Penn State’s financial literacy center is growing in influence

Penn State New Kensington and the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial Literacy and Life Skills Center are forging a new partnership
Overhead photo

Penn State New Kensington, in Westmoreland County, has a new financial literacy student ambassador.

Credit: Eric felack, Valley News Dispatch

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Daad Rizk believes that Penn State — and all universities — have a moral imperative to teach financial literacy to students.

As director of the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center, Rizk, and her team, have built from scratch a unit that delivers programs to hundreds of groups each semester at the University Park campus. They curate completely open, web-based education modules, host twice-monthly webinars available to the entire Penn State community and generally give financial advice to anyone who asks.

The Sokolov-Miller Family Center is now forging new relationships with more Penn State campuses. At Penn State New Kensington, a financial aid coordinator and the chair of the campus’ advisory board are hoping to bring financial literacy education to their students. The campus’ first student-led event was held earlier this month, which is perfect timing since April is Financial Literacy Month.

A need at New Kensington

Ashley Traini knows well the struggles of students trying to manage their personal finances in a way that will allow them to pursue and finish their education. She is the financial aid coordinator at Penn State New Kensington, located in Westmoreland County just 25 miles from central Pittsburgh.

Traini explained that part of the New Kensington campus service area includes many students who come from low-income families and might be the first in their family to attend college. These students wouldn’t be able to attend without loans, which come with strings attached and a future burden.

Ashley Traini

Ashley Traini is a financial aid coordinator at Penn State New Kensington.

Credit: Penn State

“A lot of times students think of that up-front money, and they’re not thinking about what happens in two to four years once they graduate and they’re making payments, and they’re making large payments if they’re getting large loan amounts,” Traini said.

Erin Weber — who is the president of the Penn State New Kensington advisory board — is also a financial advisor at Hefren-Tillotson Inc., a wealth management firm based in the Pittsburgh area. She said she was fortunate that her father, also a financial adviser, was able to explain the ins and outs of financial concepts when she entered the workforce out of college as a teacher. However, she said, the experiences as a teacher and financial adviser made her aware of the need for financial literacy education for young adults.

“Through my experiences I’ve realized the lack of knowledge and information college students have going into the workforce,” she said. “It’s kind of scary, actually. Just the simple things, as far as debt and credit.”

She said it was the duty of all universities to be teaching skills such as financial literacy.

“Universities have the duty and responsibility to educate the students on these life situations,” Weber said. “We teach them the things to do in the workforce, but we have to teach them life skills. This is a life skill that they need to be successful.”

Traini and Weber, pursuing similar ends, were brought together by New Kensington Chancellor Kevin Snider. As they put their heads together to figure out a program to help students learn some financial management skills, they found an already-robust program based at the University Park campus: The Sokolov-Miller Family Center.

Already the center has eight student ambassadors at University Park to promote financial literacy. These ambassadors meet with students who request one-on-one meetings, table in public spaces and help the center carry out its programming. Traini and Weber decided to post locally for a similar position and create a link between their campus and the center.

Erin Weber

Erin Weber is president of the advisory board at Penn State New Kensington.

Credit: Submitted Photo

While the subject matter on the surface may appear dull and the consequences of poor financial planning far off into the future, both Traini and Weber said they are hoping exposure to these concepts will make students realize they need these skills in order to live the lives they envision. This includes the important staples of modern adult life: buying a new car, getting a mortgage, starting a business and traveling.

The two said they got good feedback after presenting to about 80 students at the campus’ Math Club in a sort of test run. Traini said it also reinforced their method of approach: Don’t recruit students to come to things, go to where they already are.

A new relationship, a new ambassador

Mack Adams, a first-year who is majoring in IST and minoring in security risk analysis, said he was intrigued by the challenge of engaging students on the topic of financial literacy.

He’s certainly wasted no time in getting involved in on-campus events. Already he’s been made vice president of the photo club and was its former events coordinator, providing skills he said hopes will carry over as the very first financial literacy student ambassador outside of University Park. It will be his responsibility to plan for events by gathering materials, reserving equipment and space, and having a hand in planning the actual programming, much of which is yet to be determined.

Perhaps that enthusiasm for campus life stems partially from the fact that up until he started at Penn State in September, Adams could not attend a physical school. Earlier in life he was diagnosed with the disease actinic prurigo, which causes severe reactions to sunlight and ultraviolet light. That means too much exposure from the sun or fluorescent lights causes a number of reactions, including some cognitive function loss. However, administrators and physical plant managers have been replacing fluorescents with LED lights (already in the campus’ sustainability plans), making it a healthier place for Adams to enjoy an on-campus college experience.

Adams’ hosted his first student event, just in time for Financial Literacy Month. He said he knows he will need to make his events eye-catching and fun in order to get the attention of his peers.

Mack Adams

Mack Adams has stepped into a new role as a financial literacy student ambassador at Penn State New Kensington.

Credit: Rebecca Dietrich

For the first approach, Adams hosted a trivia event at the Penn State New Kensington campus where students could earn prizes. Traini said they had a line of students waiting to participate.

With the end of the semester already near, Adams, Traini and Weber are going to take the summer to flesh out their plans before holding any more events.

“I’m going to be active in planning for the fall semester and trying to go full speed and plan as many events as I can,” he said.

Traini said she’s been thrilled with Adams’ enthusiasm for helping to develop out a financial literacy education plan and hopes to be able to hire a second student ambassador.

“To have us all working together equally on this and having a student involved to get a student perspective, I think it’s going to be a really big hit,” she said. “Everyone is equally excited to bring this onto campus.”

A need across the nation

The Council for Economic Education recently released its annual study “Survey of the States” for the year 2018, which looks at economic and personal finance education in U.S. schools. It is not cheery.

“The 2018 Survey of the States shows that there has been little increase in the economic education in recent years and no growth in personal finance education,” reads a pull quote, colored red, in all caps on the first page of the study.

Only 22 states require high school students to take an economics class. Only 17 require a personal finance class. Both of those numbers haven’t moved since 2016. Pennsylvania requires neither.

In the mid-2000s, both chambers of Congress formally extended their support for a national proclamation of April being named Financial Literacy Month. The Pennsylvania House did so on April 9, 2018. However, none of this has yet translated into legislation or widespread movement on the subject.

Back at the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center, Rizk and her team have been expanding their influence across Penn State steadily since the office was founded in 2013. They’re now tallying hundreds of presentations each year, with financial literacy advice tailored to their audiences — be they first-year students or student athletes.

Rizk said she envisions reaching the entire Penn State community, regardless of geographic location.

“The collaboration with Penn State New Kensington campus is a testament to the University’s commitment to provide students with the resources needed to make informed decisions regarding their money management across all Penn State’s campuses and regardless of their location in the world,” she said. “Our goal is to reach remaining campuses to boost student success, engagement with Penn State and an efficient use of University resources.”

For more information on the Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center and a schedule of events, visit The center’s website also contains self-study modules from “MoneyCounts: A Financial Literacy Series.” This open resource covers 26 different financial-related topics.

The Sokolov-Miller Family Financial and Life Skills Center offers services to the entire Penn State community and is part of Penn State Undergraduate Education, the academic administrative unit that provides leadership and coordination for University-wide programs and initiatives in support of undergraduate teaching and learning at Penn State. Learn more about Undergraduate Education at Sign up for the Undergraduate Education Headlines for the latest news.