Professor Ana Silva spearheads Financial Capability Center

Building on her interest in financial inclusion, Assistant Professor of Finance Ana Silva is developing the Financial Capability Center at Merrimack College, to serve the local community and provide students an experiential learning opportunity.

This fall, Silva and fellow Girard School of Business professors Jose Godinez, Len Guida and Mary Papazian will train eight to 10 students to become financial coaches. The students then will participate in an academic internship, leading financial capability workshops and providing one-on-one coaching for clients from ACT Lawrence a nonprofit community development corporation based in the Arlington neighborhood of nearby Lawrence, Mass.

“Financial inclusion – expanding access to finance for those left behind – is my passion and area of research,” said Silva.

“A lack of access to financial services for low-income people is not just a problem in developing countries,” she explained. “It is also a significant problem in the United States, with more than 28 percent of households either unbanked or under-banked.”

These people are underserved by the financial system. In Lawrence, the city of 77,000 next to North Andover, almost 44 percent of households lack access to adequate financial services, Silva says.

Silva began work on the project in the spring. She was one of 14 faculty members to receive a 2014-15 grant from the Provost Innovation Fund, which supports academic initiatives related to the Agenda for Distinction, the college’s 2011-2021 strategic plan.

The financial coaching approach is a perfect fit for ACT, said Silva, its board president since December 2013. “ACT Lawrence’s mission is to move Lawrence’s households out of poverty and into economic self-sufficiency,” she said. “ACT provides assistance to financially insecure families who are facing foreclosure or are trapped in a debt-poverty cycle. It also provides financial education to low- and moderate-income first-time homebuyers.”

Financial coaches can help clients improve their credit scores before they apply for housing or can reduce the use of predatory lending services that lead vulnerable families into a debt trap, Silva said.

Silva and the three other Girard School professors have attended training seminars at NeighborWorks Training Institute and Capital Good Fund in Providence, R.I., to learn how to effectively deliver financial capability services for low-income people. This faculty quartet will recruit, train, and support student-interns who will become financial coaches for ACT’s clients. Students will begin 12 hours of training in early September and start coaching clients later that month. They will deliver four financial capability workshops at ACT and hold biweekly meetings with clients in addition to running weekly drop-in clinics for Merrimack students and at St. Mary of the Assumption Church in Lawrence through the St. Mary’s Merrimack College Community Outreach partnership. This first offering of the coaching program concludes with a graduation Dec. 4.

Students from any major, not just business, are welcome, Silva said. This experiential learning opportunity is in line with the college’s mission to “enlighten minds, engage hearts, and empower lives.”

As interns in the Financial Capability Center, “students will learn about other cultures and socio-economic backgrounds, how to make sound financial decisions, and coaching techniques,” said Silva.

“As importantly, they will develop unique leadership, communication and interpersonal skills. Finally, they will experience the gratification of serving others. The long-term goals of the program are for our students to have better career opportunities, healthier financial lives, and to become agents of change in society.”

ACT Lawrence has strong ties to Merrimack, said board president Silva. Professors Jose Godinez, assistant professor of management, and Luis Saenz de Viguera, associate professor of World Languages and Cultural Studies and director of the Social Justice Program at Merrimack, and Sabrina Boggio ’14, a Girard School graduate and volunteer outreach coordinator at Groundwork Lawrence, also serve on the board.

Its programs – home ownership education, financial literacy, foreclosure prevention, and youth leadership – target low- to moderate-income residents and are provided in English and Spanish.


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