Eden Prairie's branch of Royal Credit Union is much like any other financial institution: Visitors can make withdrawals, open lines of credit and learn about smart spending strategies. However, at this branch, every transaction earns the visitor a coupon for a cookie at Eden Prairie High School's campus store, which is just downstairs.
Six high school seniors staff EPHS's credit union, located in a quiet common room called the Perch. They each applied to the paid position through the school's internship program and staff the office from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the school year.
“This was something that kind of scared me,” said Courtney Unterriener, one of the credit union's tellers. She wasn't familiar with the financial world when she first applied, but decided to step outside her comfort zone like she'll have to when she leaves for college in the fall, she explained.
“I saw this as my first opportunity to push myself,” Unterriener said.
For Nidhi Maurya, another teller, the internship is a way to tap into a field in which both her father and sister work. Part of the appeal of the position is helping students who may be intimidated by money management and guiding them toward the right choice for them. Another perk is visiting elementary and middle schools in the area to teach students of all ages about money, from how to identify different coins to what starting a business looks like.
“I think it’s really good to see how well it’s working in one school, in one community,” Maurya said.
On April 26, Maurya waited with her fellow interns, their supervisors and Royal Credit Union staff to welcome U.S. Rep. Dean Phillips, DFL-Minnesota, who visited to learn about the financial education the credit union provides to the school district. The visit came about when the branch tagged Phillips in a tweet. He replied on Twitter and, 15 minutes later, called an aide in his Minnesota office to set up the visit, said Phillips' press secretary Sam Anderson.
“What you’re learning here is going to pay dividends not just to you but to our country,” Phillips told the students after listening to a presentation about their work.
He had many questions for the students — can students take out a line of credit? How many students have an account? (Yes, co-signed with a parent or guardian; around 250, plus several staff members) — and expressed his enthusiasm for the concept throughout the 30-minute visit.
“I’m wowed,” Phillips told the students. “My first reaction is, every school should have this.”
“This is a mini prototype of what school could and should look like,” added EPHS Principal Robb Virgin.
Brittney O'Malley works for Royal Credit Union and supervises the interns all year. The growth the interns experience from when they begin training in August to the end of the school year is tremendous, she said, from learning how to answer emails promptly to public speaking and workplace conduct. They take on responsibility in the school community as well, handling transactions from several student organizations.
Shelly Streich is a teacher in EPHS's business and marketing department and founded the school's RCU branch four years ago.
“We always had a dream to have a financial program in our building,” she said.
That kind of enthusiasm is an essential part of RCU's educational outreach. Brandon Riechers is the president and CEO of RCU, which operates 28 student-run credit union branches in schools across Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“For it to be a true partnership and to not have it fizzle out, the school has to want it," Riechers said.
One of the markers of success in Riechers' eyes is seeing students who participated in simple elementary school branches apply and work in the middle and high school branches as they get older, but the educational benefits of school-based credit unions and financial education reach beyond the students, he said: When student as young as elementary school learn financial literacy, they bring those lessons home to their parents, who are empowered to make wise financial choices for their family.
“I didn’t have that opportunity," he added. "There was very little financial education when I was younger.”
The six interns at EPHS's branch already see the impacts of their financial education in their wallets, said teller Sam Spears.
“A lot of people, they work wherever as a 16- or 17-year-old and they spend money on whatever,” he said. When the high school participates in a "test drive" that simulates how students might live on a salary after graduation, “a lot of kids end up with negative balances,” he added.
“Now we’re all very conscious of money and how we spend it,” said Olivia Pham, a marketing intern.
For the seniors, the internship is more than a student job. Pham will attend St. Thomas University in the fall and plans to study accounting with a business minor, and Unterriener is interested in continuing with the mathematical side of her work.
"We got our foot in the door,” said Ryan Stich, a marketing intern. Plus, money management is a valuable life skill in any career, he added: “No matter what you do, you’ll need to know this.”