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A Credit Union Collaboration Comes to Pingry

As students boarded buses home at the end of the day or prepared for any number of after-school activities last winter, Alyssa Chen '18 and Andrew Lee '19 headed to work.

After a full day of classes, these two members of Pingry's Credit Union Club drove themselves to Affinity, New Jersey's largest credit union, which just happens to sit two miles down Martinsville Road from the Basking Ridge Campus. For eight weeks, from January through the beginning of March, from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., Alyssa and Andrew—the first high school interns ever to be brought on board by Affinity—were put to work. More about what they were charged with later. First, to understand the origins of their internship arrangement with Affinity and why it is so mutually beneficial, a bit of background is required.

Four years ago, a group of Upper School students, led by Fred Chang '15, Abhiram Karuppur '15, Will Johnson '15, and James Chartouni '15, became interested in launching a credit union for the Pingry community. Never mind that most high school students—and, no doubt, some adults—have only a vague notion of what a credit union is or does, the enterprising group persisted. With help from the Office of Institutional Advancement, the group secured a grant from the E.E. Ford Foundation, which Pingry matched, giving them additional capital to research the feasibility of a Pingry Credit Union. The Pingry Credit Union Club was soon born. Middle School history teacher George Sullivan—having prior banking experience and, at the time, teaching Pingry's Financial Literacy course—was appointed its first advisor, along with Chief Financial Officer and Director of Operations Olaf Weckesser P '25.

The club's ultimate goal—the raison d'être of all credit unions—was a lofty one: to offer administrators, faculty, staff, alumni, parents, grandparents, indeed, anyone connected to Pingry, a range of personal banking tools, from checking to savings accounts—perhaps, down the line, even home equity loans, car loans, and mortgages—all at favorable rates.

"Initially, the reason I wanted to be part of the club was more self-centered," recalls Charlie Zhu '16, one of its first members. "I didn't feel that I was participating in activities that had many real-world applications. Working to launch the credit union was a very tangible project that had real-world impact. That's an extremely rare opportunity for high school students. It quickly became clear, however, that the most important reason for pushing the project forward was how invested each and every member of our club was in our central mission: to create a financial entity that would work for the benefit of the Pingry community."

2017-18 members of Pingry's Credit Union Club, from left: then-advisor Woody Garavente, Andrew Lee '19, Mitchell Flugstad-Clarke '18, Jenny Coyne '18, Alisa Chokshi '19, Krish Bhavnani '18, Justin Li '21, Jeff Xiao '19, Alyssa Chen '18, Julian Lee '21, and Alison Lee '20.

From the club's inception, members had their work cut out for them, projecting financials, creating surveys for alumni, faculty, staff, and parents to gauge interest, and filing the National Credit Union Administration's (NCUA) Application for Federal Charter, arcane paperwork that had to be submitted and approved before an official credit union could even be pursued. But first, they had to present their idea to Pingry's Board of Trustees. Several years later, Charlie—now a junior Applied Math major (with a focus on Economics) at Harvard—still remembers the day well. "Here was this group of 16- and 17-year-olds pitching a real business idea to the highest governing body of our school," he says. "We prepared more for that one presentation than I had ever prepared for any presentation in my life!"

The pitch went well, and the group received approval to pursue due diligence and report back regularly to a Trustee Special Task Force chaired by Ian Shrank '71. Club members were grateful when, after Fred Chang's graduation from Pingry in 2015, he began working for the University of Pennsylvania's Credit Union and continued to offer his support and newfound knowledge. Eventually, they determined that $1 million in capital would be required for Pingry to launch its own credit union, far too hefty a sum. Other roadblocks arose, such as the fact that minors could not legally take responsibility for the necessary NCUA paperwork or hold positions of responsibility in the operations of a credit union, two conditions that were integral to the spirit of the endeavor. The process was tedious, at times frustrating, and it seemed as if they had hit a brick wall.

"We were fairly confident that we were the only high school in the country trying to form our own credit union," recalls Mr. Shrank. "When it ultimately fell through, I told the club members, 'We're trying to climb Mt. Everest here. Don't feel badly that we didn't make it to the top. The reward is in the trying and the effort, and in thinking of other ideas.'"

And so they did. While brainstorming with students, Mr. Woody Garavente, a former Financial Literacy and math teacher at Pingry, who replaced Mr. Sullivan as the club's advisor in 2015, suggested a cooperative venture. Collaborating with a larger credit union, he offered, might help to lower their start-up costs and make a Pingry Credit Union more viable.

So, the students made a few cold calls, including one to Affinity, whose convenient proximity to the Basking Ridge Campus made it an obvious candidate. Mr. Patrick McDermott, Affinity's Assistant Vice President of Business Development, picked up the phone. Intrigued by the entrepreneurial spirit of a group of high school students, and recognizing their potentially invaluable insights into the teenage market, he was interested in learning more.

When a collaboration with Affinity eventually solidified, with the approval of the Board of Trustees, club members were rejuvenated, recalls Mr. Garavente, a former financial services professional. Enthusiasm was rekindled. "It was a phenomenal business lesson for the students. When you start a new business, often you can end up somewhere totally different from where you began. Whether from a lack of capital, as we experienced, or another reason, you may have to move off your initial target and find a work-around. That's how a transaction gets done."

A particularly community-based credit union, focused on building relationships with local businesses and organizations and supporting their "financial wellness," Affinity was just as eager to collaborate with Pingry—its first independent school client—as Pingry was with it. The hope is that anyone affiliated with the school will not only be able to take advantage of a range of personal finance tools at affordable rates, but can also receive guidance when it comes to their financial goals. When the opportunity for students to intern with the company was added to the conversation, the collaboration became even more of a win-win.

"When we entered this relationship with Pingry, our strategic vision was to develop a sustainable and continuous learning environment for students, empowering them through financial education and firsthand insights into the credit union experience," Mr. McDermott says. "This same strategic vision weaves into Affinity's mission statement—to improve the financial lives of every single one of our members." He adds, "Not to over-simplify, but this collaboration, including the internship experiences, is owned and operated by Pingry students, and powered by Affinity. We are serving as an extension of the Pingry curriculum."

Alyssa Chen '18 and Andrew Lee '19 at work at Affinity last spring.

And so, we circle back to Alyssa and Andrew, Pingry's "beta test" interns for Affinity. The hope, explained Mr. Garavente, is that the pair will pave the way for future Pingry interns, with the goal of three to five interns (juniors and seniors) working at Affinity each fall, winter, and spring. Pave the way they have. Casting aside the stereotype of coffee-fetching, photocopying rookies, Alyssa and Andrew were put to real work. And, by all accounts, they delivered.

Alyssa interned in their Public Relations and Brand Advocacy Department, compiling member testimonials and strategizing about how to integrate them into Affinity's branding and communications. "Reading the testimonials and learning about the various credit union members and how Affinity has had a positive effect on their lives made me proud of the projects I'm working on, and proud to help build an effective communications plan to tell their stories," she says.

With an interest in data analytics and financial technology ("fin tech") services, Andrew was placed, thanks to the help of Mr. McDermott, in their Project Management office, as a data analytics and technological consultant. "I helped figure out how to improve the digital banking experience for my generation, Generation Z," he explains, a demographic Affinity is keen to reach. He performed extensive analytics on current banking trends, fin tech services, the habits of his generation—what they're looking for in a bank, what they want in their first, off-to-college checking account—and how Affinity can keep up with the ever-changing trends in the banking industry. Late last February, he presented his findings and data analyses to Affinity's management, including the company's Chief Strategic Officer, to much praise.

Alyssa and Andrew's internship aside, all members of Pingry's Credit Union Club (four seniors, three juniors, three sophomores, and two freshmen in the 2017-18 school year), who hold meetings twice a cycle, have learned invaluable business—and life—skills: leadership, business modeling, and scenario testing, not to mention the art of following up, creating spreadsheets, sticking to an agenda, and conducting conference calls and business meetings. (Club members were present at key meetings between the CFO of Affinity, Mr. McDermott, and Pingry's Board of Trustees, when the initial collaborative venture was proposed and details were worked out.) "Pingry students are natural leaders, and truly very special. I continue to be amazed by their innovation, maturity, passion, and collaborative spirit," Mr. McDermott says. "It has been such a rewarding experience building this program with the School."

In turn, and even more significantly, as Charlie Zhu described in the club's early years, by collaborating with Affinity, the Credit Union Club is able to share helpful benefits with the entire Pingry community. The Club's 2017-18 President, Jenny Coyne '18, agrees.

"What excites me the most about our collaboration is the continued learning opportunities for both the club's members and the broader Pingry community," she says. "Beyond just financial services, Affinity provides a big financial literacy component—which happens to complement Pingry's financial literacy classes in Grades 9 and 12 nicely—that will reach all segments of our community. The company is more focused on giving back [to the community] and on financial education than on the bottom line."

And members of Pingry's Credit Union Club hope that is a message they can deliver, too.

Contact: Andrea Dawson, Senior Writer,