To teach CSUF students about money, the play’s the thing

By Wendy Fawthrop | 

Orange County Register

This article was originally published in The Orange County Register.

Actors and bankers are two groups that don’t typically share the same space, goals, temperament, clothing style or just about anything.

But the two have teamed up to promote financial literacy among young adults. And in the process, the actors also might learn a thing or two about personal finance.

For the fifth year, Bank of America has awarded the Cal State Fullerton Philanthropic Foundation $20,000 to deliver financial education to the university’s students as well as younger students at nearby schools. One way CSUF carries out this mission is to produce and present a short play starring College of the Arts students.

This upcoming school year, the production will be brand new, taking a more interactive, participatory tack toward presenting information on managing money – and debt – as students edge into the adult world.

“It’s a really nice partnership,” said Dale Merrill, dean of the College of the Arts. Between the educational benefits for students in the audience, the outreach for the bank and the performing experience for the CSUF students, he said, “It’s a win-win for everyone.”

The production is followed by lessons delivered by Bank of America representatives from “Better Money Habits,” an online resource on personal finance. The bankers don’t push the students to open B of A accounts, Merrill said, but provide a spectrum of options as they drive home such universally sound financial advice as, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.”

The grant is part of a recently announced $610,000 in funding – part of $43 million nationally – to 40 Orange County nonprofits working to improve opportunities for economic mobility in the region. Some of the nonprofits focus on workforce readiness or access to food, shelter, benefits and other basic needs.

The bank said it is driven by a commitment to build a diverse Orange County workforce to help create economic opportunity. With a cost of living 85 percent above the U.S. average, according to 2014 numbers by Sperling’s Best Places, Orange County is one of the least affordable counties in the nation to live in. Financial literacy can help eliminate barriers to economic mobility, according to the bank.

“We’re empowering people by giving them information to make good decisions – in a not-intimidating way,” said Regino Diaz, Bank of America senior vice president for Orange and Los Angeles counties. The bank’s part of the session uses short videos to cover such topics as budgeting, savings and getting out of debt.

Diaz received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Cal State Fullerton. Along with a coworker who was a CSUF parent, he initiated the relationship with the College of the Arts. The financial sessions were at first included as part of new-student orientation, but because that felt like too much information was offered at once, they are now incorporated into the first-year UNIV 100 seminar.

Until this year, the performance was musical. The school mounted two productions that taught financial concepts through song. The most recent version was a caricature of a musical. Both shows were fun, Merrill said, but fell short on conveying the message; the sophisticated parody was lost on the high schoolers, he said.

“We’re kind of revamping the whole show,” he said. The new version is more physical and taps the trend of devised theater – in which a show is developed collaboratively. Playwright Matthew Katterhagen plans to call it “Cash! Or A Smarter Way To Save.”

“When you start to talk to young people about managing their money, they tune out, their eyes glaze over, they say, ‘You sound like my mom and dad,’ ” Merrill said. The new production is very contemporary and very interactive, he said; the performers might start by popping up out of the audience.

An example of a useful lesson, he said, is that debt is not necessarily bad but needs to be managed. A student might work part-time during college to avoid taking out a loan, but may end up going to school for six years as a result, he pointed out. A better decision might be to take out the loan and graduate sooner, taking advantage of a higher earning potential to pay off the debt.

The school also wanted a production that works better for high school students, Merrill said.

“We want to help students that don’t think they can go to college realize there is a path and college might be beneficial for them – or going to community college and transferring. This show helps discuss that.”

The project plans to target students in the Fullerton School District and might branch out to Boys & Girls Clubs, Girls Inc. and The Wooden Floor, a Santa Ana dance nonprofit.

In addition to reaching student audiences, the production also drives home money lessons to the students performing, Merrill said.

“One of the beauties of this grant is it reaches a lot of first-year students as well as students who work on this project,” he said. “It’s a valuable byproduct – learning how to manage their money, how to manage debt. They don’t realize they’re learning it.”

Artists, after all, need to know how to finance their projects, Merrill said. It benefits the College of the Arts students to work with the B of A executives.

“Our artists have to be incredibly entrepreneurial,” he said. The arts are really big small businesses, he added, and there are bankers who understand the industry’s unique needs.

“They come in in their suits and ties, and we love that,” he said. “We incorporate that element into the productions. Bankers can be very philanthropic.”

Diaz said anecdotal feedback to the program has been good. The bankers report receiving follow-up questions from students, perhaps asking for a link or wanting to schedule an appointment at a local bank branch.

“There’s good engagement,” Diaz said. “We want to guide them and be a sounding board.”


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