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This February marks the 7th year of a unique partnership between G.A.P. Federal Credit Union and Conemaugh Valley High School—a business/school partnership that was established through The Challenge Program, Inc. in 2010. This partnership has allowed students to get a hands-on learning approach to the world of finance, through the opening of a student run credit union branch that operates within the school’s walls while providing opportunities for employment. Starting in 10th grade, students can enroll in a Finance course that allows them to work at the student branch two days a week, and take field trips to G.A.P.’s Richland location to serve real-world customers. Students who gain experience in the high school branch are also invited to apply for summer positions at G.A.P.’s other branch locations.
Incorporation of the student branch into the high school began in 2011, and became a school-wide project. The branch name, “The Bird Cage” was voted on by the student body and their logo was designed by the art department. The school woodshop built the kiosk that sits in the cafeteria at lunch time, where students or faculty can make transactions. This branch currently has 110 active accounts in the school owned by students and faculty. Everything at the kiosk is an asset of the credit union, where a few students work at a time alongside a G.A.P. employee. The students working the kiosk sign confidentiality agreements, and are never unsupervised. When speaking about working inside the school branch, G.A.P. employee Bev Lovrich says, “This is real. Sometimes people think it’s just for fun but everything here is very real.”
The students who work at the credit union in school benefit in multiple ways. Sarah K. , Senior at Conemaugh Valley, is interested in pursuing Business Administration and/or Entrepreneurship after high school. When asked what motivated her to take the Finance elective, she says, “I plan to go to school for business and thought I could like finance too. I wanted to get experience before going off to school to see if I like it, and I can list this as actual work experience.” Her exposure to the credit union allowed her to start saving money, and she has since bought her own car. “The credit union staff also talks with us about balancing our own account and budgeting to pay my bills—like my car insurance each month. They also talk about the importance of building up credit, and keeping your credit good and stable.”
The Finance teacher, Mrs. Nagey, explains that students receive grades while working at the kiosk each day. If there are any issues in that student’s performance for the day, the credit union employee reports them to the teacher who marks their grade for the day accordingly. Mrs. Nagey also explains that students are able to build relationships with the credit union workers, which allows them to have candid and important conversations about their own finances. “The advice from credit union workers is great because it’s not another parent or teacher telling them what they should be doing. They respect the G.A.P. employee and trust their opinions as their friends.”
Conemaugh Valley students, faculty, and credit union employees can all agree that the student run branch has been a wonderful learning experience. The students all believe that the experience has introduced them to the importance of saving and establishing good credit, while also exposing them to the world of customer service. In addition to gaining summer employees, G.A.P. has also been able to hire some of these students full-time, or part-time after graduation. G.A.P. CEO/Treasurer Diane Lopez says that she “looks at this partnership through The Challenge Program as business development, in that it provides me with a trained pipeline.” The credit union has had 5 students from the Conemaugh Valley branch hired at their main branches.
Lacey Christ, age 23, has been working at G.A.P. for 5 and a half years. Her journey with them started during her years at Conemaugh Valley High School. Lacey says about her time at The Bird Cage, “My experience was always full of satisfaction. I looked forward to this part of my day at school. It was extremely beneficial to have hands-on experience by handling cash transactions with students at my high school. This gave me a taste of what it would be like to work in a real-world situation.” When asked if she ever expected a class in high school to lead her to a career she said “Honestly, never. I always knew I wanted to work in some sort of hospitality environment, or have a career that dealt with the public on a daily basis. After I completed the Bird Cage program as part of my finance class, we were eligible to apply for an internship at G.A.P. that summer. After an interview, I was granted this job which I thought would just be a summer internship. The more I got involved in those 3 months, the more I enjoyed what I was doing. So, I was pleased when I was about to start college the end of August, and the CEO/Treasurer asked me to stay and work part time on opposite days of my classes. Ironically, as soon as I completed my customer service management program at college, a full-time position became available at G.A.P., I was asked to take on this opportunity. You truly can’t plan certain things in life, but I am ecstatic at the way everything fell into place.” Lacey is a great example of what this opportunity can do for students. She goes on to say that working at the credit union is “diverse” and “the amount of smiles I receive all day are endless”. Her advice to current high school students is to “stay focused” and “if an opportunity arises, take it”.
Together Conemaugh Valley High School, G.A.P. FCU, and TCP have made an investment in each other, the community, and their school.