February 28, 2014
Senior finance student Kaleigh Cunningham has come a long way. The West Union, W.Va. native grew up on a farm, the oldest of three children. When she thinks about why she chose finance, some of her earliest memories come to mind.
"From the time I was a child, I always knew exactly how much money I had and where. I didn't play with dolls. I played library. I played school. The day I turned five, I was so excited to go to school and I was disappointed when they told me I had to wait until August," she recalled. "I have always had huge dreams."
Cunningham's ambitions are still huge. She's a lover of fashion and fitness, and has competed in pageants. As part of the Miss West Virginia America Association, she has served as a volunteer for the Children's Miracle Network and Suicide Prevention. She placed in the top 1% of B&E's GE Interview Competition as an underclassmen. Now, the full time senior is enrolled in two capstone courses and works three jobs: as an intern for the WVU Foundation, a server/trainer at Texas Roadhouse and as a secret shopper.
What is her secret to juggling so many activities and succeeding?
"I would say a lot of coffee. I don't sleep much," she said with a laugh. "I think that I am a rare breed. I think the secret is making yourself your #1 priority. You have to push yourself. You have to want it – every day. That's my driving force," she said. "My dad helped me with this, with (the concept of) tough love. If I don't do it, it doesn't get done. I started working when I was 15, and my mother passed away when I was 16. I was given a lot of responsibility. When I wanted a car, I had to buy a car. I hosted at a diner to pay for my gas. I wanted to show people that I could accomplish things and also set an example for my younger brother and sister," she said.
She has certainly succeeded in proving that she can accomplish anything she sets her mind to. Through scholarship, hard work, and meticulous financial planning, Cunningham will graduate debt-free in May with a study abroad experience under her belt — an achievement few students can boast, even if financially dependent on their parents.
Cunningham began her journey as a Mountaineer in 2010. She loved and excelled in math and began to study accounting. But upon discovering finance and her love for analyzing and playing with numbers, she switched.
"(Finance professor) Naomi Boyd changed my life," she said. "Finance is really hard. And I tend to think of more personal things than corporate things; I do better with figuring out problems to help people. (Dr. Boyd) took me under her wing and introduced me to the Certified Financial Planner (CFP) track. I wouldn't know about that if it wasn't for her. I've had her now for four classes. She is so relatable and she literally changed finance for me completely."
Cunningham's goal is to obtain her CFP within the next five years, and work with families on budgeting and retirement plans.
"A lot of people think of finance as bad because of issues like dishonesty and money laundering," she said. "But my goal is for people to look at finances and see a bright future."
One of the companies that Cunningham has had her eye on is Thrivent, a faith-based financial planning firm.
"All of the money you make off your investments, you can put into an account to put back into your church or (other nonprofit initiatives). While there is always schmoozing in business, Thrivent's schmoozing is with Habitat for Humanity or disaster relief trips in places like Haiti. They take their potential clients there to see how their ROI could go to help (those relief initiatives.) They build client trust by offering workshops (to church members) on retirement planning. It's very different, and I would really like working with them," she said.
Cunningham said this would fit in well with her love of giving back. In the summer of 2012, she participated in the Amazade Global Service Learning program. She spent a month in Santarem, Brazil, working with local universities on a clean water effort for a Quilambo village along the Amazon River.
"It changed my life," she recalled. "We helped to build a school literally in the middle of the jungle. We built it from mud. We mixed concrete and sand and water and (we would) throw it and take a wood plank and smooth it. Where I come from in rural West Virginia, there's a lot of makeshift. But this was nothing like I had ever seen before. The people were so very happy. The kids never fought, never cried. It made me realize there is so much room for improvement to be genuinely happy," she said.
Cunningham's best advice for underclassmen boils down to two words: push yourself.
"To say you can't do it is an excuse. You're not trying hard enough or it's not something you really want. If you don't put your all into something, it's not worth it," she said.
Through determination, perseverance and a meticulous savings mechanism, Cunningham has no debt. She paid for her study abroad out-of-pocket. She finished school in four years, which included summer school and was also paid for out-of-pocket. The car she bought at 16? She paid that off, too.
"It's definitely achievable if it's something that you want badly enough," she said. "But you can't be lazy."
Graduation is merely three months away for Cunningham, who plans to immediately move to Philadelphia where she has already interviewed with personal financial planning firms.
"It's amazing to think the world is at your feet," she said. "It's really exciting and really scary at the same time. I thought Morgantown was huge. But if you're not afraid of things, you're not pushing yourself hard enough. My plan is that Philadelphia is a stepping stone to New York. That's the finance capital of the world. So I'll settle there, adjust, and then go big."