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UNL faculty, students prepare defense of proposed cut to Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design
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UNL faculty, students prepare defense of proposed cut to Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design

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Looking far and wide, Emma Fritz settled on the best school for fashion design she could find: the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

In addition to being much more affordable than most art schools, Fritz said the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design at UNL was "more inclusive and available" to a student like her.

"Not having extensive sewing experience, it was possible for me to come in and try things out," said Fritz, a junior from Overland Park, Kansas.

She eased her way into the program through more basic product development courses, where she was able to master skills such as sewing, before taking on the challenge of doing hard drapes on a half-sized mannequin as part of her upper-level coursework.

UNL's unique curriculum has also given Fritz the chance to become a multifaceted student. In addition to her classes in design, she's taken courses in the merchandising track, which has broadened her understanding of the fashion industry.

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"You get to try all the things instead of just streamlining to one thing from the very beginning," she said.

But Fritz and nearly 120 other students in the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design fear the unique opportunities they have at UNL may soon come to an end.

As part of his plan to reduce UNL's state-aided budget by $38.2 million, Chancellor Ronnie Green proposed cutting $18.9 million from academic programs, including the department that has been part of the university since 1898.

Faculty, students, alumni and supporters of the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design — nearly 70 in all — will testify in opposition to Green's plan Wednesday during an Academic Planning Committee hearing.

The committee will likely issue its recommendations on Green's proposed cuts next month.

UNL proposes cutting $18.9 million in faculty, staff positions over three years

"We're going to go in with what we think is a really strong case that (the university) needs  to find some other way to make cuts," said Claire Nicholas, an assistant professor of textiles and material culture.

Part of that case is looking at how the department, which historically existed in the orbit of home economics, has instead become a driver that connects Huskers to the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry.

Opened as the School of Domestic Science by Rosa Bouton in 1898, the program provided new opportunities to women across the state to pursue higher education in areas such as cooking, sewing and finances.

Over the next century, as the opportunities for women expanded and changed in society, the textiles program eventually split away from the home economics program to become its own department within the College of Education and Human Sciences.

Now known as the Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design, the program enrolls students in an interdisciplinary curriculum that includes courses centered in art, science, business and technology that is industry-focused, Nicholas said.

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“Even though that history was always about advancing women in the academy and in the professions, what we do today is a whole lot broader than that,” she said.

Graduates have experience in design, closely aligned with the fine arts, but they also have spent time in the textiles sciences lab transforming chicken feathers into synthetic fibers that can be used in medical applications.

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Students learn business skills like analyzing data and consumer behavior, while also learning the history of textiles and clothing and how they express the identity of the individual and what it says about social attitudes at the time.

“We try to educate students to be prepared to enter the industry from a lot of different directions,” Nicholas said.

Undergraduate and graduate students alike say UNL's Department of Textiles, Merchandising and Fashion Design has prepared them for success as the only program of its kind in the region.

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Katelyn Sorensen of Papillion said she has turned down several job offers to pursue a Ph.D. within the same UNL department where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

The experience at UNL landed her internships at Vera Bradley and At Home, where she was promoted over other interns because she had a bevy of skills they didn’t in graphic design programs such as Photoshop and Illustrator.

Some of the home decor products Sorensen designed are currently on shelves in At Home stores across the country.

"We get a skill set no one else does because we have a whole, well-rounded approach," Sorensen said.

Melisa Spilinek, a graduate student from Wichita, Kansas, who completed her bachelor's at UNL, said of the 10 schools she looked at, UNL "just had the most comprehensive program," even compared to some international schools.

"It wasn't too narrow — a lot of schools have a narrow-focused education in one specific area, which makes it hard to get a job because you're so specialized," she said. "Here, you get some design, you get some history, you get some merchandising, some entrepreneurship, some textile science."

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And Alex Scarpello, a senior design major from Omaha, said there are hundreds of opportunities to pursue after he graduates next year.

"From an outside perspective, you don't realize how many job opportunities there are," Scarpello said. "This program opens up all kinds of possibilities."

The department, of which seven of the eight faculty were hired after 2015, has also expanded its research and outreach into the state, working with 4-H programs and assisting small businesses and entrepreneurs, said Surin Kim, a faculty member and Extension specialist.

"We are doing a lot more entrepreneurship education for 4-H youth in underserved communities in the state," Kim said.

It has also welcomed more first-generation and minority students year over year as its head count has mirrored the recent ups and downs experienced by UNL as a whole, Kim added, and the number of credit hours it teaches has risen significantly.

If it is eliminated, ultimately saving UNL approximately $1.3 million in state-aided funds, UNL will continue to support the current students until each graduates or leaves, but it won't enroll any new students in that time.

Fritz said she was concerned that support for the program could begin to wane before she graduates.

"The concept of not having a full senior year if it does get cut worries me," she said. "What's going to be my plan? It's a little scary to think about."

Historic UNL buildings

Reach the writer at 402-473-7120 or cdunker@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @ChrisDunkerLJS

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