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By Jason Lefkort '21
In these challenging times, we are all struggling to make tangible social change through the use of our own unique interests and skills. Given my interest in finance and economics, and recent studies demonstrating a general lack of financial knowledge in society, I identified financial literacy as an area where I could make a significant difference.
Socioeconomic disparities lead to some of the most obvious injustices present in American society. Since the fall of 2019, Emerson Lubke '21 and I have been teaching financial literacy for the OTARY program (Outreach To At-Risk Youth) at Family Connections, a social service agency located in East Orange. During our first session at OTARY, it became clear to me that the students had not been adequately taught even the most basic aspects of financial literacy. That realization only reinforced my view that education is an essential tool to help increase economic justice.
From my experience at OTARY, I came to understand that the most effective way to teach financial literacy to students would be through the development of a comprehensive course, taught by fellow students, starting with the most basic material, before working up to more complicated discussions.
Armed with the financial literacy knowledge and skills that I have developed throughout my time at Pingry, including from my freshman year Financial Literacy class, as well as from summer college programs and my own research, I began to plan my own course. My experience as President of the Pingry Credit Union (working towards our account roll-out this fall) has given me an even deeper sense of the elements needed to teach students about financial literacy.
I have spent a number of months creating "Think Dollars & Sense," a financial literacy curriculum focused on the education of middle school and high school students in underserved communities. This free online course, designed for students from around the nation, arms students with important knowledge to make educated financial decisions. As part of the curriculum, we explore different attitudes and ways to think about money. Real-world scenarios are examined to help students better understand their financial options and recognize and avoid predatory financial practices. My course curriculum also includes short recorded interviews that I have done (and some that I have yet to do) with business leaders of diverse backgrounds who speak to the importance of finance in their everyday and professional lives. I also use popular songs about money in order to vary discussion topics and keep students engaged. Recently, Chris Ticas '21 joined the Think Dollars and Sense team as Media Director. Chris has created the logo, edited videos, and improved the overall look and feel of the online course, making it even more engaging for the students.
I have spent a lot of time planning the course, networking with professionals to help me inspire students, and speaking with teachers from underserved communities, including in Detroit and Brooklyn, to help me with teaching recommendations geared towards my target audience. I am working with different organizations (including Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Jersey) and public schools (including Edward R. Murrow High School in Brooklyn), in order to reach students. I have learned a lot while creating the program and teaching through Zoom. Although it was a challenge to keep the students engaged in the material, I was able to overcome this by focusing on the mission of Think Dollars & Sense: arming students with both information and the ability to make informed decisions. I have focused the classes on presenting information to the students and guiding them through the process of making an informed decision in specific and fun scenarios. In this way, the students are immediately able to apply their new knowledge and skills in a very engaging way. I am excited to continue building on the financial literacy teaching I have already done through OTARY.
While my ideal class size was seven to eight students, I had so many students sign up for my first session that I ended up creating two different sections, one in conjunction with Big Brothers Big Sisters of Northern New Jersey and one for other students from around the nation who were referred to me by not-for-profit leaders and teachers. Based on student feedback, the sessions are going extremely well, with students asking lots of excellent questions and enthusiastically participating! I have even more interesting ideas that I will implement in the weeks ahead.
I am looking forward to inspiring even more students through financial education as I continue to expand Think Dollars & Sense through relationships with new organizations, as well as school partnerships. Please reach out if you are interested in learning more, know of an organization that would be interested in this program, or if you would like to become a Think Dollars & Sense teacher, team member, or special video guest interested in speaking about the importance of finance in your professional life.