By Naomi Fonseka ’26
In our last post, we talked about what it truly means to be diverse and inclusive. We ascertained that an integral part of that definition was making sure that everyone present in our shared professional spaces feels comfortable and like they belong. Part of accomplishing such a feat is accounting for and making room for the diverse breadth of identities that people are bringing to the table, like gender. As people, it is important to explore and develop a better understanding of their gender identity, and the ways that professional attire and gender need to grow and change with us. This is also especially the case for young people who are figuring out who they are to themselves, to the world, and in professional environments often for the first time.
The Career Closet Extravaganza
The Life Design Lab aimed to promote inclusivity by organizing an all-inclusive event on March 31st. The event aimed to educate Johns Hopkins Community members on a career wardrobe that aligns with their unique identity, including showcasing examples of gender-affirming professional attire.
The Gender Affirming Closet (GAC) is an initiative pivotal to the event as it is geared towards providing members of the Hopkins community with free clothing, accessories, makeup, and other valuable resources that can aid in supporting and validating their gender identity expression and exploration. It is spearheaded by Erin Fox, Senior Manager for Strategic Initiatives in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, and Dr. Abbey Nawrocki, Associate Director of Gender & Sexuality Resources in the Center for Diversity and Inclusion. In total, Hopkins associates contributed more than 700 articles of clothing that were meticulously cataloged and arranged by the student personnel at Gender & Sexuality Resources. Through a grant from the Diversity Innovation Grant, Fox and Nawrocki are empowered to allocate the grant funds toward purchasing specific items and services, such as chest binders, cosmetics, and customized tailoring to suit individual requirements. Additionally, if someone cannot locate a particular clothing item from the closet, Fox and Nawrocki can utilize the grant funding to place an order on their behalf.
Furthermore, the Career Closet Extravaganza event drew a large crowd of students and staff, and was complete with mannequins, makeup, Hopkins merchandise giveaways, a professional makeup artist, opportunities for proper sizing by a professional tailor, interviews, and even a red carpet complete with paparazzi! And possibly most important, at the center of the event was a panel held in the Summit Auditorium, moderated by our very own Clifton Shambry and featuring: Sage Magness-Hill, Academic Advisor and Success Coach; Layla Al-Zubi, a ’20 graduate who founded JHU’s fashion magazine, Marque; and Modinat Sanni, Associate Director of Programming, FLI (First-Generation-Limited-Income) Network and Director of the Hop-In Program.
How and why do we show up the way we do?
Our panelists kicked off their words of wisdom by first sharing “how and why they show up the way that they do.” Sage talked about keeping a photo album full of outfits that had worked for them in the past so they could save time in the mornings, as well as keeping a wardrobe full of “teal, blues, and purples” so they can be confident and mix and match while still saving money. Layla shared her love of the color black and described her style as “simply timeless with personal flair,” and talked about how she remains both confident and professional with a black wardrobe “disrupted” by unique jewelry, socks, and shoes. Modinat talked about valuing comfort, like wearing sneakers when working on a walking college campus, and how professionalism also comes from being “confident in [herself] and [her] ability to converse with people and share [her] skill sets” rather than only from “looking professional.”
The conversation covered all the different facets of the term “looking professional,” in fact. Sage mentioned that their “complicated relationship with professionalism” had roots in expectations to dress a certain way to appear professional by society’s standards, starting from the rigid expectations at the women’s college they attended that pushed for things like skirts, makeup, and pantsuits. They told the audience how they “like to challenge the societal norm” while also “access[ing] those spaces” by dressing in a way that helps them feel confident and secure and in a way that helps them demand more respect in a largely patriarchal society (Sage self-described their style as “Hot Grandpa.”).
Modinat brought up the importance she places on standing out, bringing up how in professional spaces where people might lean towards monochrome suits and pants she might decide on “some silk orange pants” because it helps her get into a mindset and position “where [she] can talk about whatever it is, [she’s] passionate about.” She brings up how standing out and being comfortable have different definitions for different people and different places, as in different situations and times she might prefer “muted” colors, like “cream or black.” The essential question, according to her, is “How do I want to interact with that space? Do I want to intentionally put myself in a position where it calls attention to me, and then I can speak? Or is this a space where it is not about me,” citing a bridal shower for the latter.
Identity, independent style, and imposter syndrome
Clifton soon invited the audience to ask the panelists questions. One student asked for advice on “getting your independent style out of like what your parents offer you.” Modinat answered with the importance of striking a balance between your own personal tastes and pushing back against expectations and your parents’ motivation: to help you appear at your best. She mentioned that the key is always feeling confident in what you wear. Layla chimed in on understanding how our definition of professionalism changes from generation to generation. Sage brought up the intersection of dressing well and managing finances. Modinat talked about how taking care of your clothes can make a few articles go a long way, and an audience member mentioned that tailoring can also be essential for this purpose.
An audience member mentioned an important topic: imposter syndrome, and how that could affect the ways we show up in the world. Layla first talked about negating those feelings of thinking that you do not belong, reminding audience members that all of us “are bringing something to the table,” through our “lived experiences” and “new perspectives.” She acknowledged that things will be uncomfortable at first and that being confident in yourself “is not egotistical.” Modinat recommended the book “Brag” to the audience because of its strategy to help readers understand exactly how important they are in different spaces and the value of what they bring to the table.
As the panel drew to a close, Layla made sure to call attention to the ways that feelings of belonging and showing up have a special meaning for minorities [underrepresented folk], talking about the way that people of color can be “perceived”, especially in professional environments, and the way that other people in places of power can attempt to define our confidence, our place in professional environments, and the ways that we should dress for us.
What does professionalism mean to you?
So, what does professionalism mean to you? How do you show up as your truest, most authentic self? Where do you strike your balances? How do you bring your vibrancy, your uniqueness, and your professionalism to every space you enter?
The only way to find out, of course, is to explore!
Naomi Fonseka ’26 and Hopkins Connect Intern
Naomi Fonseka is a member of the Class of 2026 at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) studying environmental science and writing seminars. She loves working on her novel, reading, cooking, baking, plants, and music, and working with the life design lab and Hopkins Connect through OneHop mentoring.
Where To Explore?
- View the full recording on YouTube.
- Connecting with others you know and new folks. Consider alumni like Layla on OneHop?
- Student organizations like the student group “marque” or other professional organizations are all found on Hopkins Groups.
On Campus Resources
- The Center for Diversity and Inclusion (CDI) team
- The Gender Affirming Closet – A resource to try on clothing of any gender and obtain free resources for gender-affirming clothing, accessories, and make-up. See more about the Launch.
- More deeply understanding your identity and ways to continue exploration and how you can make a change. CDI fosters a sense of belonging for students by providing intentional engagement and holistic support. Hopkins students are empowered to develop a sense of self, work across differences, and create equitable cultural change.
- The Life Design Lab
- Office Hours conversations in the Imagine Center around exploring identity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace.
- Embrace Your Story – Engage in an asynchronous online learning experience that helps you think about how you can embrace your story ending in you creating a pitch centering your strengths.
- Design4Excellence YouTube Playlist
- Hopkins Connect Team helps you expand your network through OneHop.