Part 1: Money Coach Alum Mekdese Woldemariam Reflects on Overcoming Language Barriers and Cultural Adjustments

Mekdese vividly recalls the moment she arrived in Milwaukee during winter at the age of 11 with her father and siblings, joining her mother who had already paved the way for their family. “Everything was so different here,” she remarks. In Ethiopia, a country near the equator, cold weather and snow were foreign to her, creating an initial sense of disorientation. “It was the first time I saw snow or experienced temperatures that low, I felt like I was in a fever dream.”

The language barrier presented one of the greatest obstacles for Mekdese, who didn’t speak English. She recounts her journey of teaching herself English driven by a love for reading. During a stop in England on their way to America, a woman handed Mekdese some books. Her father was initially concerned that the books were religious or political propaganda, but it turned out, they were just children’s books. Mekdese found solace in them, using the images and familiar words to teach herself English. “I was eager to understand and blend in,” she admits, highlighting the feeling of isolation and loneliness that accompanied being a newcomer. “I needed to learn English fast so I could communicate with people of my age. Even when I saw kids with my skin color, I still couldn’t relate to them because they didn’t speak my language, so it was very lonely.” Mekdese’s determination led her parents to enroll her in a summer school program. Surrounded by other students, she absorbed phrases and expressions, accelerating her grasp of the English language.

Loneliness, however, remained a constant companion for Mekdese. The absence of friends who spoke her native tongue intensified the struggle, making each day a 10-hour endeavor to communicate in a foreign language. “It was a very tough time,” she recalls, describing the initial period as surreal.

Yet, Mekdese adapted. She learned to navigate the unfamiliar terrain of Milwaukee, forging a connection with her new home. Over time, the once overwhelming cultural differences became a part of her everyday life, and the isolation gradually faded. “You adapt to it, and then you don’t really notice it anymore.”

Today, Mekdese stands as a testament to the determined spirit of those who embark on the journey of acclimating to a new culture and language. That journey didn’t stop at conquering language barriers as an 11-year-old but continued into her junior year of high school where she learned to conquer financial barriers as well.

Part 2: A Day One Program Impact

Mekdese, now 21, learned about the Money Coach program in her junior year at Ronald Reagan High School. As she entered her student advisor’s office, she stumbled upon the Money Coach program. “I walked in and they said are you here for Money Coach? And I said, oh, what is that?” Mekdese, inherently drawn to the prospect of earning money while learning, decided to give it a try. “They said I could get paid while I learn about money, and I thought, I learn all day long and don’t get paid, so why not?!”

As she delved into the program, Mekdese found herself attending lessons every week, often bringing her lunch to maximize her time in Money Coach. The class became a haven for her and her friends, a place where financial education took center stage.

Reflecting on her early financial habits, Mekdese opens up about the challenges she faced. Despite working since the age of 15, her earnings were managed through her parents’ account, who weren’t aware that kids under the age of 18 could have a bank account. The Money Coach program opened her eyes to the possibility of having her own bank account, a realization she had on the very first day.

“The first day I walked through that door into Money Coach I changed the way I thought about Money. I opened a bank account that same day and started my journey of becoming financially aware.” That step toward financial independence left her feeling empowered. “I just felt so independent at that moment,” she shares, highlighting the pivotal role Money Coach played in reshaping her relationship with money.

Mekdese explains that growing up, money was a topic shrouded in silence. “It was like, yeah, you’re a kid, you’re a student, you know, you should not be worrying about money,” she recollects, revealing the taboo nature of financial discussions within her family. Mekdese’s parents believed that introducing young minds to financial matters could lead them down a misguided path of seeking shortcuts for financial gain. As a result, discussions about money were minimal, creating a barrier for Mekdese to broach the subject.

However, the Money Coach program became a catalyst for change in Mekdese’s approach to financial conversations at home. Armed with newfound knowledge, she began discussing money matters more openly, using the program as a shield. “I even used the coaches as an excuse,” she admits, emphasizing how the educational context provided a bridge for discussions that were once deemed off-limits. She even found herself taking on the role of educator, sharing insights gained from Money Coach with her parents. “By the end of the program, everyone in that room was having intellectual conversations about budgeting, investing, saving, credit, debit. We were speaking beyond our age about money.”

When asked about the most significant change in her relationship with money, Mekdese emphasizes heightened awareness. “I became more conscious about money,” she states, underlining the shift from impulsive spending to intentional financial choices. The ability to discern between needs and wants, instilled during Money Coach, continues to guide her financial decisions. “Every time I go to purchase something I ask myself, is this a need or a want and should I be paying this much for it?”

Mekdese recommends the Money Coach program to everyone, reflecting on the broader implications of financial education, particularly for teens in under-resourced communities. She speaks of a cycle of financial challenges caused by a lack of knowledge. “In a way, learning about money is sort of a luxury, and it shouldn’t be. People who live in poverty and who don’t have the resources they need probably didn’t get guidance from their parents about managing money so how can they teach their kids?”

Mekdese believes programs like Money Coach can break this cycle by providing essential financial education to those who need it most. “People who are under-resourced have to work extra hard to get out of the situation they’re born into which is why programs like Money Coach need to be mandatory.”

Mekdese’s journey stands as a testament to the transformative power of financial education, the resilience of young minds, and the potential for positive change through programs like Money Coach. For more information on the Money Coach program and how to become a mentor visit our website or complete a volunteer interest form.

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