FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellowship Program: Assisting Service Members and Their Families
For service members, a missed credit card payment might do more than just ding their credit report, it could also jeopardize a hard-fought promotion. And for their spouses, move after move might be more than just a financial or logistical hardship; it might also be the biggest hurdle in their own career growth. These challenges are two sides of the same coin. The FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellowship Program is just one program that is aiming to address both sides.
On this episode, we sit down with FINRA Military Spouse Fellows Heather Baker, Shay Cook and Andia Dinesen to learn more.
Resources mentioned in this episode:
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00:00 – 00:32
Kaitlyn Kiernan: For service members, a missed credit card payment might do more than just ding their credit report, it could also jeopardize a hard-fought promotion. And for their spouses, move after move might be more than just a financial or logistical challenge. It might also be the biggest hurdle in their own career growth. These challenges are two sides of the same coin. The FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellowship Program is just one program that is aiming to address both sides. On this episode, we learn more.
00:32 – 00:42
00:42 - 01:40
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Welcome to FINRA Unscripted, I'm your host, Kaitlyn Kiernan. I'm excited to be back from parental leave and kicking things off with a great group of women here to discuss their experiences with the FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellowship Program.
The Military Spouse Fellowship Program is a great program now in its 15th year that provides military spouses an opportunity to earn the Accredited Financial Counselor certification. It recognizes both the unique challenges of military spouses in pursuing and maintaining their own careers and the unique financial challenges facing the military community. Since its inception, the program has awarded more than 1,600 fellowships, and program graduates have provided financial counseling and education to more than 155,000 service members and their families.
Today, we have three fellows here to tell us more. Welcome Heather Baker, Shay Cook and Andia Dinesen.
01:41 - 01:42
Shay Cook: Thank you. Hello, everybody.
01:43 - 01:50
Kaitlyn Kiernan: So, to kick things off, can we start with the three of you telling me a bit about yourselves? Shay, maybe we can start with you?
01:51 - 02:47
Shay Cook: Thanks, Kaitlyn. Hello, everyone. I am Shay Cook. I live in Odenton, Maryland, which is 30 minutes from Baltimore and about 45 minutes from D.C. without traffic, which never happens. So, I am the financial readiness manager for FINRA Investor Education Foundation, overseeing several components of the Foundation's military plan, including the Military Spouse Fellowship. I was accepted into the Foundation's Military Spouse Fellowship program in 2007 and obtained my Accredited Financial Counselor certification in 2008. I later obtained my financial fitness coaching certification in 2019. I'm also the CEO and founder, Crusaders for Change LLC, and we provide financial counseling, coaching classes and consulting. And before all of that, I worked for the Coast Guard, the Army and Air Force in several family and financial readiness positions, as well as several federal credit unions and retail. And the list goes on.
02:47 - 02:50
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Thanks, Shay. Andia, how about you?
02:50 - 03:54
Andia Dinesen: Thank you so much for having me here today. So, I'm Andia Dinesen and we are currently stationed at Joint Base Andrews, although we live in northern Virginia. And my spouse is still active duty. He has been in for 21 years and we've been married for 22, so I've been there for the whole ride of his Air Force career.
I earned my AFC in 2011, so I'm a 2010 fellow and I currently work for the Association of Military Banks of America. I'm the executive vice president for communications and operations, which basically is a catch all. We only have three employees, so I do a lot of different things in my role at AMBA. But our biggest thing is serving our members, which are located on military installations and off the installations serving military and veteran communities. And we do a lot with financial education and financial readiness for the entire military community. And I currently just finished my master's degree in personal financial planning at Kansas State University.
03:54 - 03:57
Shay Cook: Hey, congratulations!
03:57 - 03:58
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Heather, how about you?
03:59 - 04:55
Heather Baker: Hello, I'm Heather Baker. I currently live in Killeen, Texas, and that's at Fort Hood. I was a part of the inaugural class for the FINRA Foundation fellowship in 2006, and I earned my accreditation in 2007. My current position is that I am the program assistant for this amazing opportunity. So, I work very closely with AFCPE and with the FINRA Foundation. I'm usually the first point of contact that the fellows meet when they come through. Before I came back to AFCPE and the FINRA Foundation, I worked for the Fort Hood area Habitat for Humanity as the associate director, assisting military families. I also in my other life assist active-duty soldiers at Fort Hood, primarily those that are getting ready to deploy or mobilized in a way to make sure that they're financially secure.
04:55 - 05:13
Kaitlyn Kiernan: So collectively, the three of you have relocated 43 times, which in itself is remarkable and just an example of one of the unique challenges facing military families. But can you tell us a bit more about the hurdles military spouses face when it comes to developing their own careers?
05:14 - 05:49
Heather Baker: Employers, particularly civilian employers, are aware when they hire a military spouse, that person may not gain tenure or have longevity in that position. So, there's a balance when hiring, do we want to put the effort and expense into training somebody that may be PCS'd, move, relocated or for whatever reason, they may not remain with the company for very long. And so currently, military spouses are one of the most underemployed demographics in our country.
05:50 - 06:39
Andia Dinesen: Yeah, I would also add that portability is such an issue too, with spouse employment. And one of the great things about the AFC is it belongs to you. We don't have to be accredited in every state that you go to. But I think stories I've heard over the years at places that I've moved to, sometimes you live in really obscure locations where there aren't a lot of opportunities. Right now, I live in the D.C. metro area, so I'm good to go here. I have lots of different opportunities, lots of things I can create for myself even. But when you live in Del Rio, Texas or Killeen, Texas, or Fort Huachuca in Arizona, these are just really obscure places that might not necessarily have something in your career field. That can be also really challenging for military spouses, and you don't get to choose where you get to go.
06:40 - 07:24
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Those places also might have a dearth of qualified financial counselors as well, so it kind of fits and fills a gap there in those communities. So, what are some of the unique financial challenges facing service members and their families that make it so that having someone familiar with those challenges is a benefit?
07:01 - 07:45
Shay Cook: Those frequent moves that they are required to do require additional funds. Not all those expenses are covered by the military. I know from my husband and I, as we were traveling with the Air Force, he was smart enough to save because usually we were spending an extra two to three thousand or more for moving expenses, or at least like we were living off base to put out in the first month and then the last month's security deposit and so forth. So those kind of expenses that are not covered by the military. And so, you have to continue to reach into your savings or use your credit card to pay for these extra expenses with moving every few years. So not saving for those future expenses, like moving expenses, then you can't save for retirement and other long-term goals like vacation and children's education.
07:46 - 09:03
Heather Baker: There's a uniqueness with your financial feasibility, or your financial stability can often affect negatively your career, and I think that's the uniqueness that maybe civilian families don't understand or aren't able to grasp. Everybody required a security clearance that can be negatively affected, then by a financial issue, by a bump in the road, by a negative credit report. Things that happen in life can then negatively impact your ability to be promoted, to be deployed, or even to participate in general activities that may require security clearance to even draw a weapon for a weekend training or field time or other opportunities that again create that professional development for you. It can limit that. And so, I think it's key that we recognize that it is important for everybody to have that financial stability or to be able to reconcile some of those issues. But it is slightly more important or more effective with service members who could then have that as something that doesn't allow them to continue forward in their career.
09:03 - 09:35
Shay Cook: I just want to add because I dealt with this when I worked for the Coast Guard and I developed the program for the Coast Guard Personal Finance Management Program, what we realize is even know what Heather is saying is true, if the service member got help and disclosed fully, they would not have any issue, they would not lose their security clearance. So even if you have the worst credit report, long as you fully disclose and you're honest. But because there is a stigma around this whole financial help, just asking for help period in the military and even the United States of America and around the world.
09:35 - 10:27
Andia Dinesen: That's such a great point, Shay. And so, the great thing about financial counselors, especially the FINRA fellows that are already part of this community, right, you don't have to try to explain this when you sit down with financial counselor that's a military spouse fellow because we all understand the life. Going in, you have this credibility that we all are living the same life together. We've dealt with numerous, obviously 43 between the three of us, numerous PCSs, deployments, TDYs, training, all sorts of things. I like to call it solo parenting. And so, when you go in and you sit down with a counselor that understands that life that you live, I think that makes such a difference. And it is a helpful tool to be able to say, I get it. Let's move forward. And how can I bring you the tools and resources that you need or that I've used in my life.
10:27 - 10:44
Kaitlyn Kiernan: You're speaking the same language as the people you're working with, because as we can already tell, the military has lots of jargon and acronyms. Heather, you were part of the inaugural class of the Military Spouses Fellowship Program. How did you first hear about the program?
10:45 - 12:06
Heather Baker: My father was a chaplain in the U.S. Army and had a newsletter that had it in there. And I looked at it and wasn't sure if it was something I wanted to pursue. We had a discussion about it and what was really interesting and a lesson that I learned very early was how many times financial insecurity, financial concern absolutely impacts the emotional and mental well-being and even spiritual well-being of people. And my dad encouraged me to do that.
The funny story was that I had actually PCS'd, and we were going to find out if we got the fellowship by receiving the initial box of textbooks and study guides and things back in the day. And it was supposed to be by a certain date. Ironically, it was April 15th, which is Tax Day, so I thought it was great. My package didn't come. So, for two days I thought, Oh, what a bummer. And then my package came. Actually, it was a great lesson because I really did realize how much this meant to me and how much I really, really wanted it. And so, I was fiercely proud that on the 17th of April, I did get my box and it had been forwarded and I was accepted into that class.
12:06 - 12:18
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Well, it's also very fitting, you mentioned your dad was a chaplain and chaplains counsel people spiritually, and now you're counseling people financially. So, it is kind of a similar career.
12:19 - 12:38
Heather Baker: Absolutely. And I think I grew up with the idea that to whom much is given, much is expected. And this is something that is so important to me because we as counselors can actually effect positive change, and that's a pretty remarkable way to start and end your day.
12:39 - 12:42
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And Shay, how did you hear about the program and decided to apply?
12:42 - 13:34
Shay Cook: We were stationed in Incirlik Air Force Base at the time in Turkey, and I heard about the program from one of my colleagues when I was working my first federal government job at the Air Force as a work life specialist with the Airmen and Family Readiness Center. And I had a knack for helping people with their finances even then, and my colleague noticed and suggested I apply for the program.
Honestly, I was not really interested with just finishing up my degree and my master's in psychology, and I wanted to go work as a mental health counselor. I love psychology, but I always was good with numbers. I always had a knack for that. But I was just like, Oh, I don't want to do that, but I like, OK, it looks good on my resume. So, I just applied, and I got in that year. And then as I started putting things together over the years, I realized that this was not only my calling. All this makes sense. Psychology and money, it goes all together.
13:34 – 13:37
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Yeah, there's so much overlap.
13:37 – 13:46
Shay Cook So much overlap. The study of human behavior and money, it just really, really flows so well. And so, I applied and was accepted in the summer of 2007.
13:47 - 13:48
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And Andia, how about you?
13:49 - 15:09
Andia Dinesen: We were stationed at Moody Air Force Base and I did a lot of volunteer work. My husband was in a unit there, for the Air Force this is pretty different because they did much like the Army where they trained and deployed constantly. That was all they did, which isn't unusual for the Air Force. So, we were in this unit where I needed a lot of support. The spouses in our unit needed a lot of support, and so I was doing a lot of volunteering. And one of the ladies at Airmen and Family Readiness Center had come up to me and said, have you heard about this opportunity, this fellowship? And I said, Well, I'm not, same as you Shay, I'm not sure this is the right fit for me. My background is in psychology. And I thought, Well, I don't know. I mean, I guess like counseling baked in the word there.
So, I applied and actually did not get accepted my first year applying. I reapplied again then when we were at Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, and I got in that year. So, a little nugget. Not everybody knows that, but don't give up. Persevere. That's my thought process there. But I needed a little more experience in working with folks with their finances. And so, I kind of dug in and did more volunteer work on that side of the house and then was accepted the next year. So, thanks to Patti Wittenborn, I credit her with giving me the nudge to apply for the fellowship.
15:15 - 15:03
Shay Cook: I didn't know that Andia, that is so awesome. Never give up.
15:03 - 15:20
Andia Dinesen: Absolutely. I should actually credit David Sullins as well, Sully, because he actually pushed me again to apply in Laughlin because I was a little sad that I didn't get it. And he said, no, apply again and worked with me, and I did a lot of volunteer work with him as well. So, Pat and Sully, thanks.
15:20 - 15:45
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Perseverance is always a good message, so I want to learn a little bit more about the AFC accreditation. The program's offered in coordination with the Association for Financial Counseling and Planning Education, or AFCPE. So, graduates earn the Accredited Financial Counselor certification or, AFC. Shay, can you tell us more about the certification?
15:45 - 17:07
Shay Cook: Yeah, sure. So, the Accredited Financial Counselor certification, according to AFCPE, is considered the gold standard, and I would concur. It includes a comprehensive lifecycle financial education, providing the knowledge and skills to assist clients in complex financial decision making. So, the AFC can address your immediate money challenges, create a plan, achieve your unique goals and dreams, and build a sustainable foundation for long term financial well-being. And an AFC will never sell you any products.
So, there are four stages to completing the AFC. First is the education. You can choose a path that fits your lifestyle, whether it's self-study, university, distance education, among others. Number two is the exam, so you sit for the exam at a verified testing center. And then number three is experience. So, you complete 1000 hours of financial counseling experience and submit an employment verification form, and your 1000 hours of relevant experience may include one on one or group personal financial counseling, education, coaching, curriculum development, and the list goes on. But you may also include relevant hours obtained up to two years before registering for the program. And then number four is ethics, so you have to sign and adhere to the AFC Code of Ethics.
17:07 - 17:19
Kaitlyn Kiernan: I just did some quick math, so a thousand hours is six months of full-time work. And then what skills are you learning as you're working towards this accreditation?
17:19 - 17:59
Shay Cook: Yeah. So, there's so many skills. And I mean, this is not even an exhaustive list, but you learn how to educate clients in sound financial principles, assist clients in the process of overcoming their financial indebtedness. Help clients identify and modify ineffective money management behaviors. Guide clients in developing successful strategies to achieve their unique financial goals. AFCs can support clients as they work through their financial challenges and opportunities. Help clients develop new perspectives on the dynamics of money in relation to family, friends and individual self-esteem, and navigate cultural and emotional aspects of money.
17:59 - 18:13
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Great. And Heather, so you are one of the first people, or if not the first person that applicants to the program interact with. What is the program like? How long does it last? What should applicants expect?
18:13 - 20:23
Heather Baker: As we say up front, it is rigorous and intense. You have three years to complete the program. So as Shay alluded to, some of the educational opportunities that are included with the FINRA Foundation Fellowship are an eight-week live webinar review session that includes a syllabus so that there's some scheduled reading. We want to incorporate people from all different lifestyles, and some of those people may have been away from an academic environment. So, we want to get you back in the groove. We offer those webinar review sessions twice a week, a daytime opportunity, and an evening opportunity for live participation. But we also have those recorded and on demand. We want to accommodate everybody's learning style. So, we want to be able to allow people to experience it as they can.
So, we have a range in the three years. We have people that do the eight-week webinar review session straight out of the gate, pass their exam right after that's done and then get their experience hour component completed. We have people that tend to wait just a little bit and then they may have found an experience hour opportunity, or they may be working in one and wanting to get just a little more confidence before they tackled the textbooks and the exam.
I get asked a lot with the average time it takes. There isn't an average and so some people are done and complete within six months. Some people take the entire three years and kind of come screaming in the door at the last minute. But that is the fun part and the unique part about the program and the way it's evolved and the way we found works best. And all of that in three years, while you're balancing possible PCSs, possible deployments while you're balancing life issues, children, school, whatever. So, a lot is asked, but our Foundation fellows are amazing and have risen to that challenge.
20:23 - 20:28
Kaitlyn Kiernan: What do fellows typically do after receiving their certification?
20:29 - 21:56
Andia Dinesen: I think it's interesting that you use the word typical because I feel like there is no such thing. And part of that is because of what I said before, the AFC does belong to us individually. And I think that part of the reason for that is that we can create our own career around that. There are plenty of fellows out there and AFCs that work in the government space, whether they're GS employees or contractors supporting the DoD and all of the services. So, there is a big cohort of folks that are out there doing that.
But then there's people like me. I worked at the Air Force Base when I was a fellow and earning my hours doing one on one counseling and education. But then outside of that, I stepped into a nonprofit and worked running the Military Saves campaign for the Consumer Federation of America. And then from there went on to the Association of Military Banks of America. So, I worked in two different nonprofit agencies where I wasn't providing direct support, but I was running programs. But all of my background and education and certification came in very handy to do those jobs.
So, there's nothing typical about an AFC. We're kind of all over the place, but that's the great thing about military spouses, right? We do this all the time. We are chameleons. We can do whatever it is that needs to be done of us. And that's the great thing. My experience is totally different from Shay's, which is totally different from Heather's.
21:56 - 22:18
Shay Cook: So many spouses fellows that I know and ran into through AFCPE symposiums or just throughout many different locations have such impressive careers and you know, they work for military relief societies, financial institutions and academia. They own their own private practices. I mean, the list really does go on, and I just believe they're all superstars.
22:19 - 22:25
Kaitlyn Kiernan: How do military families find or connect with fellows if they need assistance?
22:27 - 23:17
Shay Cook: Start with the local family center, so whether it's Army Community Service, Airmen and Family Readiness Center, the Fleet and Family Support Center, which is Navy and Marine, I believe. Coast Guard Work Life Centers or just visiting militaryonesource.mil or CGsuprt.com. Always gotta plug Coast Guard, I worked for them for seven years. And you can get access to financial counselors like Andia was saying, the personal financial managers, the personal financial counselors through their contract or personal financial managers on the Coast Guard side. Every service has financial counselors, but of course in the local communities there is people at financial institutions, at nonprofits and our fellows are working in everything around the world. But I would say start at your local family center and then venture out from there.
23:18 - 24:13
Heather Baker: You also have the opportunity at AFCPE.org to find an AFC, and there are others, several resources. Again, we don't want to contribute to the stigma, but we want to be sensitive to your privacy and that you may not want God and everybody to know that you are struggling. And so, we try to provide those in conjunction with other programs, whether it's with the Yellow Ribbon Network and the CARE Project that we try to touch every region that we can. And then maybe from a bias, the chaplain's office or your house of worship on your installation will most definitely be able to connect you with an appropriate source so that you can get that resolved.
24:01 - 24:14
Kaitlyn Kiernan: We will link to some of those resources in our show notes. What impact has your work had on the military community? Do you have any stories that stick out to you in your careers?
24:14 - 25:18
Andia Dinesen: When I was doing counseling at Loughlin Air Force Base, it was a big pilot training base. There were a lot of young pilots. I would do financial education seminars with them and I would invite their spouses to come and then I would invite them to make appointments with me afterwards. And I had this one couple that had come in and they were both active duty. They had gone to a TSP briefing that I had done, and then they met with me afterwards. So they just both graduated from college and just starting out. So this was almost 10 years ago, and within the last year she sent me a note on LinkedIn and told me all about how I set them up for success. And they're both doing excellent now and they're so happy and their finances have always been in order. And I like, for her to have taken that time to reach back to me and tell me that I had an effect on their lives was really fantastic. So that was a really special moment for me, and I hope there's more that I don't know about, but that was one that that really sticks out for me. That was very special for her to have taken that time to tell me.
25:19 - 25:23
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Following up 10 years later, definitely as a sign, you had an impact.
25:24 - 26:28
Shay Cook: It's awesome. You know, I have a lot of different examples because I worked, I always say grassroots in the field, with the Army, with the Air Force, and then moved up into headquarters with Coast Guard. And I am super proud of creating the Coast Guard's personal financial readiness program but being able to plant a seed and see it grow. I wouldn't be able to do that if I didn't have an AFC. A lot of the champions that I had, Admirals that really supported me, didn't let me sit at the table because I was a GS 13 or 14, but because I had an AFC that brought credibility. Shay knows what she's talking about. She's been in this field for a long time, and she has the certifications that really, and there was nobody in the Coast Guard at the time that had an AFC, literally not anybody. And so, I was able to really bring that education and experience and expertise to the table and be able to develop that program. And so, I shout out to my champion Coast Guard retired admiral, Maura Dollymore, who is still my friend to this day. She retired two years ago, and she really saw that in me and gave me a chance, and that's something I'm super proud of.
26:28 - 26:29
Kaitlyn Kiernan: How about you, Heather?
26:30 - 28:36
Heather Baker: I had probably what I would call my defining moment. And it's a moment that I reflect on, probably daily. I had a service member who was struggling on several fronts come in and wanted to just ask a couple of questions. And as the discussion proceeded, I watched this fine human being unravel, and there were many parts and many components to his sadness and his struggle. What struck me was that part of that emotional and mental frailty was exacerbated by some of the financial issues that he was experiencing. And there are some things I wish I had a magic wand, and I could wave it and fix it, and there are some things that I cannot fix. I cannot change, but I can deal with a decimal point and I can deal with a dollar sign. And it is my hope that if we can take one thing off of somebody's over full plate, that may be enough to create a positive cycle that gets them to the next day and the next step and the next step. And so, he ended his conversation and said to me, If I can just fix one of these things and guess what, I could. And it wasn't easy. And some of it was ugly, and I don't want to represent that it was magically taken care of in one day. But we did create a plan. We did create that understanding. And there was hope.
And I can't tell you how many times people have said, Oh, thank you. I got to sleep tonight, understanding the impact of financial pressure, financial concern, understanding, even financial confusion. I don't love the term financial literacy because I don't like the implication of the antonym but even just being able to ask a question so that you can have that comprehension and you can have some control over those decisions is the reason I'm here today.
28:37 - 28:46
Kaitlyn Kiernan: That's great to hear. So just to wrap things up, Shay, who is eligible to apply for this program?
28:46 - 29:23
Shay Cook: Current spouses or surviving spouses of a uniform service member. So, Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, Space Force now. Whether you're active duty, National Guard, Reserve, or retiree. We make sure that you have your DEERS card, another acronym in possession and eligibility. And also eligible are spouses who are currently serving or their service members currently serving in the Commission Corps of the U.S. Public Health Service, so the PHS and NOAA. So basically, all military uniformed services and spouses of those services are allowed to apply.
29:24 - 29:31
Kaitlyn Kiernan: And then the one final question is what advice would you all give to a military spouse considering this program?
29:33 - 30:24
Heather Baker: Do it. Jump. We all had moments of hesitation, and we all had moments where we weighed our capacity or whether we were just even mentally exhausted from finishing academia or achieving a degree or whatever. But do it. I have never had somebody come back to me and say, I wish I hadn't done this. It is powerful. It is impactful. It is a gift. It's important to know that there is an entire support team, so you're not doing this by yourself. If you need a mentor. We have a mentor for you. If you need to talk through the lessons, we have study groups. If you have questions or concerns, there is an entire team and a network. We have worked very, very hard to develop our network to support each other. And so just leap, do it.
30:24 - 31:07
Andia Dinesen: And persevere, right? At first, you don't succeed, try, try again. There really is a creation of a fellowship around this and this cohort that you're with and you move along the spectrum together. It really is unmatched. If you do get accepted, we have a society of FINRA Foundation fellows that was recently begun, and Heather and Shay and I make up the national chapter for that. And then we have regions and we already have 2021 fellows that are now reaching into that organization and connecting with us. And it's super exciting to make sure that we're helping them along their path from the very beginning.
31:08 - 31:48
Kaitlyn Kiernan: Well, Heather, Andia and Shay, thank you so much for joining me to talk about the FINRA Foundation Military Spouse Fellows program. It's such an impactful initiative that I really enjoyed this opportunity to learn more about it. Listeners, if you don't already, be sure to subscribe to FINRA Unscripted wherever you listen to podcasts. If you have any ideas for future episodes or thoughts to share on today's episode, you can email us at [email protected] Today's episode was produced by Stephanie Van den Berg and me, Kaitlyn Kiernan, with help from Angelita Plemmer Williams, and it was engineered by John Williams. That's it for today's episode. Until next time.
31:48 – 31:54
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