Memorial Fund Supports UC StEP Program

A pencil. An eraser. A notebook. Third graders eagerly stand in line to purchase these items with currency they have earned for good behavior. Each “buck” represents a good decision.

Elementary School Students participating in the StEP programProviding elementary students with a chance to succeed is the core of the Student Enterprise Program (StEP) of the University of Cincinnati’s Economics Center. StEP uses lessons in financial literacy combined with opportunities to achieve for 5,900 children in 26 Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky schools.

The combination of teaching financial literacy and linking it to good behavior is what sparked Nicholas Sargen’s interest in StEP. He is an economist and the former chief investment officer of Fort Washington Investment Advisors, Inc.

“StEP teaches kids how to make decisions and that decisions have consequences,” Sargen says. “It teaches them they have the power to direct their lives by the decisions they make.”

Sargen was looking for a way to honor his wife, Susan, who passed away in 2016. Deciding StEP was the perfect solution, he gave $500,000 to create the Susan Sargen StEP Fund.

“Susan had so many wonderful and significant qualities that I sometimes struggle with how to capture her entirety,” he says. “I have thought deeply about how I could honor her memory.”

An advocate for the disadvantaged, Susan spent her career and volunteer life helping others.

“Susan was an economist, believing that the discipline’s rigor and models offer a framework for understanding the plight of the poor and a path toward addressing inequality,” Sargen says.

Nick and Susan SargenShe was also the mother of four sons who recalled at her funeral that she instilled in them the importance of serving others.
The StEP program reflects Susan’s essence and values.

Four times a year, elementary students can spend their bucks at the StEP store, which comes their schools and includes school supplies and toys. For many, this is the only time they receive new supplies, aside from backpack drives at the beginning of the school year.

The approach works according to UC Economics Center Director Dr. Julie Heath. Allowing students to earn StEP bucks for good behavior results in increased attendance, less classroom infractions and better preparedness. 

“We want our StEP students to see that school success leads to life success,” says Dr. Heath. “Not only are we teaching them life skills, we work on increasing self-esteem so they feel good about their positive choices and coming to school.”

Doing something for others is popular among students. While they are able to save their StEP bucks and buy bigger ticket items such as basketballs or digital cameras, many chose to combine their savings and donate to a nonprofit. The Center’s metrics show that students from the most impoverished schools are its biggest donors.

“It teaches them that they have the ability to do good in the community even when they have little,” Sargen says.

Dr. Heath says the Sargen Fund is a tremendous help because the program’s budget is tight. Two full-time staff members depend on volunteer support, including an engaged young professional group. More staff, a second truck and supplies are needed; the demand for programming is great and many schools are on a waiting list.

“We are so grateful for the Sargen gift,” says Dr. Heath. “The program runs on donations and because the gift is an endowment, it will provide us with financial stability.”

“You want to give where you know the money is being well used and well spent,” Sargen says. “I just know Susan would be a strong supporter.”

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