By: Stephanie Newton, Community Outreach Committee
Am I relatable? Will they think I’m a phony? Is the ONE bag of candy enough to appease them? These were just a few of the questions racing through my mind as our group of Junior Achievement Diploma-See volunteers gathered in a side classroom to polish off the prep on our exercise materials and slam down some coffee to get our energy where it needed to be. These were middle school students we had to teach finance to, after all. It was go-time.
Each year the Greater Tampa Chamber of Commerce activates volunteers to participate in Junior Achievement’s Diploma-See program. Jose Valiente, the founder of the program, came up with the idea while he was Chair of the Chamber. Volunteers visit Hillsborough County Title-1 Public Schools and teach basic financial principals. Volunteers are required to participate in a 2-hour training session and then go into the classrooms for a half day and teach. I along with eight other Emerge Tampa Bay members decided to participate this year together.
As soon as the door opened and a collection of student ambassadors were waiting to guide us to our classrooms, all of my fears subsided. This was going to be fun. As we chatted on our short journey to our destination, I commented on the school mascot and the upcoming dance. (Getting to tell my Georgia Tech-alum boyfriend later that day that I got to teach a classroom full of “Yellow Jackets” was certainly noteworthy. He did help me prepare the lessons the night before, after all.)
There is something very unique about the adrenaline that rushes through your body at the onset of having to introduce yourself to young people who are a mirror reflection of the person you are not entirely that far removed from – the only difference being that your life has accelerated at an increasing pace. As students came up to the whiteboard and identified with a sticky note on a poster full of the career choices where they believed they saw themselves, I remember standing back and thinking, “How lucky are they?” My favorite part of the entire morning was just watching students rush up to the poster with unfaltering confidence, knowing they had the exact job path in mind and then stop and take a second look at the options before committing. You could see the wheels turning. That’s when I knew this program was truly something special. When asked what a “cosmologist” and a “chemical engineer” did for a living, I felt like I held the greatest amount of power in the world.
Another tremendous takeaway of the day for me was getting to reinforce the notion that education doesn’t end beyond college, graduate school, or even doctorate-level work. The slew of certificate programs, trade classes and seminars one can attend throughout their working life to acquire new skill sets really opened our students’ minds to the flexibility that now surrounded them.
Ownership of what the students really did know regarding finances started to speed up and shine when talk turned to credit and debit cards. And did they waaaant to talk about credit cards, let me tell you. The perspectives in the room were cut across a wide array of economic backgrounds and experiences, which made the discussion rich and eye-opening.
When we debriefed following the three-hour session with our classrooms, my mind was blown to hear about the projects the students were undertaking in aerospace, aviation and engineering. Building components of a fighter jet? O….kay. Can I blame my classroom for not 100% being able to differentiate premiums and co-pays? Absolutely not. The rare opportunity I had to impart what I hope was valuable financial knowledge that perhaps a few months or years from now even one student pulls out of their memory files and goes “a-ha!” with will be a victory for me. That and leaving a middle school classroom with completely flipped perspective of what the students were capable of before entering. For that, I thank Junior Achievement – where to next?