Read this article as it originally appeared on March 11, 2020 in ROI-NJ.
Meliza Rodriguez first started working in a bank while she was still in high school — literally. The Columbia Bank branch was right in her school, Passaic County Technical Institute in Wayne.
Rodriguez, who is now a senior at Montclair State University with a dual major in accounting and information technology, scored her job at the branch as a junior at PCTI’s Academy of Finance.
By the end of 11th grade, the bank offered her a part-time job at its Wayne Hills branch. She’s been with Columbia Bank ever since.
When she graduates from Montclair in December, the Paterson native said she hopes to land a position in the bank’s two-year associate development program, where she’ll have an opportunity to rotate through a variety of different jobs at the bank.
Not only did the income she earned working part-time help pay for her college, but she also started saving for retirement with a 401(k). She’s only 21.
“The Academy of Finance at PCTI really helped me understand the banking industry and allowed me to acquire real-world experience that I wouldn’t have been able to get at any other school,” Rodriguez said.
The bank branch is the result of a unique collaboration between Columbia Bank and the Academy of Finance, one of four specialized academies within the Passaic County Technical Institute.
The Columbia Bank branch, located in the lobby of the high school, is a full-service bank that performs real transactions. Its customers include students as well the staff of the sprawling high school.
Richard Graff, vice president and senior government banking officer at Columbia Bank, said that, in the 15 years since the partnership started, it has been mutually beneficial for the bank as well as PCTI’s students.
“If they do want to come work at Columbia, we’ve got a very well-rounded employee who knows Columbia’s systems and know what we expect,” Graff said.
At the same time, PCTI students gain real-world, hands-on experience — an essential component of career and technical education that provides students with a meaningful pathway to success, said Mark A. Cacace, the supervisor of instruction at PCTI.
“Our ultimate goal is to provide a pathway to prepare for students to be college and career-ready, and Columbia Bank offers our students that,” Cacace said.
Students who attend PCTI’s Academy of Finance are well equipped to work in the world of finance. The program exposes students to all aspects of finance, accounting and economics, including how the stock market works, financial planning, personal and international finance, entrepreneurship and consumer law, said Mohamed Khairrullah, the Academy of Finance supervisor. Students also learn QuickBooks, the industry-standard accounting software.
The Academy has consistently received W!se Financial Literacy Blue Star School award, which recognizes schools that achieve an 80% or better passing rate on the national Financial Literacy Certification Test. In addition, this first-of-its-kind partnership between Columbia Bank and PCTI’s Academy of Finance has garnered the prestigious National School Board Association’s Magna Award. The school also has a relationship with nearby Berkeley College, where students can earn up to 24 college credits at no cost to students.
Landing a job at the PCTI bank branch is a competitive process open to all students at the academy. Students apply at the end of their sophomore year and, once selected, sign a two-year commitment to the bank. They spend two weeks during the summer in training.
“With a two-year contract, these students are learning commitment, they’re learning discipline and they’re learning how to stay in a job while keeping up with their classes,” said Fabian Herah, the Columbia Bank PCTI branch manager.
Emily Pina, a PCTI student who is working at the bank branch, said her interest in working in the bank was piqued in her sophomore year when Herah came to speak to her class about the opportunity.
“I thought it was a really good opportunity to not only have my first job at a bank, but get in touch with all the staff members, teachers and students,” said Pina, who plans to attend Rutgers University-Newark in the fall to study financial planning and wealth management.
Senior Ruby Ramirez, who also works at the branch, said she chose to attend the Academy of Finance because she did not want the typical high school experience.
“I came here because you’re able to participate in a four-year trade program that gives you certification and teaches you time management because of the rigor of the courses,” said Ramirez, who is from Passaic and plans to continue her education at Berkeley College, where she plans to study accounting.
Working at the bank, Ramirez said, has not only taught her about the banking industry, but has made her realize the importance of the soft skills necessary to deal with people in a work environment.
“I am able to communicate with staff, administration, with older generations and students, teaching them the responsibilities of keeping an account,” Ramirez said. “Just learning how to communicate and build relationships over all is something I really value about working here.”