinical student teaching, requires working in a K–12 classroom for at least seven hours per day, five days per week. Our students are also required to take several state certification exams within the last few semesters of their academic career. These exams typically cost approximately $130 apiece. Because many of our students come from nontraditional, first-generation, or low-income backgrounds, this process places stress on our students’ finances and their families. The COPE Clothing Closet allows many of our students to have one less stressor as they transition towards the end of their academic career.

Beginning the clothing closet

Actualizing my ideas related to equity, accessibility, and inclusion work started with a needs assessment. I also began interviews and conferences to explore the most significant stressors for our students. Overwhelmingly, our students responded with three major areas: exam costs, not being able to work during their internship, and professional clothing. Unfortunately, like most universities during the pandemic, our budget was severely restricted. I knew funds for exam costs and intern stipends would be limited and take a long time to establish, but professional clothing was something I could do immediately.

Once the need was identified, I created a clear objective for myself: provide free professional clothing that can serve full professional wardrobe needs to at least 30 students per semester. Through my previous work in educational nonprofits, I knew that having a clear objective is important because it allows me to stay focused. The objective also allows me to determine whether I made a measurable impact and allows me to clearly share my vision with my professional community.

Next, I began establishing a network of allies. I began with my department chair and college dean to ensure we could find a space to house the closet. Both leaders connected me with various individuals who were able to establish a nonprofit Amazon account for donations beyond apparel: clothing racks, a mirror for a dressing room, and hangers. In addition to university allies, I reached out to regional teaching organizations, nonprofits, and school districts. There were many professional educators eager to donate gently used professional clothing. Within four weeks, we had a space on campus with piles of donated clothing.

Maintaining the clothing closet

Currently, students gain access to the closet through two options. The first option is through open closet hours. Because so many of our students are teacher education students, I try to ensure the open closet days are scheduled during monthly student teaching orientation meetings. Students know they can attend the orientation meeting in the morning and walk over to the closet in the afternoon.

The second option to gain access to the closet is through an appointment request. I created closet flyers and posted them throughout the university. The flyer included a QR code and a link allowing students to request an appointment using Google Forms. The individual appointment allows students to visit the closet anonymously and at a time convenient for their schedules.

Now that we are established, it is important to reflect and evaluate the impact the closet has on students. We are in the process of sharing a feedback survey that allows our students to offer suggestions for improving the closet and helping us understand the positive impacts. Initial feedback indicates that interns find it difficult to make it on campus during normal business hours, so our students need evening or weekend hours Thus, we plan on working with volunteers from student organizations to host open closet times once per month on the weekends or evenings.

Benefits to our university community

From Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943), we know our students cannot achieve self-actualization or their full potential until their most basic needs are met. Students have shared that having access to the clothing closet gives them one less thing to worry about as they begin to transition toward the end of their college careers. In addition, not having to purchase professional clothing allows them some financial wiggle room to pay for certification exams.

While the closet meets students’ basic needs, it also supports a sense of belonging. Sadly, I have students who have been reprimanded or asked to leave their internship sites due to not looking professional. By having access to the clothing closet, our students have a decreased chance of feeling shame, thus allowing them to focus more on their professional development.

We know that a sense of belonging in college students assists with retention and success within academic programs (Morrow & Ackermann, 2012; Strayhorn, 2018). While there is not a vast amount of research yet to show a correlation between program completion and sense of belonging within internships, a study done by Strayhorn (2020) indicates that a sense of belonging supports persistence in students more than three times as much as GPA does. This study also identified supportive internship protocols as a key element in establishing a sense of belonging. Additionally, studies are beginning to examine how universities can democratize internships, making them more accessible and inclusive to underserved populations of students (Hora et al., 2020; Igens, 2019; Rodriguez-Mojica et al., 2020). Transitioning from college student to early career professional can be incredibly challenging for some of our students. Providing a professional clothing closet is just one way colleges can choose to recognize the barriers many students face and provide a simple service that makes a future profession more accessible to everyone.

Steps toward action

While your work might not focus on establishing a clothing closet, finding your own action steps is essential to actualizing the concepts of equity, accessibility, and inclusion. Consider the following steps to guide you through the process:

  1. Develop a needs assessment to discover areas where you can have an impact.
  2. Engage stakeholders in the brainstorming and feedback stages.
  3. Set a clear objective with measurable goals.
  4. Build a network of allies who can connect you with resources and expand your knowledge.
  5. Classify resources according to what is already available and what is still needed.
  6. Identify possible ways to gather feedback and evaluate impact.

By creating equitable and inclusive supports for our interns and graduating students, my hope is that I am setting our students up for success. As a low-income student who was also a single mother, gaining a college degree was a battle for me. But small acts of support from university faculty and staff kept me motivated. My hope is to extend that same care to my own students.

References

Hora, M., Chen, Z., Parrott, E., & Her, P. (2020). Problematizing college internships: Exploring issues with access, program design and developmental outcomes. International Journal of Work-Integrated Learning, 21(3), 235–252. https://www.ijwil.org/files/IJWIL_21_3_235_252.pdf

Irgens, G. A. (2019). Facilitating a sense of belonging for women of color in engineering: The case for virtual internships. In R. D. Roscoe, E. K. Chiou, & A. R. Woolridge, Advancing Diversity, Inclusion, and Social Justice through Human Systems Engineering (pp. 221–239). CRC Press.

Maslow, A. H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370–396. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0054346

Morrow, J., & Ackermann, M. (2012). Intention to persist and retention of first-year students: The importance of motivation and sense of belonging. College Student Journal, 46(3), 483–491.

Rodriguez-Mojica, C., Rodela, K. C., & Ott, C. (2020). “I didn’t wanna believe it was a race issue”: Student teaching experiences of preservice teachers of color. The Urban Review, 52(3), 435–457. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11256-019-00546-x

Strayhorn, T. L. (2018). College students’ sense of belonging: A key to educational success for all students. Routledge.

Strayhorn, T. L. (2020). Sense of belonging predicts persistence intentions among diverse dental education students: A multi‐institutional investigation. Journal of Dental Education, 84(10), 1136–1142. https://doi.org/10.1002/jdd.12243


Aimée Myers, PhD, is the assistant director of academic assessment and an assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at Texas Woman’s University. Her scholarship focuses on culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies. Through her research, she works to utilize social constructivist approaches with marginalized and underserved populations. Her current research project focuses on supporting critical literacy with refugee and immigrant students.