Regalia to the rescue

Many students don’t think twice about attending their graduation ceremony. But for those who can’t afford to spend $50 or more renting regalia, this rite of passage is out of reach.

UC Berkeley’s Graduation Gown Lending Project, a student-led service that has tripled in size since it launched last year, is making sure that as many needy students as possible have a free cap and gown rental as they approach the big day.

A student at the gown giveaway. (Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen

A student at the recent gown giveaway at the Cesar E. Chavez Student Center. (Photo by Kevin Ho Nguyen)

“What drives me is helping students who are low-income, or first-generation to go to college, or undocumented, and have them say how thankful they are, and how it relieves their stress, “ said Sara Alturk, a peer counselor in the campus’s Educational Opportunity Program, who coordinates the project. “As a low income student myself, I can only imagine going through the same thing.”

Last year, 100 students applied for cost-free caps and gowns, but the project only had 85 to give away. This year, nearly 400 applications were received, and last week at the two giveaways, there was enough regalia to go around. Alturk’s team includes fellow peer counselor Edlynne Avelar and four interns.

Alumni and others, inspired by the project’s efforts last year, have continued to drop off regalia – in UC Berkeley’s traditional black – as well as financial donations. The project also successfully applied for a $20,000 grant from the Chancellor’s Advisory Committee on Student Services and Fees. That provided for 350 new gowns, dry cleaning for used gowns, and assistance with work-study student costs.

“To work so hard for four years and not to be able to celebrate graduation because of a financial issue is terrible,” said Alturk. “When we hear stories about how this project has helped students, it makes us want to continue growing the program.”

Some of those stories were told on graduating students’ applications for the free regalia.

“As an immigrant coming from Belarus four years ago,” one wrote, “I can’t overemphasize the importance of the graduation ceremony from the school of my dreams…I had no idea I could survive in a foreign country by myself, without financial or emotional support from my family, without work,…Thank you for lending gowns to the graduating students.”

Wrote another, “I have no method to pay for anything graduation-related because a death in the family this week has left me financially insufficient.”

Alturk said she expects more need to surface in the coming years as word of the program spreads to other parts of campus. Her team has not advertised campus-wide – graduating students in the entire College of Letters and Science have not yet been added to the email distribution list sent out in late winter each year.

Donations always will be accepted and appreciated, she said, and the receipt of a campus grant this school year is not a signal to stop growing the program.

“If we tripled in size this year,” Alturk said, “what’s going to happen next year?”

Caps and gowns can be dropped off or sent to the Graduation Gown Lending Project, UC Berkeley Educational Opportunity Program, 119 Cesar Chavez Student Center, Berkeley, CA 94720-4210. More information is on the project’s website.