Caroline Blake ’14, a government and legal studies major and Spanish minor, is interning this summer at a small nonprofit in Portland that helps refugees and immigrants navigate the American financial system. Community Financial Literacy teaches newcomers to the United States about basic money management, such as how to set up a checking account, as well as skills that include how to use an ATM machine, avoid credit card scams, apply for a car loan, or save for their children’s college tuition.
Claude Rwaganje, who emigrated from the Democratic Republic of Congo to the United States in 1996, founded Community Financial Literacy in 2009 after he graduated with a degree in business administration and finance from the University of Southern Maine.
This summer, Blake — who is from Raymond, Maine — was awarded a Community Matters in Maine fellowship from Bowdoin to intern at CFL. The fellowship provides students with a stipend to work for a Maine-based nonprofit addressing local community issues. The Bowdoin Daily Sun recently caught up with Blake to ask her about her experience.
Bowdoin Daily Sun: What are your duties at CFL? How have you contributed to the organization this summer?
Caroline Blake: I spent most of the summer working with CFL’s Programming Task Force to revise the curriculum of CFL’s primary course: Basic Money Management in America. I began by conducting a “community needs” assessment — I surveyed members of the immigrant and refugee communities to identify the specific financial challenges most new Mainers face. I also researched current best practices in the field of financial education. We used my research and the other members’ expertise to develop five class sessions worth of material, [such as managing credit and planning for the future.]
I also researched new sources of funding and drafted grant proposals. [Plus] I spent some time developing CFL’s basic infrastructure — this involved researching current best practices in the field of nonprofit management and drafting company policies, tracking down and filing official documents, and authoring an employee handbook.
I learned that the immigrant and refugee communities aspire to build new lives for themselves through hard work and education, but they face a unique set of challenges and are in need of educational programs that are tailored to their specific needs.
—Caroline Blake ’14
BDS: What appealed to you about interning for CFL?
CB: I am interested in working to improve the quality and accessibility of education in the U.S. This past winter, my classmates and I spent a week working with ELL [English language learners] students in Portland [on an Alternative Spring Break trip]. That experience opened up my eyes to a whole new field of education: immigrant and refugee education. I learned that these communities aspire to build new lives for themselves through hard work and education, but they face a unique set of challenges and are in need of educational programs tailored to their specific needs.
BDS: What’s been the most surprising part of your internship so far?
CB:CB: I think I was most surprised by how much was involved in developing the curriculum. I learned that creating course material isn’t just about deciding what students should learn — it’s also about deciding how teachers can best present the material. Furthermore, I learned that this depends heavily on who the students are and under what circumstances they are being taught. This means that curriculum developers have to consider a wide array of factors when they are deciding how to present course material — their work has to be slow and deliberate. We spent most of our first task force meeting just analyzing CFL’s target audience, asking each other questions like: Who are these students? Where do they come from? How old are they? What knowledge do they already have? What other issues are many of them dealing with in their lives? How will this affect their ability to learn?
Working with CFL this summer, I learned that many of the immigrants and refugees are dealing with difficult financial circumstances. They are often unemployed or underemployed. There are a variety of reasons for this. Many do not have English proficiency. Many are also unfamiliar with the process of finding a job. Some aren’t eligible to receive work permits for 150 days. And, of course, difficult financial circumstances lead to a variety of other challenges, [such as] low quality housing. These are all things we had to consider when we were developing the course.
BDS: And the most gratifying?
CB: Seeing the curriculum come together at the end of the summer, and knowing that the work I did this summer will have a direct impact on CFL’s students.
BDS: What new skills or abilities have you picked up this summer?
CB: In addition to everything I learned about curriculum development, I also learned a lot about nonprofit management. I didn’t just work with the CFL staff — I was also able to attend some board and committee meetings and to work with a few of CFL’s pro-bono consultants. As a result, I got to see how nonprofits are structured and how the different components work together to achieve the organization’s goal. I also learned a lot about how nonprofits find and secure different sources of funding and how they manage their day-to-day operations. And I learned a lot about how nonprofits operate within their communities. Prior to completing this internship, I assumed that each nonprofit operated independently. However, this summer at CFL, I learned that all nonprofits work within a network of nonprofits … to collaboratively achieve common goals.
BDS: How do you think your work with CFL might affect your Bowdoin studies, or your future plans?
CB: I am interested in pursuing a career in public interest law or education policy. I think that my work at CFL will be a great stepping-stone on my way to either of those careers.