2019 Award Winner

2019 CashCourse Financial Educator of the Year: Taylor Sminchak

We are proud to announce Taylor Sminchak as the recipient of the 2019 CashCourse Financial Educator of the Year Award. Currently serving as the coordinator of outreach for the University of Akron’s ZipAssist student services program, Sminchak took on the task of developing a strategy for student financial education for her campus last year. In just over a year, Sminchak created and implemented Ballin’ on a Budget , ZipAssist’s ongoing financial education program. Taylor has been recognized for her efforts by the University of Akron and external partners, and now manages the school’s emergency aid early alert system. We sat down to talk with Sminchak about her work. Read on for our interview.


CC: Tell us about yourself.


TS: I work at the University of Akron, and my background is in student affairs. I received my master’s of education in Student Affairs and Higher Education from Wright State University. I’ve always known I wanted to help people, specifically college students. I initially was in the advising realm, and during my master’s program, my graduate assistant position was as a one-stop advisor answering students’ questions. At first this wasn’t my top pick, but I was able to help so many students with a lot of issues they were facing on campus. It sort of fell into my lap, which led me to ZipAssist.


CC: How did you first become interested in financial education?


TS:  I would have laughed if I told my younger self that I would be working in financial education, honestly. I never really wanted to be a financial planner or anything in the field, and I used to dread budgeting. Working in one-stop gave me experience working on a campus to give students resources, and at that level, I would dabble in helping students with financial topics. It also really helped me to gain experience with having tougher, sensitive conversations with student about things like money.


At the University of Akron, I deal with emergency grants and help students if there is an emergency effecting their enrollment at the school. Seeing so many of these students-who may not have had a financial plan or weren’t managing their money-opened my eyes to what students were going through. I was then tasked with creating a program at the University of Akron for financial education, which has led me here.


CC: Can you share a favorite memory of working with students in particular on personal finance?


TS: Lots of things make me think this work is worth it, but having students come back after their first visit reinforces the value of this work. They are seeking out this education, they see the benefit of it, and they continue to come back to our office and participate in our programs.


One student had an over-twenty year journey of receiving his degree from the University of Akron, and encountered many barriers. Our program and office were able to get him on his feet with a grant, and then made sure to talk to him about managing money, staying on top of bills, and even starting to save money, along with other personal finance assistance. It was a lengthy process of building rapport, however, the student graduated with his bachelor’s degree from the University of Akron this past May. Our local newspaper wrote about his journey, and he even mentioned our office specifically as being instrumental in his journey, which was amazing.


CC: What advice do you have for other colleges or universities doing this type of work?


TS:  I would say, don’t be afraid to be the first person to get the conversation about money started on your campus. It doesn’t need to be a huge program at first, just provide an avenue for students to have these conversations about money and be able to tell them where to go when they seek help.


Also, keep your programming relevant to your students. Students do need a generic financial education for the future, but they also want to learn about what they’re dealing with right now specifically. I think that finding fun topics that are specific and engaging has helped a lot with getting students in the door. They are able to see the value of the education we’re providing, and will seek out information on other important topics.


CC: What have you been most proud of from your work in student financial education?


TS: I am so proud of the buy-in we’ve gotten from other departments on our campus, and the community. Our program is just now headed into its second year, and it makes me proud that it has been a worthwhile investment of time and that we’re now seeing other offices on campus refer students to us for help. Professors are now requesting presentations for their classrooms, and students are requesting presentations for their student organizations which has been great.


CC: Is there anything else you would like to add?


TS: When I was tasked with creating a financial education program and came up with Ballin’ on a Budget, I did a ton of research on how to create a good program that students would be interested in. I’m not a huge fan of one-and-done programs that just check a box, because I don’t think the information sticks quite as well. I preferred to create a repeat, ongoing program. My goal was to make personal finance a regular, ongoing conversation on our campus.


I also studied a lot about Generation Z to create relevant topics, and I’m most proud that the program combines a consistent structure and relevant content. Our program has a new theme each month, and each month has a webinar, an in-person workshop, some sort of challenge for students to complete, and an e-newsletter. Through this structure, we had a high amount of student touchpoints just in our first year. We also wouldn’t have been able to get the student attendance we get without the CashCourse Reimbursement Program! The incentives it provides really helps get students in the door.


I also think collaboration is very important. Our biggest partnership internally is with our student success center, as well as with First-Year Experience and New Student Orientation programs. These partnerships were critical to our success. For example, we went to every Akron Experience first-year student class to present. Getting the word out to students right out of the gate was effective. We also partner with local organizations, like the United Way of Summit County. Their financial empowerment center is helpful because at the end of the day, we just don’t have the capacity to help every single student individually. Students can go to their center and meet with someone for free when the organization comes to campus once a week. There is a six week waiting list to meet with them!