From Emerging to Exceptional
ACE students posing for a picture at the FPA conference
By Craig Lemoine
October 22, 2018

For the last nine years, the Financial Planning Association (FPA) has hosted a collegiate competition at their annual conference. The contest gives students the opportunity to showcase what they know on a national stage and win significant scholarships for their schools. Students come out of the competition with stronger résumés and life-long friendships.

Our financial planning program at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana began ten years ago, and last year (2017) was our first time fielding a team. We won second place and turned some heads in the process. After that success, our 2018 team had great ambition.

This competition has three rounds. In the first round, teams submit a written financial plan to a panel of judges. The top eight schools advance in the contest and are invited to the national conference. This year, the FPA national conference was in Chicago. We have nine years of alumni in Chicago; firms recruit out of our program from Chicago. We were thrilled at the idea of competing in the windy city.

Then, on a fortuitous day in July, our team received an email with the subject line “Financial Planning Challenge 2018 Results”. It started with the word unfortunately and went on to share that – UIUC would not be advancing.

The sting was palatable. We had just won second place, and the FPA conference was in Chicago this year! We were mad. We were embarrassed. We felt defeated.

As the corn grew around us, students arrived back to campus. The sun beat down on our tent at Quad Day, and student leaders, including our FPA contest team, shared about the Financial Planning Club and our program. We spoke in classrooms, interviewed students, and grew what had been a club of twenty-five into one of sixty. Our concentration in the ACE major flourished as well, growing from 82 students to 96 this year.

Growth and enthusiasm are contagious. We spent the fall raising money and with the help of alumni, friends, and Financial Planning Association’s generous scholarship program, we sent two dozen students to attend this year’s FPA conference in early October.

Over three days, we networked with more than 1500 financial planners. Our students attended every keynote and dove into discussions, panels, and dinners. We made new friends, interviewed with companies, and connected with mentors. We learned about client behavior, retirement longevity, dreaming big, and the global economy. By the end, our fuses were lit with a passion for this great profession.

But the moment of the conference that will always stay with me: after two days of answering, “Why aren’t you guys competing again?” and, “What happened?”, our students were asked to volunteer to help with the last round of the contest. They all came to watch, cheer, and pitch in.

On the final day of the conference, the Chairman of the Financial Planning Association, Shannon Pike, opened the general session with a picture of our group, chanting ILL (with a robust INI response). Shannon recognized the growth and spirit of our program, then by name, praised the professionalism and character of three of our students: Madison Meridian, Gwendolyn Orr, and Jack Petras. Those were the same three who received the fortuitous email in July, dusted themselves off, and helped build something amazing.

After the last keynote, we took the stage with Shannon – all of us grinning ear to ear. We were on the main stage after all and for something so much greater than winning. Our students had been generous, professional and embodied the spirit of the University of Illinois. They had made an exceptional impression which will pay our alumni, students and program dividends for years to come.