Prom night holds a special place in many girls’ hearts, but for some, the expenses associated with the biggest party of the year can be prohibitive. That’s why students from Bentley University began the Dresses to Dreams project in the early 2000s. It was an effort to provide glamorous prom dresses to girls who might not otherwise get them, so they, too, can feel like the belle of the ball.

The program has been a success since its inception, and over the past few years, has enjoyed a makeover. Under the umbrella of Bentley’s Center for Women and Business, the program is every bit as much about female empowerment and mentorship as it is about dressing up. In addition to getting hair and make up tips from Toni and Guy make up specialists, and finding a beautiful gown and shoes to take home, the young women who attend are treated to self-confidence seminars, mentorship and life coaching.

Abigail Eisner, one of this year’s co-presidents, said, “It is about more than looking pretty, it is also about providing girls, some of whom lack positive role models, with an opportunity to see their potential.”

Helping dozens

On Saturday, Feb. 17, nearly 50 young women came to Bentley University, many nervous when they entered, but confident and empowered when they headed back home. In between rummaging through racks of prom possibilities, they attended seminars on finding their inner strength and beauty, conducted by Bentley University professor Dr. Allana Da Graca.

Eisner, and her co-president Annie McConville have been involved with Dresses to Dreams since their freshman year.

“We thought it was an awesome concept,” Eisner said. “We want to see how far it can go,”

Girls who have attended in past years have written their college essays about the experience, she said.

“That really puts this into perspective for us," she added.

The young women, coming from Waltham High School, as well as from Boston, Watertown, and elsewhere, were encouraged to attend by their school guidance counselors and other school staff.

Katherine Nilov of Watertown, who modeled a sleek, sparkly, glamorous gown, said she enjoyed the speakers and the message of empathy and empowerment. The dress was a big draw, too, she said.

“I don’t have the opportunity outside of this to go out and buy a dress,” she said. “It was great to get the dress, it really helps with the cost.”

Carly Shaw, a Waltham High School student and swimmer, said she had felt self-conscious about her strong “swimmers shoulders” but chose a blush-toned strapless gown nonetheless.

“The girls have been so helpful and supportive,” she said.

Kim Snider, a WHS adjustment counselor said of Carly, “She has come so far, This was a very big thing for her.”

“I love it. Now I can go to the prom."

WHS student Neerali Gandhi said the opportunity to get a dress was particularly helpful at a time of year when there are a lot of expenses, such as college admission fees, for a high school senior.

She chose a pink dress, a departure for her, since she usually prefers to wear all black.

“I like it a lot,” she said. “It’s nice to be in an environment that encourages love and support.”

Sara Rivas, a WHS student from Guatamala, said she wasn’t sure she would find a dress, but fell in love with a sparkly blue two-piece number.

“I love it. Now I can go to the prom,” she said. “This is hard for me because I’m shy, but everyone said I looked so pretty and very confident.”

Michelle Wong didn’t attend her junior dance, but is looking forward to senior prom.

“This is a big thing. I got a dress and will strut my stuff,” she said.

Snider said, “I’m so proud! This is a great day. I want my girls to be part of it. Everyone should come, not just for the dress, but for everything.”

Advocating from the classroom to the boardroom

Dorothy Polatin, of the Center for Women in Business and a Bentley advisor to Dresses to Dreams, said the program served the students who ran the program as much as the students who took part in it, by giving them real world experience where they could test their classroom studies. Eisner, for example, who secured donations from TJX and Shoes.com, and graduates this spring, has already accepted an offer to work as an allocation analyst in the merchandising program at TJX.

“This aligns with our mission to advocate for women from the classroom to the boardroom,” Polatin said.

“The sessions about leadership and confidence, fellowship programs and supporting one another as mentors. This is a critical age to build confidence. It is about taking what you learn in the classroom and translating it into good things in the community," she said.

UPDATE: Stylists from Toni and Guy included: Bailey Zaccheo, Olivia Tonsberg, Kenneth Hampston, Selena Contreras, Elaine Winbush-Brown, Chrissy Pace and Alisha Schneider.