Founded in 1987 by three Wharton MBA students—Kenneth Beck, Steven Feld, and Robert Kaplan—the Student Federal Credit Union (SFCU) is the first and only student-run credit union in the Ivy League, and one of only two student credit unions in the country.
“Thirty-five years ago, our founders trained the first teller class with Monopoly money; now, our teller classes are trained on how to handle thousands of dollars at an institution,” says Wharton third-year student Giselle Gonzaga, who is also the CFO of the credit union. “Besides just money though, throughout these 35 years the SFCU has created a rich history for itself. One of my favorite hobbies is actually looking through the old photo albums in the office. We’ve got pictures of students 30 years ago at SFCU Labor Day barbecues, winter formals, and even just in the office spending time with each other, just as we still do now.”
Beck, now CEO of CEO Connection and chair of the Wharton Club of New York, is grateful for the support of the University.
“Thanks to the support of Penn and credit union industry officials, it is taking on a life of its own.” he says. A celebration is planned on Oct. 20 to celebrate the credit union turning 35. Beck says Penn Trustees, past and present SFCU advisory board members, alumni, current and former SFCU employees, government officials, deans, and directors from different schools will come together at a reception to support “these remarkable students” and their achievements.
The Student Federal Credit Union has provided a phenomenal learning experience to more than 4,000 students and banking services to thousands over the past 35 years, says Beck.
“When Bob, Steve, and I started the credit union, we didn’t realize the impact it would have on so many Penn lives,” he says. “Friendships, marriages, careers, and a common experience all from the unique educational opportunity to apply what we learned in class to managing a real financial institution with more than $8 million in assets while in college,” he says.
The branch is currently located at 34th and Walnut streets next to the Starbucks, on the 4th floor of the Franklin Building A-Wing, but Beck says it will be moving to a new space.
“The [University] has been so helpful over the years,” he says. “We are hoping that they can find space for the credit union back in Houston Hall, where it started, or somewhere on Locust Walk, where it will be more accessible and safer for the 1,100 student account holders and volunteers.”
The credit union has the offerings of a typical bank, such as checking accounts, debit cards, and transition loans, and is fully backed by the National Credit Union Administration. All member accounts are insured up to $250,000.
Much of the credit union’s work is geared toward assisting international and first-generation, low-income students navigate a banking system that often feels unfamiliar. Among the benefits that the SFCU touts for international students are not requiring a Social Security number to open an account, free and unlimited incoming international wires, and a debit card that can be used worldwide.
“The SFCU offers competitive dividend rates as well as the lowest fees compared to other banks you might find in University City,” Gonzaga says. “We also have an easily navigable account-opening process. Most importantly, with our office right on campus, we welcome all students to come in and talk to a fellow student employee about what we have to offer.”
Since personal finance is not generally taught in school, the credit union promotes financial literacy for its classmate clients, says Yomi Abdi, a Wharton second-year student and a general ledger committee member at the credit union.
“Financial wellness is a crucial part of the SFCU’s mission,” she says, “We’ve partnered with Zogo, an app that pays students to complete educational modules on personal finance. One of our most popular products, the credit builder, is centered around teaching students the importance of their credit score.”
About 100 student employees manage the multimillion-dollar credit union. The SFCU recruits students in much the same way that any other club on campus might. There’s an alumni board of directors that weighs in on broad strategies for the SFCU’s 1,000 members, but it’s the students who run day-to-day operations—a chance to earn real-word experience in the financial services industry, says Abdi.
“There are a lot of finance and consulting clubs you can join at Penn but being a part of the SFCU takes that to a completely different level,” Abdi explains. “I’m getting hands-on experience in running a financial institution, as an extracurricular activity. Not many people my age can say that. I learned accounting basics in my SFCU training as a first-year, and now I’m taking Accounting 101 with confidence. There is no greater real-world application.”
SFCU leaders believe being students is their biggest asset, not a hindrance.
“Being a completely student-run credit union means that we know our members best,” Gonzaga says. “As students too, we know what students look for in our products, like checking accounts, debit cards, and credit builders. Being able to create account perks, such as for our Quaker checking account, makes beneficial banking easily accessible on campus, and infinitely more tailored to the Penn student experience.”
“The SFCU has such a rich history that I think goes unknown by most of the Penn community,” Abdi says. “I am really looking forward to celebrating and sharing the 35-year legacy that I am so fortunate to be a part of.”