How many times in life do you meet someone so inspiring that it changes your view of the world? Rosa Chávez is such a person, as countless students will testify. Here, with her signature passion and beaming smile, she recounts how humble beginnings and caring mentors helped her become the adult she always needed as a child.

What first piqued your interest in fashion design?

My mother died when I was only one year old, so I was raised by my grandmother, between the Dominican Republic and the United States. In the Dominican Republic there were free art programs for kids (Dominicans love art!) so early I discovered drawing and painting. Then in New York, I spent my freshman year at Long Island City High School where a professor admired my designs and suggested that I audition for a place at the High School of Fashion Industries. Although I never heard of this school, I went there with my sketches and showed them to a Mr. Conway. He said very little but I could tell he liked my work. I had a strong feeling that I would be accepted into this special school, the only public high school in the United States with a major in fashion design.

Your grandmother must have been delighted…

I am not sure. Since his dreams never came true, she believed that women should live their lives under the radar with no great expectations. She thought girls should be invisible, behave properly and not make noise. Although we never had enough money for non-essentials (which is why I started working outside the home when I was 14), my grandmother managed to buy me a sewing machine so I could attend HSFI from age 10.and at 12and to note. I knew nothing about college or financial aid or navigating the system, but my sewing teacher, Mrs. Manning (who became like a mother to me) told me about the Success Via Apprenticeship sponsored program by the NYC Department of Education for excellent CTE students who want to become teachers. I finally chose this program and when finished I went to FIT, spending my last year studying at the University of the Arts in Florence.

It must have been amazing…

It was crazy, scary, exciting and wonderful. Me, at 28 with very limited Italian, spending a year in a major fashion capital. I put all my things in storage and just picked up and moved. And after the program ended, when my friends returned to the United States to work in the industry, I decided to stay in Italy, taking any job that would pay the bills…

What made you stay?

I had fallen in love with the Italian way of life. To embrace life with your heart rather than your head. Savoring breaking bread with friends and co-workers as a metaphor for nurturing the soul. In my first job — the Pierotucci leather goods company, owned by the Tucci family — I realized that Italians work less for profit and more for the pride of creating something beautiful. If something went wrong, they gladly did it. It’s about putting love and passion into every stitch.

So why did you come back to the United States?

I needed to pay my taxes. And Ms. Manning kept emailing me about vacancies at HSFI. I recognized that education provides security, a pension and the opportunity to prepare young people for life. My standards are very high and I make sure my students complete every project they start. It’s a matter of commitment and character; it’s not good to give up. I help them find the inner power to believe in themselves and aim high, to counter that universal feeling of not being good enough or smart enough. I teach my students (92% of whom are women) to express themselves, to ask for what they need. It’s something I couldn’t do at their age so for me it’s a priority.

You have given so much to these children; what do you get in return?

Above all, I absorbed their positivity. I see attitudes changing dramatically towards gender roles, towards body image, towards acceptance. I feel so much optimism from these kids and believe they can take that positive energy and use it productively, even changing the messages at home.

Exactly one week ago, you were honored at the annual Schneps Media congress Powerful Women of Manhattan gala for founding, in 2017, a non-profit organization (www.poofa.org—the Power of One for All) to provide financial aid to your students, many of whom are recent immigrants. How did it happen?

My good friend and public relations expert Lucy Fierro nominated me; I only found out about it after being selected and I’m still in shock. I’ve always been shy, I barely consider myself a ‘Power Woman’ so I still can’t believe I walked down a catwalk at a prestigious event for accomplished women in a dress that I made myself, a seven-day journey from sketch to dress now documented on Instagram! (My collaborator on the dress was a former student, Fabian Salazar, now an award-winning designer.)

Is there anything menswear executives can do to help support Poofa.org?

In addition to contributing any amount, no matter how small, to our scholarship fund (which includes a year of study in Florence for one lucky student), we are always in need of sewing machines, garment shapes, fabrics, yards, french curves, rulers, professional grade markers. . Designers and manufacturers can share their career paths with students during our Career Day. As I know so well, one mentor can change the world for these fantastic children.

Joseph E. Golightly