For Fashion Student Amaiya Sims, Winning the NRF Next Generation Scholarship is Just the Beginning
Growing up, Amaiya Sims had two favorite times of day: the minutes before school during which she would carefully choose her outfit for the day, and math class. Put together, Sims thought, this presented a problem. She laughs, thinking about it now: “I just never knew how to make that into a career!” She brought up the problem with her father, who was the first one to bring up Columbia College Chicago. She remembers him saying, “You should look into Columbia. They’re an art school downtown, they might have some options for you.” At first it seemed somewhat unlikely—after all, Sims was not interested in fashion design. She was more interested in shaping trends in the industry itself.
After doing some research, Sims realized that Columbia offered a strong foundation in liberal arts and business courses as well as the arts. With a little digging, she found the perfect fit: a BA in Fashion Studies with a concentration in Fashion Merchandising and a minor in Entrepreneurship. It was a perfect way to combine her interests and prepare her for both careers in the existing industry and for charting her own unique path forward. As she says, “When people think of fashion, they only think of design, and I knew that's definitely not where I wanted to end up. To be drawing and coming up with ideas 24/7, [that is] not me. But my degree in fashion merchandising absolutely encapsulates my business side and also my love for styling and being creative in that way.”
For Sims, the classes she took in support of her degree, courses like Visual Merchandising and Space Planning, and Fashion Lab, helped her to build a community of creative colleagues as well as strong relationships with supportive faculty. Perhaps the most formative course she has taken is her senior capstone class. “There,” Sims says, “you’re learning how to do the whole process, how to design a collection, how to market it, how to allocate it for different locations like e-commerce or direct-to consumer. And in all of that you have to learn the financial piece behind it. And that’s something I’ve loved.”
Perhaps the turning point in terms of classroom experience for Sims was the J-Term course that took her to New York in January of 2020. That course, which provides an industry tour of New York, was eye-opening. After attending the National Retail Foundation Student Program and NRF Big Show, taking tours of showrooms, and being introduced to some of the biggest names in the New York fashion scene, Sims came away with a different perspective on her own future. “That whole trip not only introduced me to some of my best friends at Columbia, but it has shown me that the possibilities are truly endless…it really changed my whole outlook on what I want for my career, what I expect of myself, what I expect of others, and just the standards that I have for my life, honestly.”
Upon her return from the J-Term course, Sims approached her courses with renewed intensity. Her passion for her work did not go unnoticed by her instructors, especially Associate Professor and Director of External Scholarship in Fashion Studies, Dana Connell and Assistant Professor Melissa Gamble. “They have been my best of friends throughout my entire career at Columbia…if it wasn’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today,” Sims says.
In particular, Dana Connell was instrumental in Sims’ decision to enter the NRF Foundation’s business case competition. Connell personally emailed Sims encouraging her to apply. It was a great opportunity: the Next Generation Scholarship provides the top five finalists $10,000 - $25,000. After finding out more about the process, Sims agreed. Remembering now, Sims says, “Knowing that she always has my best interest, I was like ‘Why not?’” It was a good instinct. Sims wrote a case on PetSmart and won the top scholarship. In the fall, she also tackled the NRF Student Challenge, which provides the top team with at $6,000 tuition scholarship. She was placed on a team pitching a case for HSN and is now a national semi-finalist. She is also continuing to excel in her program, and has just been awarded the most prestigious Fashion Studies departmental scholarship, the $5,000 Fashion Experience Fellow Award.
Looking ahead, Sims feels good about the future. “I applied for several different jobs, thankfully, [for after graduation,]…I’ve got a lot of different offers. I’m super excited, and not sure exactly which path I want to go in quite yet. I’m just hoping to end up at a company that not only values me, but also the product they make and the people they make it for.” To future Columbia students, Sims has a bit of advice: “There's always something with any opportunity, any challenge, anything that you are faced with--there's something that you're supposed to learn from that moment and move forward with. Don't be afraid to fall down, or think that if you fall, that fall is final.”
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