Empowering Heroes at The American College Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs

Ted Digges, Captain, SC, USN (Ret.)

By Ted Digges, Captain, SC, USN (Ret.) | November 14, 2017

After 15 years in the Navy, I was planning my next steps as I re-entered civilian life. I was interested in a career in financial services, and I was even taking distance learning classes at The American College to gain the appropriate certifications. Then 9/11 happened, and I decided to continue my service in the Navy. A decade later, at a meeting of the Board of Directors at a nonprofit I volunteered with, I met someone who was also on the Board of The American College. He told me in conversation of the recently launched American College Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs, and that there were now full scholarships available for active and retired military personnel and their spouses. I applied, was awarded a scholarship while still on active duty, and continued working on my certifications while working at Merrill Lynch.

The American College approached me and asked if I would consider becoming the Executive Director of The Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs. I was honored to be asked, and I accepted. Financial services is a great career choice for veterans, and this gave me an opportunity to help make that possible for an ever-growing number of people. I have the unique experience of being on both sides of the table, both in the receiving and now the awarding of the scholarships. I understand what it’s like to be a student here, and I also understand what it’s like to experience that exciting and nerve wracking time of transitioning into civilian life after being in the military.

The mission of the American College Penn Mutual Center for Veterans Affairs is to provide educational support and career opportunities to eligible men, women and their spouses who have served in the Armed Forces. However, our ultimate vision is broader. We not only want to empower deserving veterans with career opportunities, but we also hope to infuse the financial services profession with a talent pool of determined, mission-minded individuals who will be vital to the economic integrity of the profession. This is a win-win for everyone involved: It’s not just honoring those who have served but also transforming the profession itself by bringing in talented people.

The crown jewel of our program is the scholarship program, where we award full scholarships to active duty veterans and their spouses to launch their education and, eventually, springboard them into a career in financial services.

The American College was founded in 1927, celebrating our 90th year this year. Located in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, we’re not your typical four-year undergraduate degree. Rather, we focus on professional education within the financial services industry, all through distance learning, designed for full-time professionals to earn their designations while working, through books, online access, CDs, and other media. Typically, our students pass a course every two to four months. For our most popular designations, Certified Financial Planner (CFP)® and Chartered Financial Consultant (ChFC)®, it takes two to three years to complete the seven and nine course curricula, respectively.

A generous grant from The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company kick-started the sponsorship program at The American College in 2012. We are now fully up and running, and we’ve seen explosive growth over the last couple of years. Since the program started, we’ve awarded well over 300 scholarships, and we’re on track to award 100 this year alone. In 2016, we surpassed a major milestone, with the value of the scholarships awarded surpassing $1 million and it’s likely we’ll pass the $2 million mark sometime within the next year. There are approximately 120 active students currently enrolled in classes, spread out over 35 states and 4 countries, and many of them are taking these classes while they are deployed.

The students represent a cross-section of America – every race, gender, religion and ethnic background – and they have some incredible stories to share.

A gentleman who is currently serving on a 180-day deployment to Kuwait recently received a scholarship. He’s a reservist who was called up to serve, so he’s using his spare time during his deployment to do something constructive: Knocking out his CFP® designation at The American College.

Another student was a Navy spouse, her naval aviator husband was killed when his aircraft went down. As a result of that life-changing experience, she came to see there was no one in the naval aviation community who could relate to that experience. Since then, not only has she become a benefits counselor for military members, she’s also become the go-to person when tragedy strikes in naval aviation. She has the empathy and experience to help the families get their lives back on track.

We had another gentleman who joined the Marines right on his 18th birthday and was shipped off to Iraq shortly thereafter. It was 130 degrees as he touched down in Iraq, and that same week he found himself in what we now call the First Battle of Fallujah. A very short learning curve. Six months later, he was there for the Second Battle of Fallujah. Shortly after his enlistment ended, his father passed away and he was assigned as the executor of his estate. While he never really thought too much about what his father did as a career, he discovered his father was in financial services and came to understand the impact his father had on so many lives. This inspired him to start a career in financial services, so he applied for and received a scholarship to get his education, and he has started his own practice in New Jersey.

Word is getting out about our program. Each year we are seeing an increase in both the number of students and supporters. Our annual fundraiser, called the Clambake, sets our scholarship budget for the year, and we’ve been able to raise a greater amount of money each year. We’ve just completed our most recent Clambake, and we are set for a blow-out year for scholarships. There were 28 sponsors at our fundraiser, individuals and organizations within the financial services profession, that recognize the value of the program to the profession who also act on their desire to honor the service of our active duties, veterans and spouses. Penn Mutual is our founding and primary sponsor, but there is a much larger community involved.

The centerpiece of our Clambake is the presentation of the Soldier Citizen Award. The recipient is someone who has served honorably in the Armed Forces who has then gone on to have a significant impact on the financial services profession and the community. This year’s recipient, our fourth, was General Peter Pace, who was the 16th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It’s the highest military position in the U.S. military, and he was the first Marine to ever hold that position. After retiring from the military, Gen. Pace has served on the board of organizations such as the Armed Forces Military Association, and was one of the founders of Wall Street War Fighters, a non-profit organization focused on helping disabled veterans find employment on Wall Street.

I want to emphasize that none of this would have been possible without the vision and the generosity of Eileen McDonnell and the leadership at The Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company. I enjoy the strong relationship I have with Penn Mutual. In addition to the grant, I speak with Eileen throughout the year and she has great insight and great instincts. A large portion of our advisory board is also made up of the leaders and executives from Penn Mutual, including Alida Moose, Jim Meehan, Tom Harris and, starting in January, Jessica Choi.

In conclusion, if you know someone that is serving or who has served that might be interested in a second career in financial services, please visit our website. We have full scholarships available.

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