By Ed Brennen
Luis Diaz knows how challenging it can be to pay for college. A year and a half into his criminal justice degree in 2016, the Milford native had to withdraw from school for financial reasons.
“Unfortunately, I had to leave school for a semester,” says Diaz, who was able to work his way back thanks to the help of Amy Liss, associate director of Student Activities and Leadership. Diaz secured several scholarships and his employer, Hopkinton Country Club, even held a fundraiser to help him cover expenses.
“I was very lucky,” says Diaz, who switched majors upon his return and is now a year away from earning a bachelor’s degree in music business from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.
Drawing on his personal experience, Diaz has found a way to help fellow River Hawks who may be facing a similar situation – or who may simply need advice about budgeting and saving for a new phone.
As part of the university’s new Money Management Mentors program, Diaz heads up a small team of students trained to answer questions and provide financial literacy resources to peers, either in confidential, one-on-one appointments or to groups, such as a student club or Living-Learning Community.
“Money can be a scary thing, so we want to provide a safe space for people to talk about these issues,” says Diaz, whose fellow mentors include juniors Jordan Jones (music studies), Steevens Pierre Tousssaint (civil engineering) and Michael Porter (mechanical engineering).
The mentors, who began offering individual appointments this semester, are part of a broader university initiative, the Money Management Center, spearheaded by Assoc. Dean of Enrollment Joyce McLaughlin to improve students’ overall financial literacy and wellness.
Under the direction of Liss and Senior Asst. Director Christine Robbins from Financial Aid, the center provides a variety of financial planning programs and resources to students. Its website has tips on budgeting and borrowing, along with an online cost planner where students can get a personalized snapshot of their college expenses based on their specific financial aid, housing and employment situations.
“I’m super excited about the program,” says Liss, who has been working on it with Robbins for more than a year. “I’m hopeful that students will have a good experience and share that with other students.”
While student retention will be one way to measure the program’s success, Robbins is focused on another key metric.
“For me, the bottom line is responsible borrowing,” she says. “It would be nice to see a decrease in student loans – that students realize they don’t need as much as they take.”
Mentors, who are hired as work-study students or contract employees, were intentionally chosen to represent a variety of majors so they could better relate to all students.
“Research continues to show that peer-to-peer conversations around finances are most effective,” says Liss, who finds that students can be more reluctant to talk to staff members about personal finance issues. “Having a peer to help feels a little better than coming to any of us.”
Mentors received a two-day training session from Jeanne D’Arc Credit Union on basics like budgeting, saving, banking and credit, as well as training from Robbins on financial aid terminology and procedures. They also use resources from CashCourse.org, a free online site run by the National Endowment for Financial Education.
“It’s important for people our age, in that post-teenage and pre-real-adult phase, to understand their finances,” Jones, a native of Westminster, says when asked why she became a mentor. “Students have a lot of different levels of knowledge about their own finances. I have some friends who are already investing and planning their 401(k) plans, and I have some friends that drop money like it’s nothing and don’t understand what it means.”
Tousssaint, a native of Haiti who transferred to UML from Bunker Hill Community College, says students aren’t always aware of the resources available to them.
“Especially coming from a different country, there were a lot of resources that I didn’t know about at Bunker Hill,” he says. “I enjoy helping people find them.”
Taking the Lead
After seeing how Diaz overcame his own financial challenges, Liss knew he’d be able to handle the difficult situations of others in a sensitive way – making him the ideal lead Money Management Mentor.
“You can teach anybody how to do anything, but I’m never sure if you can teach someone how to care about somebody else,” Liss says. “And Luis really cares about people.”
“I’m never sure if you can teach someone how to care about somebody else. And Luis really cares about people.”
-Amy Liss on Luiz Diaz
Diaz got to work last spring researching similar programs at other universities, putting together a 40-page training manual and holding a few financial literacy sessions at residence halls. Last semester, he spoke about the program at several first-year seminar courses and started a Money Mentors blog, while the team began tabling around campus to spread the word.
Now that the one-on-one sessions are up and running at the Club Hub in University Crossing (students can book an appointment online), Diaz and his fellow mentors look forward to seeing the program grow.
“It’s kind of nice taking what I learned and applying it now,” says Diaz, who also serves as the student representative on the Financial Wellness Committee, which helps shape the university’s 2020 Strategic Plan.
Does he wish the Money Management Mentors would have been around for him a few years ago?
“Obviously, it would have been nice to have something like this,” Diaz says. “But the way I look at it, if that hadn’t happened, I wouldn’t be where I am right now.”