Junior Achievement
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Junior Achievement of Alaska
Volunteer and Educator of the Year
By Vanessa Orr

nnually, Junior Achievement (JA) of Alaska honors two exceptional individuals: a Volunteer of the Year and an Educator of the Year. JA’s work to prepare Alaska’s youth for the workforce and educate them about financial literacy wouldn’t be possible without support from local school districts and an amazing cohort of volunteers. While it takes many helping hands, this year JA of Alaska is celebrating Volunteer Stasia Straley and Educator Sidney Topf.

Volunteer of the Year: Stasia Straley
A professor of accounting at UAA, Stasia Straley first became involved in JA of Alaska more than a decade ago. Her mentor at the university, Lynn Koshiyama, originally taught for the accounting program and encouraged her to get involved.

“After a day of teaching, it’s fun to see what the kids come away with,” says Straley, who has provided financial literacy programs at schools in Anchorage, Eagle River, and Chugiak. “I always have such fun with them, no matter what school I go to or what age group I teach.”

Straley believes strongly in teaching students about finances and is often surprised by what they know or don’t know.

Stasia Straley studied accounting and Spanish in her home state of Wyoming, then she came to UAA as an accounting and finance instructor at the College of Business and Public Policy.

Stasia Straley

Stasia Straley smiling in grey blazer and pink undershirt with bushes in background
“When I asked a group of high school students how much a person needs to have to retire in their sixties, they said $2,000,” she says with a laugh. “I had to tell them, ‘Nope, that’s not going to work.’ They have no idea that a one-bedroom home in Anchorage can cost $1,200 to $1,500 a month or that childcare can cost $1,200 each month.”

What kind of impression does that leave? “They’ll take the littlest thing and turn it into something silly and fun,” she says. “When I ask them what they’re going to tell their parents about what they learned today, they say, ‘Don’t have kids,’ or ‘Don’t retire.’”

The topics Straley covers in her courses include the difference between credit cards and debit cards, using checks, and when and why to apply for a loan. The students play games and take part in interactive projects while learning, which makes difficult concepts easier to understand.

“I think it’s so important to teach kids financial literacy because money can be an uncomfortable topic for a lot of families,” says Straley. “You’re not supposed to ask people about money or how much they make.”

Straley believes the more awareness people have about finances, the better off everyone will be. She says, “It’s important to understand what things cost, how to save, and the importance of a budget. You can’t prepare for the future if you don’t know how much you’ll need to meet your goals.”

“[Students] take the littlest thing and turn it into something silly and fun… When I ask them what they’re going to tell their parents about what they learned today, they say, ‘Don’t have kids,’ or ‘Don’t retire.’”
Stasia Straley, Professor of Accounting, UAA
But being able to communicate such concepts in a way that students understand can be challenging, she adds.

“A lot of kids don’t have any experience when it comes to this; for example, they don’t know what minimum wage is, or what they should make at a job. If I tell them, at this job you’ll make $15 an hour and at this one you’ll make $50,000 a year, those things feel different to them, but they don’t know how to translate the information.”

Students are beginning to ponder whether to go to college or technical school or join the workforce. “They’re receiving a lot of different messages in different ways, and they don’t know how to compare and contrast that information to make good decisions,” she adds. “My challenge is figuring out what they know and then communicating information in a way that is useful, interesting, and can apply to everyday life.”

According to Straley, one of the advantages of volunteering for JA is that volunteers can make the classes fit into their own schedules. Not only are there different schools where they can volunteer so they can be close to home or work, but some programs allow flexibility when it comes to what days they teach. Volunteers can go in once a week over a set number of weeks or take part in JA in a Day, which is a one-day program where sessions are taught back-to-back.

As a member of The Alaska Society of CPAs’ Relations with Education Committee, Straley works to connect new volunteers with the opportunities and age groups that best suits their needs. JA provides all of the materials that teachers require for each class as well as a handbook for running each session. Online YouTube videos are also available to make lessons even easier to teach.

Sidney Topf kneeling at memorial
Sidney Topf’s military experience taught him that Junior ROTC students need a mission to learn leadership. That mission: teach JA lessons to kindergarteners.

Sidney Topf

“In this day and age, especially in this economy, it’s very important for kids to understand the value of a dollar… They need to understand that money doesn’t just fall into a bank account.”
Sidney Topf
Junior ROTC Instructor
Dimond High School
“It’s so easy to volunteer with JA, and it’s such a great way to mold the next generation,” says Straley. “The more we can teach them about financial literacy, the better off everyone will be. For example, teaching kids how to budget when making minimum wage versus how to budget when working with a starting salary of $60,000 a year has a huge impact; they see how different life looks when making more money.”

She notes that statistics back up the importance of learning these lessons early. Students who complete JA courses are more likely to graduate high school, have less college debt, and are more likely to become entrepreneurs.

Though she never had the opportunity to take JA classes while attending school in a “teeny, tiny town” in Wyoming, Straley is pleased that she can help Alaska’s students make financial inroads. She says that she appreciates that she’s been noticed for her work.

Straley laughs when she remembers being told she was named Volunteer of the Year. “I asked myself, ‘Is this really happening?’ It’s such an honor because there are so many amazing volunteers—so many people doing so much good work. It’s such a nice thing to be recognized.”

Educator of the Year: Sidney Topf
When retired Army Major Sidney Topf took over the position of Junior ROTC instructor at Dimond High School in Anchorage, he hadn’t previously heard of JA and the programs that it offered. Since it was already in place at the school, he decided to continue using it with his students—and he’s glad that he did.

“I kind of fell into it, but I soon realized that it’s a really good program,” says Topf, whose fourth-year cadets (and some third-year cadets) teach JA’s financial literacy program to students in kindergarten through 1st grade at Chinook Elementary School.

“The program is beneficial because its purpose is two-fold: not only does it engage the young kids but it also reinforces these lessons to my cadets,” says Topf. “They need to know and understand the subject well in order to teach it.”

According to Topf, third-year cadets take leadership and teaching courses as provided by Cadet Command during their first semester. The second semester consumer economics curriculum provides them with the necessary skills to deal with financial issues like those adults routinely encounter. After classroom instruction is complete, they receive a brief from JA and coordinate with teachers from Chinook Elementary to discuss where they’ll teach, and then they begin practicing the classes.

Responsibility ramps up for the fourth year. “Our cadets are running the program at Chinook Elementary while a couple of third-year cadets piggyback as a way to learn what they’ll be doing the next year,” explains Topf. “They learn all of the groundwork for the skills they’re going to teach, which lessens the learning curve.”

Through games and activities, the elementary students learn monetary skills, including earning, saving, and the difference between wants and needs.

“In this day and age, especially in this economy, it’s very important for kids to understand the value of a dollar,” says Topf. “They need to understand that money doesn’t just fall into a bank account. You have to work for it, and you need to understand how to manage it. It’s not just saving that is important!”

The JA program also counts as the cadets’ service learning project, benefitting the students and the community.

“It’s a great opportunity for students to mentor younger kids,” says Topf. “The elementary students look up to them; they act like they’re in the NFL! It’s also a good opportunity for my students to get in front of people and engage. It takes a lot to stand in front of a group of people and give a lesson.”

Cadets also learn lessons not in the JA curriculum. “I think sometimes it helps put things in perspective about their own teachers as well,” Topf says with a laugh. “After standing up in front of a bunch of kids who have had too much sugar and trying to teach a class, they come back to the high school classroom and think, ‘Maybe I should be quiet.’ They realize how difficult it can be to control a classroom.”

Topf, who served for twenty-four years in the US Army, says that ROTC students do behave somewhat differently than their classmates. “You’re going to find less chaos to an extent, and a little more responsibility among the students,” he says. “While the cadet program is managed and overseen by instructors, it is run and led by cadets and follows a hierarchy just like a military-type organization.”

The students attend squad leader meetings, company commander meetings, and staff meetings just like they would in the military. As they progress, they take over more leadership responsibilities.

“When I first got here, I thought I’d try being an ROTC instructor and give it a couple of years. Now I’m in my seventh year, and I truly enjoy it. It’s a very impactful job,” says Topf.

“As for JA, it’s such a good thing for the students and the community in general that I can’t imagine doing something else as our service learning project,” he adds. “I’ve even suggested to other schools that they look into doing the same.”