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$20,000 corporate grant helps train UAPB design students

by Will Hehemann Special to The Commercial | March 9, 2023 at 3:17 a.m.
Nina Lyon-Bennett, Ph.D, (left) assistant dean for academics for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, speaks with Havilland Ford, a Merchandising, Textiles and Design student, about Ford's designs. (Special to The Commercial/University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff)

Students in the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff's Merchandising, Textiles and Design (MTD) Program have made great strides in their education thanks to a $20,000 grant from Gap Inc. and Harlem's Fashion Row, said Jane Opiri, assistant professor for the MTD Program.

The award was part of the annual "Closing the Gap" initiative, which has awarded more than $500,000 to fashion programs at nine historically Black colleges and universities.

"This grant has been a game-changer for our program," Opiri said. "It has helped fund scholarships for three students, provided funds to buy instructional material such as fabrics, textile kits, sewing and finishing tools for lab classes and has afforded a subscription for Adobe products for faculty to aid in teaching."

Yunru Shen, instructor for the MTD program, said the grant allowed her to purchase textile swatch kits, which helped bring the study of textiles alive for her students. And design tools and fabrics purchased through the grant have supported her students in better understanding the design process and finished products, allowing them to gain valuable practical experience.

Noah Thomas, senior MTD student, explored various materials.

"With the textiles swatch kit, I was able to learn about more than 100 different types of fabrics," Thomas said. "I now know what different fabrics are used for, when they are supposed to be used, where they come from and how the fabrics were manufactured."

Ciniya McCray, a junior MTD student, said the swatch kits have played a crucial role in her education.

"Thanks to the funding our textiles and apparel class received, I can go to fabric stores and know the fabrics, what they are made of and their uses," she said. "I speak for my class when I say that without these fabric swatch kits, we wouldn't have the knowledge of fabrics we have today. I appreciate textiles so much more now. Also, the supplies the grant funded have made learning to sew much easier and less problematic."

Airen Cameroon is a senior MTD student and one of the scholarship recipients. He said the Closing the Gap grant has allowed him to continue being creative and helped build his portfolio for the fashion industry.

The other scholarship recipients were Sydney Griffith and Brittney Eskridge, who both graduated in 2022.

Opiri said MTD faculty and students recently hosted a fashion and wearable art exhibition to recognize the student achievements made thanks to the grant. The event attracted faculty, staff and students across the UAPB campus. During a brunch, the students described their design inspiration and processes and exhibited the products they designed throughout the school year.

Opiri said she is grateful for Gap and Harlem's Fashion Row for helping students make their academic dreams come true.

Shen was thankful as well.

"I would like to express many thanks to Gap Inc. and Harlem's Fashion Row, Dr. Marilyn Bailey, Dr. Jane Opiri, Dr. Doze Butler, and all other administrators, faculty and staff support for the Fashion Wearable Art Exhibit made possible through 'Closing the Gap,'" Shen said.

Established in 2021, the Closing the Gap initiative strives to empower future generations of Black, indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) fashion innovators by strengthening educational opportunities.

"Empowering the next generation of Black fashion leaders is a responsibility that we owe not only to our customers and communities who look to Gap Inc. to do the right thing, but to the industry who is in need of these critical voices," Bahja Johnson, head of customer and community belonging and enablement at Gap Inc., said in a statement. "We are honored and proud to continue partnering with Harlem's Fashion Row to foster the incredible talent found within HBCUs and unlock their limitless potential."

UAPB's Merchandising, Textiles and Design Program is offered through the UAPB Department of Human Sciences. The program teaches students the fundamentals of textiles, apparel design and merchandising/retailing. It also provides fashion internship and show/exhibit opportunities to allow students to gain real-world experience in fashion during their time at college. For more information, contact Opiri at, Doze Y. Butler at or Shen at

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff offers all its Extension and Research programs and services without discrimination.

Will Hehemann is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.

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