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Photos by Kim Sanford

Her students always landed the job interviews, but often weren’t hired, even though they were qualified. Emily Lynch Morissette pondered this conundrum to understand why.

Morissette, a professor and lawyer who runs the paralegal program at Southwestern College in Chula Vista, suspected that her students simply weren’t dressing the part. Many students in this low-­income, predominantly Latino community struggle financially. Some are homeless. Some are single parents. Often, they must choose between food and other necessities and rely on the school’s food pantry for sustenance. Under such circumstances, students lack enough money to dress to impress their would-be employers.

Emily Lynch Morissette

To remedy that, Morissette created a business attire closet in a conference room that was being used as a storage space. Once the junk was cleared out, it became the Southwestern Cares Closet. Over the past year it’s made a difference in many students’ lives.

“Gosh, what makes this so amazing are the success stories,” says Morissette, a member of the Southwestern College Education Association and president of the Academic Senate. “To see them try on clothes that make them look professional, straighten their shoulders and become more confident is so rewarding.”

Morissette didn’t create the Cares Closet alone; her students and administrative assistant Angie Arietti also pitched in. Faculty and community members donated boxes and boxes of lightly used professional clothing, most in clean and excellent condition. All Southwestern students with a school ID card can come in, browse, try on outfits and keep what they need — no questions asked.

The Cares Closet has shoes, accessories and a small dressing room and curtain. There are sewing kits and hem tape for emergency alterations. It is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Recently students put on a professional fashion show for the campus with mini-makeovers that included hair and makeup. Morissette served as emcee and talked about how looking professional can help students attain their career goals.

At first students were shy about asking for help picking out professional outfits. So, to make the process less intimidating, Morissette hired student Jessica Rodriguez, who has a flair for style and connecting with her peers. Rodriguez was homeless at the time and now, thanks to her new job, can afford an apartment.

“This has given me so much more than clothes,” says Rodriguez, who is studying psychology and plans to be a social worker. “This has given me so much support. It’s really like a family.”

Earl Danzy, Jessica Rodriguez, Yamilet Silva and Cesar Augusto Vizcaino Garay pose before…

…and after makeovers at the Southwestern College Cares Closet.

The Cares Closet has been instrumental in helping students get hired.

Cesar Augusto Vizcaino Garay recalls that he had just one day’s notice for an interview as a server, and no dressy pants or money to buy them. In a panic, he sought help at Cares Closet and landed the job the next day. “It was so spontaneous, and it really helped,” says the third-year student, who is studying linguistics.

Sociology student Earl Danzy, who was once homeless, frequently comes to pick out professional clothing for job interviews, like the jacket, slacks, white shirt and tie Rodriguez recently helped him coordinate. He looked so good, his peers joked he could be in GQ. “It makes me feel great and confident,” he shares. “It gives me the courage to go out and get that job.”

“It’s a great feeling to not only help my own students, but others who need a little help in getting their dream job — or a job that will get them through school,” says Morissette.

Yamilet Silva, a second-year international business student, believes the Cares Closet will help her land the office job she’s always dreamed of. “I couldn’t apply for a job in jeans and a hoodie, so this is perfect for me,” she says, looking trendy in blazer, turtleneck and tailored slacks.

“When I put on these clothes, I feel I will get the position I want for my future. I feel like I’m getting so much closer to my goals.”

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