The Merrimack College Financial Capability Center is the 2016 AFCPE Outstanding Financial Counseling or Planning Center of the Year Award. The Financial Capability Center is a partnership between Merrimack College in North Andover, MA, and ACT Lawrence, a community development corporation that provides bilingual financial education, coaching and counseling services to the low-income, mostly Latino, residents of the City of Lawrence, MA. 

The goals of the Center are: 

  • To provide Merrimack College students with the knowledge, skills, practice, and confidence necessary to become effective financial coaches.
  • To increase financial stability for low-income and underserved individuals and households in Lawrence through building financial capability.
  • To promote financial inclusion and healthy financial behaviors on campus and in the larger community through education, coaching, participatory action research, and outreach.

We reached out to Associate Professor Dr. Ana Silva, AFC® and the Director of the Center, Dr. Ellen Fitzpatrick to catch up on all the amazing work they have been doing since then.

AFCPE: Can you talk to our readers about the Center and why, as a higher education institution, it is important for your work to impact not just your students, but the surrounding community?

The Financial Capability center was founded in 2015 to provide students with experiential and community engagement opportunities, advance financial inclusion in the community, promote healthy financial behaviors, and facilitate interdisciplinary research collaborations and community partnerships. 

Faculty and local industry volunteers train students in personal finance, coaching skills and cultural competences so that they become effective financial coaches for local clients from the community. Over the years, more than two hundred students have studied and interned for a semester at the center and have served more than four hundred low-income residents from the surrounding community. Students also engage in different research projects to support the program, such as financial coaching program evaluations and comparing the effectiveness of group and individual financial coaching programs. 

Based on external program evaluations and our own research, as a result of participating in the program, clients experience gains in financial knowledge and skills, confidence, controlling expenses and budgeting, and saving ability. Students also develop financial capability as well as interpersonal skills and cultural sensitivities.  Students reflect on their experience and report to develop interpersonal competencies. For instance, a former marketing student reported the following as a result of her experience with her client whom she identified only as “Jose” to protect his privacy.

“I was aware of other cultures before the program, but I never took into account or considered that someone like Jose could be struggling to make ends meet here because he had to send so much money home to his parents,” she said. “I came into the program thinking clients would have bad spending habits; I did not consider that they have important fixed costs that were not being fairly considered.”

The center is very proud to be able to support local clients from the community and, at the same time, help students to become better professionals, have a healthier financial life, and, most of all,  become agents of change. 

AFCPE: Would you share any updates on your current or future initiatives?

The center is proposing to add a community development course into the program. Students will bring the facilitation, communication, and intercultural skills they developed as a result of being a coach for a semester into this new program where they will be able to support the community with humility. Students will gain an understanding of the nexus between capability and opportunity and the possible synergies between businesses, citizens, non-profits, and local governments.

AFCPE: Is there anything else you would like to share?

We are very excited to support a special program at Merrimack. The Pioneer program started three years ago bringing exceptional students from the local underserved community to Merrimack College on full scholarship. One-on-one financial coaching is one of the services the Pioneer program provides to support these students in their adaptation to college life.  Pioneers become the ‘clients’ and work with student financial coaches for a semester during their freshman or sophomore years.  These students in turn, have the option to become financial coaches for younger students. The idea is for the Pioneer students to also serve as coaches for their families and neighbors. Merrimack coaches gain additional experience in the coaching process and insight into the challenges that community members that have the same age as them face

AFCPE:  Do you have any advice for financial professionals to better serve members of the Latinx community?

The Latinx community we serve is mostly from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico. Though the program is open to all community members, it is mostly women that are interested in being part of it. Thankfully, we are able to facilitate their participation by providing childcare, translation services, and dinner from a local place. Our clients have extremely busy professional and personal lives with complicated and unpredictable work schedules and responsibilities for other family members. The program needs to facilitate their participation and provide flexibility when they have to miss appointments.

Over the years we have also learned that creating close connections is crucial for our audience. Our clients obviously need to feel they can personally relate to their coaches. However, it is also important for them to add value to the program in different ways. They feel proud to support the students/coaches in their learning process and support the staff of the center providing ideas for program improvement, and helping with the outreach and recruitment of new clients from the community. Our clients offer their services translating for other clients and becoming coaches themselves in subsequent semesters.

Our clients also engage fully when they can share their own experiences with others. They are not shy to share their past financial mistakes in public so that others may avoid the same pitfalls.   

Lastly, but most importantly, our clients engage in the program with a great dose of humor and require the same from the program and other participants. Laughter and financial conversations are not incompatible in our audience. In fact, they are necessary to create a “light” environment that facilitates self- discovery and openness.

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