Happy Wednesday my friends!
Have I got a treat for you guys! ☺️
We are long overdue for a What I Wore to Work post, and I am so excited to introduce you to today’s wonderful interviewee–Briana, whose story is real, at times, raw, and at all times incredibly inspiring. She also shares some insanely helpful style tips about how to craft a classic, fun wardrobe on a budget. (We’re talking like, a $3 per top budget, sometimes!)
(I’m honestly left wishing how different I would be if my 24 year old self could be friends with 24 year old Briana. 🤔I could’ve used her wisdom and influence in my early twenties! 😂)
If you’re new here–I’ll back up and tell you a little bit more about our series. What I Wore to Work is designed to be one part workwear style inspo, one part career inspo–stories of YOU GUYS–driven, incredible women from all walks of life, shapes and sizes, ages, ethnicities, backgrounds and all careers–living their lives to the fullest and going after their dreams.
Here’s a taste of what Briana Jarnagin shares in her interview:
- How she identified that she wanted to work in the non-profit sector at the age of 15. Also, how she mapped out a plan to get there.
- How she dealt with depression and anxiety during her college years, what she learned about herself as a result, and the life lessons it taught her.
- How transitioning to a non-traditional commuter university became the best choice for her.
- Advice for first generation college students and how to make well-informed decisions when choosing colleges.
- Tips for those looking to get promoted.
- Her mindset on going after your dreams in a manageable way, especially if you’re a high performer.
- How to spot quality “investment pieces” for a few bucks at second hand stores.
- How to hone in on your own personal style and let it shine!
Let’s jump in!
MEET BRIANA JARNAGIN
City: Chicago, IL
Job title + company: Program Coordinator, Community Engagement Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services at the American Library Association
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOURSELF, BRIANA!
I’m a young professional currently working in the non-profit/association world, born and raised on the far northwest side of Chicago. I graduated from Northeastern Illinois University in 2017 with a BA in geography and minors in geographic information science and sociology, and pretty soon afterwards began working at my current place of employment. I’m an alumna of the Latina-founded community service organization Kappa Delta Chi Sorority, Inc. and serve on our national Diversity and Social Justice Committee, and I’m also a member of the 2019 cohort of the Obama Foundation Community Leadership Corps.
When I’m not in the office or working on these projects, I love reading (specifically non-fiction and YA fiction), dance (have been learning salsa and bachata), frequenting coffee shops, going to concerts, and researching curly hair care! Ever since taking a two-week road trip as a graduation present to myself, I was bit with the proverbial travel bug, and try to take trips whenever possible, too.
WHAT DO YOU DO FOR A LIVING?
I work in the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services at the American Library Association. ALA is a non-profit member association for library and information science (LIS) professionals, and my office specifically uses a social justice framework to facilitate LIS workers’ creation of tools and resources that advance equity, diversity, inclusion in their institutions and the field at large.
As my office’s Program Coordinator, Community Engagement, I provide programmatic, operational, and administrative support to our office’s recruitment and retention efforts, which include working with various member groups and committees, managing multiple conference programs and events, strategizing how to engage and sustain member communities, and more.
WHAT DOES A TYPICAL DAY LOOK LIKE?
It’s such a cliche, but it’s true that every day is different! Some days are more meeting-heavy, where I meet with others in my unit, or with others in similar functional areas in other ALA units, or I’m on conference calls with my member groups’ executive boards. Other days are a bit heavier on the independent-work side, which may involve coordinating the on-boarding and professional development opportunities of the cohort of scholarship recipients I support, following up with members on specific projects that we’re undertaking together, facilitating volunteer and governance processes, working with publishers, social media content-creation, and more.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU GOT TO WHERE YOU ARE?
I graduated in 2017 with a BA in geography and minors in geographic information science and sociology. I focused on urban geography and sociology. Broadly, how institutions and structures interact with the urban environment – and these areas of study introduced me to the academic language and concepts surrounding social justice.
I knew I wanted to work in the non-profit world since I was 15, and to gain experience I interned at a museum and a research organization while in college. (Also, I worked in retail and in an office job in college, which provided wonderful practice in customer service skills that I use with members each day.)
I wasn’t looking to enter the association world specifically, but I was open to various types of non-profits.
The specific framework that ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services uses appealed to my desire to work within an organization that valued the same things that I did personally and academically – things like equity, social justice, and literacy. I started working here in the fall of 2017 and was recently promoted to my current position!
Coincidentally, I attended two ALA Annual Conferences before I even began working here – attending one as a teenager as part of my local library’s youth advisory board, and the other as a vendor working for a friend who is self-published. Now I work those same conferences on the staff side, and it feels a little full circle!
This top is one of those items that kind of spoke to me at a Goodwill and I wasn’t really sure if I should heed the call, but I’m glad I did! The print is pretty bold and artsy, so I like to keep the focus on it (and the cute printed sleeve cuff!) by keeping the rest of the outfit dark and neutral with a simple black cardigan.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES YOU’VE FACED GETTING TO WHERE YOU ARE TODAY? WHAT SPECIFIC EXPERIENCES MADE THE BIGGEST IMPACT?
I am pretty open about this with those around me and on social media, but while I was in undergrad I was diagnosed with anxiety and depressive episodes. I took a leave of absence my freshman year and ended up transferring universities, which was emotionally challenging and stressful on top of dealing with mental illness. It ebbed and flowed throughout the remainder of college, and while I was super high functioning, it was often a struggle to balance full-time school, part-time jobs, extracurriculars, and some semblance of a social life.
Transferring schools was one of the best decisions I’ve made, and I ended up with a really rich and dynamic college experience at a relatively non-traditional commuter school. Being forced to confront chronic stress, anxiety, and periods of depression also taught me a lot about self-awareness. In no way do I want to romanticize what I went through – it was the lowest point I’ve ever been – but I am grateful that out of that pain emerged a more mature sense of what my boundaries and limits are, how I process information, what types of environments are healthy for me, and how my body and mind react to stress.
All that is to say, graduating with my degree (especially given that my parents did not have that opportunity), summa cum laude, and looking back on all that I was able to accomplish academically and professionally during that time is a huge achievement and one I reflect on to this day.
YOU MENTIONED YOU WERE THE FIRST IN YOUR FAMILY TO GO TO COLLEGE – WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO THOSE YOUNG WOMEN WHO WILL ALSO BE FIRST GENERATION COLLEGE STUDENTS, FOLLOWING IN YOUR FOOTSTEPS?
Goodness, I could probably write a whole entry just on this topic alone. The biggest thing that I wish to impart on others is taking some time to think – really think – about what types of environments and people make you happy, energize you, make you feel whole. And then think about situations that just don’t sit right, maybe environments where you’ve felt uncomfortable.
I’m a big fan of introspection in general, but I think that in some environments (like the rigorous college prep one of my high school) that holistic view isn’t emphasized as much. It’s *okay* to apply to different types of schools – residential, commuter, public, private, etc. to give yourself some options.
It is *okay* to get into a school, and decide not to go there because it just doesn’t feel right – even if it’s the more prestigious or better-looking option. It’s *okay* to try something even if you’re not totally sure it’s for you. College years will come and go, but your mental and physical well-being stay with you forever, so prioritize those as needed.
Use the internet to research as much as possible.
Read blogs and articles relating to higher education and college admissions, familiarize yourself with the websites of schools you’re considering, look up terms that you aren’t familiar with, and start the process early. I’ve actually been learning a lot about graduate school (general advice, application information, experiences of POC and low-income students, etc.) via Twitter, and while I can’t speak to it directly, I would think there are probably a lot of folks imparting good wisdom about the undergraduate experience on the platform.
The other thing I would emphasize is to consider options that financially will leave you in a decent place; meaning, I caution against going into a lot of debt. Of course, “a lot” is subjective, and sometimes taking it on literally and figuratively pays off in the end, but if you are from a poor or “working-class” background, and your family does not have the resources to financially support your education, weigh your options carefully.
I’m fortunate that I graduated with very manageable student loan debt, but I don’t think I had a clear conception of how impactful it would be until I started working full-time and began making payments. It’s really hard when you’re 17/18 and trying to consider all of these complicated factors, and while these are incredibly important decisions, it’s also crucial not to let it consume every minute or piece of your life.
Snapped this while at a conference!
I was so happy when I found this dress at Goodwill; the material is very forgiving and easy to pack, and the tie-waist makes it feel a little more polished than a simple swing dress.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST PIECE OF ADVICE YOU’VE LEARNED ALONG THE WAY THAT HAS BEEN THE MOST IMPACTFUL IN YOUR LIFE?
You can have it all, just not all at once. I think that’s an Oprah quote, but received via my mother, ha! I’m a really high achiever and perfectionist, and I work hard to establish more realistic expectations for myself. It’s not possible to give 100% of yourself all of the time to a bunch of different things, and that’s okay! Some periods might be more focused on academic growth, some on personal growth, some on your career… I try to reflect on this whenever I feel like I’m not “doing” enough.
WHAT ARE SOME COMMON MISCONCEPTIONS PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
A lot of people hear “library” in the name and think that I’m a librarian, ha! In my experience, many younger folks aren’t necessarily familiar with the concept of professional associations, so sometimes there’s confusion about what ALA is/what we do. People also think I travel all the time which is also not accurate (though perhaps aspirational!).
I’m fortunate to travel every couple of months for work and have been able to check out new cities that way, but it’s definitely not as often as some think!
HOW DO YOU DEFINE SUCCESS? WHAT DOES THAT LOOK LIKE TO YOU?
I’d say this concept is still evolving for me. I’m proud of the academic achievements thus far, and I’m proud of my professional accomplishments since graduating. However, I’m working on defining myself and my identity outside of what I “achieve,” so I’d say success can also look like tackling a personal project I’ve been putting off, trying something new just because I want to, and figuring out the people, places, and decisions that bring me the most peace. I’m not sure that’s really an answer; I’m still figuring out what that looks like for me.
YOU RECENTLY GOT PROMOTED, CONGRATULATIONS! DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE YOU CAN SHARE FOR THOSE WHO ARE GOING FOR A PROMOTION?
Thank you! It was a great feeling to have my work and skills recognized in that way. I would advise folks to research comparable organizations (size, scope, location) to get a sense for the types of positions, compensation packages, etc. that are offered at peer organizations. That can help inform your expectations and conversation with your superior(s) regarding these aspects.
If you’re comfortable doing so, chatting with colleagues who may share similar positions can also provide insight. Make sure to have a clear conversation with your superior(s) about any changes in duties, increased responsibilities, relative breakdown of time towards tasks/projects, and how they see this role (especially if it’s being newly created).
Take notes, and don’t be afraid to ask for time to think about the role and compensation they are proposing. It’s better to ask for time to process, think of any clarifying questions, and thoughtfully approach conversations than to agree to something right away that you may not fully understand. Finally, make sure to convey gratitude towards your superior(s) for their time and effort towards helping secure a promotion or new role. They spent time on this too, and recognizing that is important.
These high-waisted pants are a cool taupe color that matches surprisingly well with a variety of colors and patterned tops. My shoes are Coach loafers that are comfy to have on for 12-hour days running between locations.
Trousers: Nordstrom Rack (Lot’s of similar work pants in this color at Target!), Top: TJ Maxx (Old Navy has a lot of cute similar ones right now!), Loafers: (Similar)
HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR PERSONAL STYLE AT WORK? HOW DO YOU STRIKE THE BALANCE BETWEEN DRESSING LIKE YOURSELF WHILE REMAINING PROFESSIONAL?
We have a business casual dress code, and the general vibe of the association is relatively laid-back. For the first six months or so, I observed what others around me wore and dressed a bit more on the “business” side of business-casual, even though others were more casual.
As young women, sometimes people don’t take us seriously because of conscious or unconscious bias. I wanted to project a professional and capable image at all times, but especially while people were forming first impressions. I still often incorporate more structured pieces into my wardrobe, but have relaxed a little bit to also incorporate fun prints, colors, and accessories.
My overall style could probably be described as classic with preppy, artsy, or modern influences depending on my mood. I often look for jackets or blazers in fun colors since those are automatic statement pieces, blouses in interesting prints, and in the summer, dresses with visual interest. It’s usually much easier for me to pair these with more neutral bottoms or footwear, but still mix and match to create unique outfits.
I find it’s also helpful to think in terms of color palettes. If I see an item in the store, does it work with items I already have? How many other pieces can I wear it with?
Finally, never underestimate the power of accessories! I have a few favorite necklaces and earrings in classic silhouettes (primarily versions of pearls and hoops), headbands, scarves, etc. and wear multiple rings every day because that feels the most “me” to me.
WHERE DO YOU TYPICALLY SHOP FOR WORK CLOTHES? DO YOU HAVE ANY TIPS FOR SCORING THE BEST STUFF?
I’ve had good luck finding tons of items at stores like TJ Maxx and Nordstrom Rack, since they carry a lot of different brands. I also highly recommend checking out thrift stores like Goodwill for workwear – I’ve had incredible luck finding everything from button-downs to skirts to dresses from brands/stores as varied as J. Crew to Target. As long as you know how to spot signs of craftsmanship and quality (fabrication, stitching, seams), even the most obscure brands or items can become favored thrifting finds!
Can you share your tips on that? What are some of the signs of quality you should look for when scoring second hand deals at places like Goodwill?
For bottoms, look at seaming along the sides and down the rear of the pant – is it stitched close together, or if you tug on it does it feel loose? When you put it on, is the fabric pulling or bunching anywhere strange, or is it mostly laying flat? Are the pant legs even in length?
For tops similar rules apply, and I also pay special attention to signs of pilling (I won’t buy it if there’s visible pilling), color vibrancy (does it look too washed and worn?), discoloration under the arms and neck, etc. I spend way too much time checking items out to make sure there aren’t weird stains but it’s worth it!
Finally, read the care label! Rayon can feel comfortable, but some rayon will shrink no matter how delicately the item is washed. Polyester will stick in the summer and be static-y in the winter, so proceed with caution. I personally can’t wear wool because it irritates my skin (RIP to all the cute sweaters I’ve tried on throughout the years), and satin can hold on to stains easily, at least in my experience. I’m a fan of blends – cotton with one or two other fabrics to provide comfort and hold.
BRIANA’S TOP 5 PICKS:
HIGH WAIST PONTE PANT (These are my favorites, but more styles here, here)
I wore my favorite pair so much this past year that they literally got holes in them. These got me through the 8 months of winter we have here in Chicago, and are much more comfortable than any sort of traditional dress pant. I look for ones that are high-waisted, made of a decently thick fabric, and perhaps have seaming or details that make it look more like a pant than a legging.
Can you have too many sweaters? My heart says no, my dresser drawers say yes. I live in sweaters in the cool/cold months and really like pairing slightly longer/looser ones with ponte pants or leggings as appropriate.
Classic, can be dressed up or down, and easy to care for.
You can layer it over anything, packs well for work travel and works during multiple seasons.
I live in swingy, easy dresses in the summer for work (like this one from Nordstrom Rack!). There’s something so pleasant about only having to wear one item and walking out the door!
YOU MENTIONED YOU HAVE A KNACK FOR MIXING AND MATCHING AND THAT COWORKERS ARE GENUINELY SURPRISED TO HEAR THAT YOU HAVE A SMALLER, MORE CURATED WARDROBE. WHAT ARE YOUR BEST MIXING + MATCHING TIPS TO MAXIMIZE THE ITEMS YOU CURRENTLY HAVE, BOTH IN AND OUT OF THE OFFICE?
I try to be very intentional about each piece I purchase and bring into my closet. Unless it’s an item that particularly speaks to me, and is inexpensive, I won’t buy something unless I can wear it with multiple pieces I already own.
Take a mental inventory of the items you have and the gaps in your wardrobe, and then go from there. My color palette for fall/winter is definitely darker and more jewel-toned – black, grey, navy, hunter green, maroon, etc. so I probably wouldn’t buy something that deviates a lot from that because it isn’t going to function effectively.
I still favor neutral colors in the summer, but of course it’s more fun to incorporate some color at this time of the year, so I’ll evaluate if an item either goes well with other pieces and/or stands on its own. Part of the process is also learning the silhouettes, cuts, and colors that are most flattering on you, and the types of pieces you tend to gravitate towards again and again. I hate things that are fussy, and I know what tends to flatter my body and coloring, so I can sometimes block out the “noise” that might tempt me to something that I won’t end up loving just because it’s cute on the hanger.
That being said, if there’s something outside of my comfort zone that is really calling to me for some reason, I’ll usually allow myself the fun of trying it out! You can’t learn about yourself and your style without trying different pieces and experimenting a bit.
HAS STYLE ALWAYS BEEN A CONSTANT IN YOUR LIFE? HOW DID YOU FIND YOUR PERSONAL STYLE, AND HOW HAS THAT CHANGED OVER THE YEARS? DO YOU HAVE ANY ADVICE TO SHARE FOR WOMEN WHO ARE STRUGGLING TO FIND THEIR PERSONAL STYLE?
In 8th grade, I won best dressed in our yearbook superlatives, and I’ve been riding those coattails ever since!
All jokes aside, I’ve had an interest in style and fashion since I was a kid, and would be remiss not to give my mom credit for planting that seed, as she was truly wonderful at suggesting items and putting outfits together for me growing up (and sometimes even now!) I consistently receive compliments from my friends and coworkers about my style, and I’ve had folks express interest in wanting to go shopping with me.
I think people are surprised by how I mix and match items and think I own a ton of clothes, when the reality is that I’ve now honed my sense of the types of items that are flattering and that I genuinely enjoy. It’s through trial and error that I’ve identified the types of cuts/colors/etc. that really make me feel awesome, and I’d like to think that shines through.
I’m also not afraid to try out different things.
I’ll wear statement earrings, and headbands, and patterned pants, but balance those to create an overall cohesive, classic look that fits my personality. I favor a classic look, and that can skew preppy, trendy, or minimalist depending on my mood. I find it so fun to develop a personal style, and so freeing to work somewhere where I have the freedom to express myself on a daily basis.
Also, I think realistically, most blogs don’t show women who grew up or are currently poor or first-gen out of college, or “working-class.” There are certain items I have splurged on (good quality shoes, Madewell jeans), but most dresses/sweaters/pants I buy are under $40, shirts are even less, and thrift store finds can be as low as $3! I do enjoy normalizing how shopping at varied retailers can be just as fruitful and high-quality as shopping at more recognizable or cooler stores, and that certain pricier pieces can last as investments as long as one knows how to take care of them!
For women still struggling to find their personal style, I’m right there with ya on some days. I’ve found that it’s helpful to think about specific items of clothing that make me feel really good, really *me*, and then try to dig a little deeper and figure out why that is. Is it the color? The look? The part of my body it flatters? Try to identify similar items at the store and see if you feel the same when you try it on. As cliche as it sounds, identifying what you do not like can also be helpful and get you closer to picking pieces that make you feel the best.
I love the fun geometric print of this jumpsuit, and layering a crisp button-down under it makes it more office-appropriate.
Briana, it was an absolute JOY to have you on the blog today, thank you so much for participating in What I Wore to Work! I am so inspired by your career journey and I picked up so many great style tips! I know I speak on behalf of our whole internet fam when I say reading your interview has been one of the biggest highlights of the day!