Jennifer Williams of Cleveland, Mississippi always knew she wanted to be a teacher. When she was a girl, her favorite game was playing school. Though she chose to study computer information systems in college, she remembers eagerly wanting to help her friends majoring in education.
After a few years of working, Williams decided to go back to school to earn a master of arts in teaching. Now she is in her 15th year.
“There’s just something about the feeling of walking into a classroom every day and seeing the excitement on the kids’ faces,” Williams said. Sometimes students will contact her years later, telling her they took her advice and that it worked out. “It is an awesome feeling, and now I get to teach students who want to pursue a career in education.”
Williams is teaching future teachers at the Cleveland Career Development and Technology Center. Once a week, her students get to serve as teacher’s assistants, giving them a realistic feel of what it could be like to run a classroom. The center offers a practical learning environment designed to prepare students for employment or future study in various skill areas ranging from auto mechanics and welding to health and public safety.
“It helps the students focus on what they want to do once they leave high school,” Williams said.
As an adult, Miss Williams continues to learn and pass along those lessons to her students. Several years ago, she went through some financial hardship and needed extra funds to get her through to the next month. A friend suggested she try a payday lender.
“I had no idea what they were, and she was talking about how easy it was to get a loan. I decided to give it a try.”
The high-interest loans quickly began to stack up. Williams eventually had nine loans and found herself drowning in debt.
“I was at my lowest point during that time,” she said.
One day Williams was chatting with a friend in her yard when her friend pointed out a promotion in the newspaper from Southern Bancorp advertising a free class to help people gain control of their finances.
“I remember we met probably about once or twice a week, and it was basic things like, how bringing your lunch instead of eating out, or drinking water instead of soda can save money. They also brought in different guest speakers to talk about credit reports and other things.”
The course helped participants create a plan with actionable steps to climb out of debt and improve their financial health. Students finished the course with a fresh perspective, new information, a game plan and a spark loan.
“The plan I developed in the class was to decrease my loans every time I went. I knew I couldn’t pay them all off at one time, so I would decrease them by $100 or $50 until I paid them off.”
The class was helpful to Williams because it helped her change her mindset and motivated her to stick with a plan. It has now been more than ten years since she’s dealt with payday lenders, and she plans never to go back.
She’s determined for her children and her son to know the dangers of predatory lenders and the importance of financial health. She encourages students to consider community colleges, apply for as many scholarships as possible, and stay away from anyone trying to get them to apply for credit cards.
“I just feel like with everything I learned, it is my duty to make sure whatever I tell them is true and beneficial and will help them prosper because there are a lot of things I would change if I could go back.”