The atmosphere was suspenseful as two Rio Grande Valley student teams were tied with 25 seconds left in the final round of the first State Farm Financial Literacy High School Challenge held May 22 at The University of Texas-Pan American.
Buzzing in first to answer the final question correctly, Hidalgo Early College High School edged out Edcouch-Elsa High School in the college bowl- type competition that had the students answering questions ranging from the coverage provided by different types of insurance to identifying the best credit terms for a loan. Their grand prize - a service-learning trip to New York City's financial district to see firsthand how the subject matter learned is applied to real life.
Her five-member team was one of the eight Valley teams of ninth to 11th grade students that got to show off its newly found financial savvy thanks to a $40,000 service-learning grant from State Farm and training provided by student mentors from UTPA's College of Business Administration.
The competition was designed to teach the students financial and economic intelligence to make better informed decisions about the use and management of money. But the unique aspect of the program was the service-learning implemented by the college team mentors who held classes at their assigned school at least once weekly since early March. Service-learning is a teaching approach integrating service to the community with classroom curriculum through a hands-on approach. Other high schools participating included Monte Alto, San Isidro, Lasara, La Joya, Santa Maria and Los Fresnos.
State Farm spokesperson Amelia Folkes said statistics show that 12th graders' knowledge of basic financial skills have been consistently in the low 50 percent range for the past 10 years. Nationally, State Farm has partnered with the Council for Economic Education to promote greater emphasis on financial and economic education.
"Our partnership with UTPA is a great way for us to work at a local level to reach families in the Rio Grande Valley on this critical issue, as well as work with college students on implementing a service-learning project," she said.
Jose Trevino, a senior majoring in business administration-finance, traveled weekly from Edinburg to coach the team from Los Fresnos. He said it was more important to him that his students learn the information than win the challenge.
"With this information, they are going to know how to find a bank, take out a loan, how to budget and to make better decisions in the future," he said.
Trevino said he benefited from the experience by making some valuable contacts in one of his career interests - insurance - and participating in it as a teacher.
"By teaching the students, I got a better understanding of what I've learned in college. I was able to look at this from the perspective of a professor," he said.
Daniel Martinez, a junior on the winning team, said the learning process and competition was challenging and he learned a lot.
"Besides team work, I would say I learned how to financially manage my budget, how banks work and actually, how I could save money to see how it can help me get into college just in case I need some financial help," he said.
During the morning competition rounds, parents of participants were able to attend free informational programs conducted by the staffs of UTPA's Student Financial Services and Admissions and New Student Services and also from Edinburg State Farm agent Juan Cazares, a 1976 alumnus in business. Cazares, who presented the State Farm grant to UTPA, also handed out the runner-up prizes which went to each high school team member and their UTPA mentor. The second place prize went to Edcouch-Elsa High School and third place to La Joya High School. Cazares said he was impressed with the knowledge the students displayed.
"State Farm believes very much in service-learning, which combines the classroom with the actual field environment. State Farm hopes students get more education in personal finance and financial literacy," he said.
Jessica Salinas, director of Community Engagement at UTPA, who served as the liaison between the University and State Farm to develop and implement the competition, commended the students but also State Farm's participation.
"We really want to thank the corporate partnerships that come to the University and allow us to have these resources to enable us to push them into our community," she said. "It's really important. I think in our culture sometimes we lack the resources to say hey this is how you read a financial statement, this is how you open a savings account at the bank. I think the University and the students working together with State Farm did a phenomenal job."