LIFEvest teaches underprivileged teens financial literacy skills during a weeklong total immersion crash course on campus at UCI. A group from 2017 is shown.

LIFEvest program offers low-income teens a skills ladder to college and financial security

November 02, 2018 • By Aaron Orlowski

The 9th and 10th grade school students come from low-income families across Southern California. They arrive on the UCI campus each summer to learn what it takes to be the first in their families to attend college.

They are participants in the LIFEvest program, which is run by the Center for Investment and Wealth Management at the UCI Paul Merage School of Business. LIFEvest teaches underprivileged teens financial literacy skills and was recently selected as the the 2019 charity beneficiary of LEAD OC, an Orange County nonprofit. The Center covers the $2,100 per person cost for students, who attend for free.

LIFEvest and LEAD OC aim to raise $120,000 at a black tie gala on Jan. 25, 2019 and a cocktail hour and dinner on June 1, 2019.

During a weeklong total-immersion summer crash course at UCI, the high-achieving students — all with a 3.0 GPA or higher — from Orange County study how to budget, build and track a stock portfolio and plan for college. They gain insights into social etiquette and potential career tracks, and they learn how to make those dreams a reality through careful planning.

“I was eager to learn about money so I would be financially stable in the future since my family struggles a lot with finances now,” says Alisha Zazueta, a LIFEvest alumna who will graduate from Anaheim High School in 2022. “This program has not just benefited me in so many ways, but also the people around me. Since I have become a lot smarter with money, I have helped my mom as well.”

At LIFEvest, Alisha learned how much to save and how much to spend. The program also helped her discover a career track, and she is now taking high school classes that will aid her on that path.

LIFEvest, now entering its ninth year, offers a clear pathway out of poverty with a mantra that education pays. In one lesson, students examine the relationship between education levels and starting salaries, and they go on tours of Taco Bell headquarters, the investment firm PAAMCO and other corporate offices.

“It’s amazing to see the transformation of these students over the course of just two weeks,” says Christopher Schwarz, an associate professor of finance and the faculty director of the Center for Investment and Wealth Management. “Oftentimes, they come in timid, shy and unsure they can go to college. When they leave, they have confidence and a network, which is so important in today’s business world, especially for those who don’t have family connections.”

Each year, 100 students are chosen for LIFEvest from more than 350 applicants, who are identified through partnerships with local nonprofits such as Big Brothers Big Sisters. So far, almost 400 students over the last 8 years have gone through the program. Some have landed at prestigious universities, such as UCLA and Yale.

Thomas Kim, who will graduate from Kennedy High School in 2022, wants to study law at a 4-year university. He applied to LIFEvest to understand more about college life, and was introduced to the value of financial self control.

“I learned that saving money is important because spending all of your money is a bad habit. What if you lose your job or want to make a large purchase?” says Thomas. “Most people don’t know that the secret to becoming a millionaire is to start a retirement plan. This has inspired me to start contributing to my retirement plan as soon as I get a job, so that I live comfortably at an old age.”

LIFEvest is funded and run by supporters and volunteers. LEAD OC will donate the proceeds of two fundraisers this year to LIFEvest. Since its inception 6 years ago, LEAD OC has raised more than $2.2 million for various charities.

“The benefits of teaching these kids financial literacy will radiate beyond just them and their families,” says Ross Bourne, the current president of LEAD OC and senior vice president of CBRE, the commercial real estate company. “Having financially well-versed college graduates will create a new generation of active, passionate entrepreneurs and investors. I cannot wait to see what the future holds for these kids!”

Alisha, the Anaheim High School student, recalls the lessons from LIFEvest every day, including social etiquette tips learned at a LIFEvest dinner that have helped her speak confidently and politely with administrators at school.

“I don’t think I can ever forget the LIFEvest program not just because of what they taught me, but also because of the amazing people there that actually wanted me to learn and succeed,” Alisha says.

Applications for the summer 2019 program will be accepted starting Jan. 30, 2019.