By Lisa Voyticki
Xavier Diaz is only a sophomore at Camden High School, but he already knows he wants to run his own cybersecurity business one day. And he says being a part of Junior Achievement of New Jersey has given him the confidence to start working toward that dream now.
“I’m really ecstatic. I’ve never been to something like this before so first impressions are the best right? So I’m ready to go make friends and see what I can do outside,” he said.
Diaz is one of about 2,500 students chosen by the nonprofit as a “Student Hero” — a high school student trained to teach financial literacy to their younger peers in elementary school. Fifty “heroes” presented at Junior Achievement of New Jersey’s Business Hall of Fame this month. Mimi Feliciano is one of the three inductees. She started her first company at 19 and now owns FEM Real Estate in Montville, developing properties across the Northeast.
“My parents, they believed in me, and when I started to realize I can achieve, when I started looking at what I was doing, I’m like, ‘I can do this’ and I just didn’t want to stop,” she said.
Also honored were J. Peter Simon who runs private equity investment firm William E. Simon and Sons out of Morristown and Annette Catino, president and CEO of QualCare Alliance, which recently became a subsidiary of Cigna.
“I’ve worked for Annette for 12 years. She’s been a mentor of mine for even longer than that but she’s a terrific lady and very deserving of such a great award,” said QualCare Alliance Vice President Ann Noble. “Ever since we were bought by Cigna, she is traveling all over the country promoting the model that she created here at QualCare in New Jersey.”
“It’s honoring people that you want your young people to aspire to be someday — people that are honest, that whose character is all about being highly ethical and with high integrity,” said Junior Achievement of New Jersey President Catherine Milone.
And most of Junior Achievement’s programs are in the classroom. In fact, they reach about 5 percent of students in grades K through 12 here in New Jersey.
“Everything Junior Achievement has taught me has been helpful — knowing what taxes are, knowing how to fill out a tax form,” said Sonya Parekh, a senior at Franklin High School in Somerset County.
“I utilize it all. I mean things like credit score, I taught credit score to seventh- and eighth-graders in the middle school a couple months ago actually,” said Priti Kantesaria, a senior at Franklin High School.
Principal Kimberly Hahn sees the program make an impact even at the elementary level.
“Many of the children are actually balancing their parents’ checkbooks or showing them how to actually save money, how to be smart about doing something for community service, not only taking that paycheck and buying what you want but also giving back and saving for their future,” Hahn said.
“It’s really interesting and it really will change the way I spend my money once I get out of high school,” Diaz said.
Which could have something to do with why New Jersey made taking a financial literacy course a requirement to graduate high school starting this year.