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Rep. Sewell’s Financial Literacy Forum Teaches Real-World Lessons to Stillman Students

Congresswoman, financial experts share experience on credit, saving and investing as part of Financial Literacy Month.

APRIL 18, 2014 - At a young age, Rep. Terri Sewell had everything she could ask for: a law degree from Harvard and a job on Wall Street.

She also had debt – a lot of debt — to the tune of $140,000 in student loans.

Twenty years later, Sewell, Alabama’s first female African-American member of Congress, returned to a college campus to talk to students about loans, good credit and access to education. Hosting a financial literacy forum at Stillman College, an HBCU located in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 17, she reached out to college students and local residents as part of the Congress in the Community meetings throughout her congressional district.

Sewell said that the same loans she accessed as an undergraduate and law student have become more difficult to acquire, especially Parent PLUS loans that parents and guardians can take out to help children get through college.

“They’ve moved the goalposts further out,” Sewell said, nothing that she is working with a Congressional Black Caucus task force to “make student loans more fair to families.”

A member of the House Committee on Financial Services, Sewell was joined at the forum by Thomas Stroud, workplace banking coordinator for Regions; Quentin Byrd, business development specialist for BBVA; William Cheeks, regional director for the Jump $tart Coalition for Personal Financial Literacy; and Kenneth McDonell, financial education outreach analyst for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The event was held as part of April’s Financial Literacy Month.

“Today you’re going to learn and see,” Stroud told the crowd. “Afterward, I want you to go out and teach.”

The panelists covered the process for acquiring students loans, establishing good credit, the proper use of credit cards, the impact of debt-to-income ratios, saving and investing. The panelists, experts on financial education and credit building, also told the audience how to track their credit ratings by using the free service AnnualCreditReport.com, which is authorized by federal law.

Sewell grew up in Selma, Ala., a small city in the same 7th Congressional District she now serves. While she dreamed of becoming an attorney, she never envisioned she would launch her career as a securities lawyer. But that exposure taught a valuable lesson.

“Finances affect everything, from your ability to go to college, to buying your first car to sending your own children to college,” she said.

Speaking on the subject of rebuilding credit, Jump $tart’s Cheeks said it all starts with the basics.

“Develop a new habit,” he said. “Pay your bills on time all the time.” he said. Step two? “Pay down debt.”

McDonell said he initially struggled after college, due to having eight credit cards as a student. He thought it was impressive to his friends at first.

“Three of the cards were oil and gas cards,” McDonald said. “I didn’t even own a car.”

Byrd told students to finish what they started, noting that college was one of the best investments one could make — as long as the job is finished.

“Three out of 10 students leave college without a degree, but still have student debt,” Byrd said.

Regions’ Stroud told the students about modern apps and technology that make financial education and everyday tasks like budgeting more accessible.

“Still, all the technology in the world doesn’t replace a relationship,” Stroud said. “Your banker should be your quarterback. We know a lot of the resources and the nonprofits that will be looking out for your best interests.”

Audience members participated in a 10-minute question-and-answer session to conclude the panel discussion before heading to a nearby exhibition, where they could talk to financial experts one-on-one.

(Pictured: Panelists Thomas Stroud, Quentin Byrd, Rep. Terri Sewell, William Cheeks, Kenneth McDonell.)