SILVER SPRING, MARYLAND - Nakesha Clarke twirled out of the dressing room wearing a white and gold gown that made her feel like a Disney princess.

“I feel like Cinderella,” she said.

Clarke was one of more than 200 students who hunted through rows and rows of tulle, satin, sequins and feathers for the perfect dress to wear to her prom, courtesy of TLC’s Say Yes to the Dress reality show franchise, Macy’s department store, clothing retailer Men’s Warehouse, and others.

Many of the students chosen to participate in the event would have struggled with the expense of going to prom, which a 2015 survey by Visa Inc. estimates at $919 per family in America. At the annual event, well-dressed high school students party in a celebration of entering adulthood. Many high schoolers spend hundreds of dollars on a dress alone.

“It was a little difficult because there were so many pretty dresses,” said Dajah Baylor, a senior at Crossland High School in Camp Springs, Maryland. She picked up “a whole bunch of dresses” to try on before selecting a navy blue two-piece outfit with beaded top and flowing skirt, exactly what she and her mom had wanted.

The girls — and roughly 75 boys in the next room trying on tuxedos, playing foosball and getting buzz cuts — were chosen by their teachers from four suburban Washington high schools to shop for free at the event as a reward for academic achievement.

Girls rifled through thousands of dresses, some designed specifically for the event, as well as shoes, jewelry, clutches and shawls. Artists offered makeup tips. This was the first of five stops the Say Yes tour hosted.

Oprah greeting

But it wasn’t all glitz. The opening ceremony turned into shouts and cheering once a video message greeted them at 8:30 in the morning. 

“Hi everybody!” said Oprah Winfrey, television icon and one of the world’s wealthiest women. Little of her video was audible as the crowd shrieked in admiration.

The excitement of prom may be weeks away (most schools in Maryland have prom the first week of May), but preparations actually start much earlier for arguably one of the most important nights in a student’s high school career.

Entering adulthood

“This really is, if you will, your transition into adulthood,” said Monte Durham, host of TV show Say Yes to the Dress: Atlanta and the face of the prom event.

“For most of these young ladies, it will be the most expensive and most special dress they’ve ever owned,” he explained. “They are taking a passage and going on into adulthood, feeling good about themselves, feeling confident and feeling motivated. And that’s amazing.”

Careful selection

The students were carefully selected partially on need, but also academic motivation. Students were required to be on track for graduation, meet a minimum GPA requirement, and completed community service to be selected by their school to attend the event.

Even still, teachers struggled to narrow the list of students who would be eligible for free prom attire.

“We literally sat down for three hours and combed over 250 names because we couldn’t figure out who of our students were deserving,” said Lindsey Joseph, senior sponsor for Crossland High School.

“We use criteria like their attendance, their grades, students who have been most improved,” she explained, adding that both the girls and the boys were “so excited” when told they would be attending.

Both Nakesha and Dajah plan to pursue degrees in nursing this fall after their graduation.

“I plan on going to Marymount University in Arlington, Virginia, to be a nurse,” Dajah said.

For her part, Nakesha has begun taking college courses in biology alongside her high school program. But her love of science might fall second to her passion for cheering.

“I’ve been cheering since seventh grade and I see myself cheering in college,” she said, a statement that will surprise no one who has seen her toned arms.

Almost as an afterthought, she casually added that she also is her school’s National Honor Society vice president.

Nakesha did not end up choosing the white gown, opting instead for a tighter periwinkle lace dress with a slit.

“It’s got the slit that I wanted,” she said. “It was hard to find, but I got it.”

Immigration reporter Aline Barros contributed to this report.

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