Denison is a thought leader in the relatively new field of financial wellness on college campuses. In the summer of 2020, Samantha Smith, the college’s financial wellness coordinator, spoke at the national Higher Education Financial Wellness Summit about looking back at Year One of a new Financial Wellness program from a small campus point of view. Here is a Q & A about Smith’s work in this critical field.
Q. What does a financial wellness professional do?
The role looks different depending on the organization. Here at Denison the Financial Wellness Office is uniquely situated between Financial Aid and Student Development. To answer your question more specifically, financial wellness has to do with your relationship to money and refers to your overall “financial health.” As Denison’s Financial Wellness Coordinator, I am able to support students in growing their financial literacy (credit, budgeting, and student loans to name a few), while also helping them develop tools to build positive financial habits and achieve their goals while at Denison and beyond.
Q. Can you give us an overview of the past year, what programs and systems you put into place?
With the help of the financial wellness committee comprised of staff from across the university as well as student interns, we had a very successful first year. Our small office connected with more than 18% of the student population through workshops, group presentations, and one-on-one coaching. We hosted the first annual Game of Life event to help students visualize what a budget would look like based on their personal choices after graduation.
The Financial Wellness Office hosts topical, small group workshops and one-on-one financial coaching throughout the year and summer. On our MyDenison page, we provide various financial resources and two (free) financial literacy platforms. We also support our students with the management of the Red Thread emergency fund.
Q. You work one-on-one with students. Can you share an anonymous example of a student’s challenge and how you helped them overcome it?
I enjoy the one-on-one coaching the most. These sessions are “self-led,” which means students seek me out, schedule the appointment, and select the topic. Sometimes they are dealing with an acute financial issue or concern, and other times they just want to learn how to better manage their money or dive deep on a specific financial topic.
For example, in 2020 I worked with a graduating senior. She had accepted a job offer in another part of the country and would need to rent an apartment for the first time as well as deal with new living expenses. We met multiple times over the spring and summer as she approached her start date. Even with COVID-19 looming in the background, it was a pleasure to watch her confidence grow and make this leap knowing she had the financial tools to do it successfully.
Q. You also present several programs on financial topics throughout the year. What do you find is the most popular? Any thoughts on why?
Budgeting is first and foremost. It has the most immediate benefits, but can also require the most challenging habits to instill. Credit and investing are also popular. We cohost a series with the Wellness Center and Housing to offer topics that would be most helpful for our graduating seniors. One popular workshop is meal planning and budgeting. Another is one that helps students understand their “money personality” where we use a quiz to discuss how students’ experiences and childhood can impact how they approach and handle money… then use that awareness to support building financial goals.
Q. What challenges do you face in your work? How are you overcoming them?
In managing our Red Thread emergency fund, it can be difficult to see how stressed and overwhelmed students feel in their moment of crisis. Beyond our counseling, programming, and resources, the Financial Wellness Office also connects students to all the amazing resources available at Denison. Students can be unaware of all that we offer. There are times when the best thing I can do for a student is connect them with other resources on campus.
Q. You say that Denison is a thought leader in the field of financial wellness on college campuses. Why is that?
As part of my participation in Higher Education Financial Wellness Association (HEFWA), I have met colleagues from schools across the country. Many leaders in the field at the moment tend to be from large, public institutions. After my recent Summit presentation reflecting on our first year, the attendee feedback showed a huge desire to hear the experiences and learnings of smaller schools (which more closely resemble their own situations). HEFWA has asked if I would present this topic again in their October webinar. It showed me that schools like Denison have not typically been represented in this important, emerging field. This is an opportunity for Denison to be a thought-leader in how colleges support students’ financial wellness.
Q. If you had to sum up the past year in three words, what would they be?
- Supportive: This is both Denison towards its students and staff/faculty, as well as colleague-to-colleague.
- Innovative: Denison does not shy away from expanding its commitment to student support in new directions.
- Engaged: I love Denison students! They are actively participants in their own personal growth and the communities on campus.
Q. Any other insights you care to share?
It has been a privilege to work alongside such wonderful staff and faculty, and working directly with students really makes my day. Candidly, I wish I had known a lot of this when I was in college! We are adding more content for students to access through our MyDenison page. We are especially excited about our upcoming YouTube channel with short informational videos on topics like budgeting for study abroad, buying a car, and accessing student discounts. We also have a new platform that makes it easier for students to quickly schedule coaching appointments and group workshops.