Strolling through Penn’s campus with Brandon Copeland, his energy is infectious. He’s beaming: It’s good to be back.
Copeland, who goes by Cope, is chatting about why, 10 years ago, he chose Wharton for school. He also notes what he’s been up to since his graduation in 2013: Flipping houses, starting a nonprofit with his wife, motivational speaking, and, yes, playing in the NFL.
Cope waves and smiles at students on Locust Walk. He stops to take a video on his iPhone—he’s planning a social media post for his team, the New York Jets.
Then he heads to class. This time, he’s not a student. The 27-year-old is a professor.
This spring, Cope and Brian Peterson, director of Makuu and a lecturer in Africana studies and the Graduate School of Education, co-taught a brand-new urban studies class for undergraduates titled Inequity and Empowerment: Urban Financial Literacy. Or, as Cope calls it, “Life 101.”
The goal, for Cope, was to teach topics related to financial management, such as investing, understanding debt, and how to buy a car or a home. Peterson, then, would intertwine these conversations with the effects of longtime inequities, say, concerning redlining or unfair banking structures.
“It’s costly to be poor; that was a takeaway that came from one of the readings,” said Peterson. “We made that plain for students.”
Teaching to learn
“Clap once if you can hear me,” Cope said, standing in front of a group of students. “Clap twice if you can hear me.”
With the students’ attention, he asked, “How many of you like money?”
Cope was kicking off one of the course’s culminating classes. The 30 Penn students have a big task this day: To teach a chunk of what they learned about financial literacy to a group of high schoolers.
“For me, personally, my philosophy has always been you don’t know something until you have to teach it,” said Peterson. “Brandon shares that same idea.”
It also provided a way to begin to spread the important information widely.
“I want to make financial literacy cool,” Cope said. “And to get this down to the high school level, and then down to the middle school level. This should be a requirement for everybody. There’s no reason why I should have sat in a classroom for 16 years and learned how to use my TI-84 and how to do the cosine of a 45-degree angle, but I was never taught about buying my first house or renting.”
About 50 students from Mastery Charter School’s Shoemaker campus, Paul Robeson High School, and Cheltenham High School sat focused, and ready to learn. The first subject was a big one—budgeting.
The students, then, broke out into smaller groups, attending sessions in classrooms around campus. Topics included investing, buying a home, credit: good vs. bad debt, and car and other big purchases.
Often, the college “teachers” could barely get through their presentations. The high schoolers had many questions.
“What if the stock crashes?” one student asked, on the topic of investing. “You don’t get that back, ever?”
“Can you ever stop investing?” another asked.
In responding, the teachers got creative, making sure to give answers that were relatable for the high schoolers. Peterson and Cope were sitting to the side, nodding, taking it all in.
“In terms of engagement, it was a perfect day,” Peterson said. “I even saw some kids taking pictures of the slides. They wanted to be there, they needed to be there, and everything we could have asked for, we got.”
“The goal for this is to walk away from here encouraged and interested in learning more about how to manage your finances,” Cope said, when chatting with the high schoolers. “You won’t learn everything today. Hopefully you find something you are interested in, and you can go and learn a bit more.”
A good influence
At Wharton, Cope focused on management and entrepreneurship, and played Penn football all four years. He knew of Peterson—his roommates had been active with Makuu—but he never took a class with him.
During last year’s Alumni Weekend, at an event at Du Bois College House, Cope was outwardly discussing the idea he had for a financial literacy course. He mentioned it to Peterson.
“I didn’t expect him to take such a liking to it,” said Cope. “But he just ran with it.”
The class took place every Monday this past semester, in the evening. Not the easiest schedule for an NFL player in training, Cope made it work—even if it meant catching an 8:55 p.m. flight back to Florida after the class ended at 7:30 p.m.
“You make time for what you want to make time for,” he said.
Why it’s all worth it?
One reason, Cope noted, is because he wants to make his time in the NFL as productive as possible. If he can boost this type of program, garnering it media attention and stirring up important conversations because of his influence, he is happy.
“He’s always been an anomaly,” Peterson said of Cope. “If you ‘Google’ him and his track record, he’s done things that aren’t the typical path. Usually you either pick Wharton or football. You don’t necessarily stock up and flip houses and teach classes while playing football.”
“His energy around the subject matter really makes people want to learn,” Peterson continued. “But because his story is authentic and so different, it just kind of pulls people in and that has opened up so many other doors.”
Leslie Hicks, a senior from Detroit in the Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, served as one of the two teaching assistants for Cope and Peterson’s course. Taking on a lot of administrative work, with attendance, emailing, and grading, for instance, she said it’s also been exciting to be part of formulating a new class at Penn—and helping to figure out the scope for it not only this year, but also in the years to come.
“It’s a really cool class that people should take and think about,” she said. “As college students, there’s a lot that we don’t know that we don’t realize until we go out in the world and then we’re kind of faced with all this.”
A lot of the subjects revolving around financial literacy aren’t intuitive, Hicks added, and often not something families discuss openly.
“At least that’s the case for my family, we don’t really talk about money super openly,” she said. “I think that’s true for a lot of students.”
Peterson said he definitely thinks the college students involved in the class are in “a much better position than they would have been without it.”
They also know now, Peterson added, that their charge is to share what they learned as extensively as possible, which they already started to do, beginning with the high school students.
“We encourage them to also talk with their friends, their peers, and their family about financial literacy,” Peterson said.
Talking frankly, Cope said his role hasn’t been to prevent the students from losing their money someday. Instead, he hopes he arms the students with as much information as possible, so when faced with a financial situation, they are prepared.
“And if they end up losing money or making mistakes, they can’t say, ‘Oh, I wish someone told me this,’” Cope said, grinning.