UAPB Students Network with Industry Professionals at National Retail Federation Conference in New York City


Pine Bluff, AR — Seven University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) students majoring in merchandising, textiles and design (MTD) recently attended the National Retail Federation (NRF) Student Program in New York City, Dr. Jane Opiri, assistant professor and MTD program coordinator in UAPB’s Department of Human Sciences, said. The NRF student program fosters opportunities to connect with some of the world’s largest retail brands.

Participating students included freshmen Gabrielle Hightower and Briana Beckles, junior Kerrah Charles, seniors Lenae Warren-Switzer, Khameriah Clark and Havilland Ford, as well as December 2023 graduate Jaia James. They were accompanied by Dr. Karleah Harris, assistant professor for the Department of Human Sciences.

Dr. Harris said the trip to New York offered students a transformative experience. It enriched their academic journey and provided numerous career insights, as well as new perspectives for their future success in the industry.

“It was important for UAPB students to participate in this conference to expand their knowledge of industry positions, gain valuable industry insights, network with company executives and students from across the nation, as well as potentially secure an interview for an internship or full-time position that they may not have had the opportunity for otherwise,” Dr. Opiri said. “It was also crucial for UAPB students to participate in this student program to expose themselves to different ways of living and getting around in a new city.”

The UAPB cohort participated in roundtables with retail company mentors and a career fair during which they networked with company representatives and received information about upcoming

internship opportunities and full-time positions. They also participated in executive panel discussions on how to accelerate their career, the importance of technology in the retail product lifecycle, ways to maximize their community impact through business, and how retail is being revolutionized through circularity.

“The students attended mentorship sessions and heard from recent college grads who now work in the retail industry,” Dr. Harris said. “Thanks to this, they were able to secure one-on-one chats and get personalized advice. For example, Jaia James spoke with Carlo Pardo, special projects designer for Coach, about her love for the brand and how to tailor her portfolio to fit the expectations of luxury brand companies. Khameria Clark, spoke with Libby Edelman, former public relations director for Calvin Klein and cofounder of the shoe company Sam & Libby, about her passion for fashion.”

Charles was awarded the “Bright Futures” scholarship from the National Retail Federation, which paid all her expenses for the trip to New York. Dr. Opiri credits George R. Cotton, Sr., UAPB vice chancellor for institutional advancement, for sponsoring the trip costs for the other students.

“Attending the conference gave me a clearer perspective and understanding of all the different successes to be enjoyed in my future career – I will use this new knowledge to help build my career early on,” Beckles said. “I chose to major in merchandising, textiles and design because of my love for fashion. The conference gave me a much better understanding of the field. In the future, I want to pursue merchandise buying or industrial interior design.”

Charles said she most enjoyed listening to and interacting with the conference speakers, who gave her some valuable perspective on her career.

“They made me realize how hard I am on myself – in fact they told me they were all in their late twenties and early thirties before their careers actually took off,” she said. “I’m only 20 years old, so that was definitely my biggest takeaway. I feel I will succeed in my career because of the motivation I took away from the speakers. They reminded me that I chose to major in merchandising, textiles and design because I love the beauty of fashion. I love that fashion is literally in everything such as furniture, accessories and clothes. I hope to use my degree to become a personal interior designer.”

Clark said she has been passionate about fashion for as long as she can remember and that her approach to passion has always been creative and unorthodox.

“I have always had a gift of wearing different clothing and making it look like a masterpiece,” she said. “The excitement of purchasing new clothing or examining different styles of others solidified my decision to study the fashion industry. Expressing your style is one thing but being knowledgeable about the industry is another. The conference opened my eyes about how the retail and fashion business works, and it was indeed a privilege to be in front of top industry professionals and creators.”

Clark said attending the conference gave her invaluable insight on how to secure internships and jobs in the industry. Most of all, the program further solidified her passion for fashion styling and buying.

Ford said the information about textile development she learned during the conference will be beneficial in her future career. She was also grateful to learn tips on securing competitive jobs.

“Learning how to set myself apart from other candidates and about the highly encouraged trait of curiosity gave me confidence in the steps I’ve already taken – hearing this let me know I am on the right path to success,” she said. “I’ve always had the mindset of being a life-long learner, but now I plan to see how deep I can go once I discover new information – curiosity is always beneficial. Also, as I’m

preparing for interviews, learning how to articulate what I’ve learned in a role and how it applies to the next position is vital. Lastly, the merchandising secrets given by the senior vice president of PetSmart, Kristin Shane, will aid in my approach to future roles, business-related courses and entrepreneurial endeavors.”