by Brenda Campbell, President & CEO, Make A Difference – Wisconsin

A primary strength of our organization rests in how we bring business professionals into high school classrooms to lead engaging lessons on topics like budgeting, saving and credit. Among those business professionals, we’ve been grateful to count many professionals from Northwestern Mutual among our hundreds of classroom volunteers each school year since 2006. I want to share with you a new effort led by volunteers from Northwestern Mutual that I think carries powerful potential for a generation of Milwaukee teenagers.

Starting a few weeks ago, about 20 volunteers from Northwestern Mutual teamed up with hundreds of high school juniors and seniors at Washington High School of Information Technology to concentrate on financial literacy education. Northwestern Mutual volunteers from various departments are visiting the school a few times a week to provide hundreds of teens with lessons on financial basics, and a distinct connection between students and professionals.

The potential of connecting with the majority of the Washington’s juniors and seniors is enormous. The MPS school is located in the exact center of the city, where check-cashing stores greatly outnumber Burger King and McDonald’s restaurants. Educators at Washington, like many throughout Wisconsin, understand the need to provide students with personal finance lessons, but may be limited by time or resources. State school standards give a range of options for personal finance – though none that put students into immersive learning opportunities with professionals. Many teens at this age are just receiving their first paychecks and are a year or two away from the risks and rewards of financial independence. In short, to bring a foundation of financial literacy for hundreds of teenagers in one school carries with it the potential for a positive reverberating impact across a community.

Improving financial literacy fits into Northwestern Mutual’s community support initiatives, and the process of focusing on one school brought together two of the company’s employee-driven outreach groups, the African American Employee Resource Group and the Chrysalis Leadership Development program. Washington High Schools’ location fit in ideally with other culture and commerce initiatives by Northwestern Mutual in the adjacent Metcalfe Park neighborhood.

Tracy A. Byron, a 15-year Northwestern Mutual employee and manager, shared the impact she anticipates from this program. Byron said financial literacy can be an overlooked element of community enhancement and noted her own hard-learned lessons on personal finances as a young single mother.

“I think about financial education as something we can control in our community. We can control the education and resources that are provided to our youth so, later in life, they have a chance and a fair shot,” Byron said.

John D. Mroz, a director at Northwestern Mutual, described the sensation from leading a class for the first time as “a rush.” Another first-time volunteer, Matt Sullivan, an assistant director, said he was impressed by the “awareness of wants versus needs” by students in Bob Pluckhahn’s classroom at Washington.
Jeff Behring is a director at Northwestern Mutual Capital as well as a long-time Make A Difference volunteer on his own. Behring has joined the team approach at Washington, which he said provides an “opportunity to track one school’s progress over time” when it comes to financial literacy. He also feels the kids could create their own buzz about good money decisions as they learn together.

“The more kids who have a common experience, the more likely you are to generate discussion among their peers,” Behring said.

I am extremely grateful for this volunteer support from Northwestern Mutual. We’ll track the impact on financial behavioral outcomes by students at the school and share those results later in 2016. In the meantime, we’ve already started to hear from other schools in our community about bringing in more business partners for this concentrated approach. If you’d like to find out how we can work together on a concentrated program of financial literacy with teens at a specific high school, city or neighborhood, email me today at

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