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Kicked out for kicks: career fair dress codes too restrictive

I was kicked out of a career fair this week. I don’t think I’ve gotten kicked out of anything in my life up until this point, and it’s certainly not something I’d like to repeat. But there I was, at the “Rutgers Business Analytics and Information Technology Career Fair,” standing in front of two event organizers who made it clear that I had to go. They told me that this event had a strict dress code and that my refusal to adhere to said dress code “made [them] look bad.”

It’s true: I wasn’t wearing business professional attire. I mean, sure, I had on a three-piece, tailored black suit with a mute blue tie. My hair was combed, my face clean-shaven. But I had chosen to complement my entire wardrobe with my bright white Nike sneakers, so, clearly, I just had to go.

I wasn’t oblivious to the fact that I probably shouldn’t wear sneakers to a career fair — it’s just that I didn’t have my black dress shoes on campus. I can’t afford a taxi to go home and get them, or even buy a new pair of shoes just for the occasion. But I wasn’t going to let this shortcoming block me from pursuing an employment opportunity. Some recruiters might take one look at my feet and rule me out, some might not, but showing up was better than not showing up at all.

It’s clear though, that the organizers of the BAIT career fair disagree. Perhaps in a moment of pity, one of them said that I could stay for a little bit “because [I] was wearing a really nice suit.” But even then, it was clear that I was not welcome, and that I had to go, either now or five minutes from now.

Now look, I understand that I look ridiculous wearing sneakers I paid $60 retail for with a tailored suit. But there’s still something insidious about a college student getting kicked out of a college event because he doesn’t look “just right.” Because, after all, this is a college career fair, an event organized to promote and present, rather than restrict, access to greater opportunities.

What if I didn’t even have a suit? What if the best I could do was a dress shirt and khakis? Are these people not allowed to talk to recruiters and try to earn a living? It’s my understanding that dress codes are instituted at these events for the benefit of the applicants, giving them the best shot at impressing potential employers, but I see no good that comes from turning away those who lack access to the proper clothes.

And I think that’s what bothers me the most. There were no attempts to accommodate the situation or come to a compromise besides putting a time limit on my presence at the fair. If they had asked that I take my shoes off or tried to come to some other sort of understanding, I wouldn’t be writing this piece. But they told me point blank to leave because I might make them look bad. There was no empathy, no recognition that I didn’t want to be standing in that room wearing sneakers either.

It just felt so selfish. These organizers were supposed to be here to organize something that would help other students. They were sacrificing their time and energy to provide something useful for their fellow peers. But to me, it was pretty obvious that they were only doing this to cultivate a positive impression in the minds of others, first and foremost. I could tolerate the potential of an entire room mocking me for wearing white sneakers with a black suit, but they couldn’t tolerate the potential of people shooting strange looks at even one person out of the hundreds of people that came to the career fair.

They couldn’t even wait 100 seconds before evicting me from the premises.

My feelings are hurt, my pride is wounded, but above all, I missed a great opportunity to talk to companies that I truly would love to work for. I tried not to let something as minor as the wrong footwear stop me, but the Rutgers BAIT organizers made sure to do just that. And while I’d love to stick it to the man and continue wearing sneakers to career fairs, I’m a broke college student that genuinely needed access to those companies — access that I will have to strive to find elsewhere.

But not at any Rutgers BAIT events. They judged me by the color of my shoes rather than the content of my character, and that I cannot abide by. Nor should you.

Abhishek Saha is a School of Arts and Sciences junior.

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