Dominic Serra walked into the University of South Florida bookstore with a new haircut, his black dress shoes in a grocery bag. He wore earbuds, a polo shirt, jeans and Pumas. He looked like a young Mark Wahlberg, if Mark Wahlberg were an engineering student who needed to be noticed.
He was bound for USF's career fair with resumes tucked in a yellow folder. He desperately wanted an internship, one that paid, one that he loved. But he couldn't go in looking like he did. He climbed to the store's second floor and ducked through a door.
"I was hoping to rent a suit," he said.
Here was a little-known shop called Suit-A-Bull operated by USF's Enactus organization. With a petite budget and a leader named Katharine Gonzalez, Enactus members use entrepreneurial projects to do good things on campus. They teach students to manage money. They retrofit water fountains to cut down bottle waste. And for six years, they've quietly loaned students free suits to use for job interviews.
Clothing charities usually help people who have fallen. People out of jobs. People out of jail. But what about the next generation of workers? They have flip-flops, but they don't always have suits. They need somewhere to start.
Suit-A-Bull takes appointments all year but welcomes a cascade of students during USF's career fairs. At the last fair, Suit-A-Bull dressed 60 students. This week it dressed more than 70, the highest number ever.
"We have been so fortunate," said Gonzalez. "Our closet is packed. Nothing goes to waste."
Last year, Serra borrowed a blue suit but didn't get far at the career fair. This year he was 22, closer to graduation, closer to making those courses in structures and hydraulics and steel design and fluid mechanics mean something. This year he wanted black.
He browsed 200 garments Thursday — blazers, slacks, shirts and ties donated by organizations like Dress for Success and the Tom James Co., even faculty members casting off old clothes. He picked a black coat in 42 regular, black pants, a patterned tie and a white shirt with the word "executive" on the label. He went into the dressing room. A poster outside said he had zero chances to make a second impression.
Serra came from a middle-class family in Jacksonville. He got scholarships and grants and saved money running a lawn care business back home. His parents would send more money if they had it, he said, but times are hard. He was proud of working for what he needed, and not embarrassed to ask for help.
He worked at the financial aid office fewer than 20 hours a week. He lived off-campus with roommates and took the bus to class. After paying for rent, his cellphone with no cool features, insurance, groceries and the occasional burrito at Chipotle, a suit did not compute. He had never owned one in his life.
On Thursday, Serra signed a sheet promising to bring the suit back. He left his driver's license as collateral. He slipped into the shoes, which he acknowledged were from an ex-girlfriend.
"I'm still grateful for the shoes," he said.
At the door to the career fair in the Marshall Student Center, he let out a breath. The light was dim. The air was warm. Here and there, business cards sprinkled the ground. The suit was great, he said, but everyone was wearing one. Now it mattered what he did while wearing it.
Serra walked past students in tailored jackets toting leather briefcases, students with sneakers peeking from slacks and backpacks on their backs.
He tried to ignore the heavy layers, the bead of sweat forming on his forehead. He spent 20 minutes at a time at Skanska, at PCL Civil Constructors, at Gerdau, Walsh Construction and Archer Western.
He asked questions: What opportunities could they could offer him? Where would he fit in? He would love to travel for work. He would love to design. He would also love to manage. He could get dirty at project sites. But he could look nice, too. Hand shake. Resume. Hand shake. Resume.
Serra left the career fair, grinning. He saw a friend.
"Hey man," he said. "You rent that jacket?"
"Rented everything but the shoes."
Serra returned the suit for dry cleaning and laced up his Pumas. He stepped out to send some followup emails, hoping he might be remembered.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3394.