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The Spark! in 5 Symposium speakers were (left to right) Olumide Abejide, Syed Ali Asif, Adeniyi Adewole, Connor Onweller, James Korman, Zeyu Chen (Glow Award winner) and Marrea Walker-Smith (Ignite Award winner).
The Spark! in 5 Symposium speakers were (left to right) Olumide Abejide, Syed Ali Asif, Adeniyi Adewole, Connor Onweller, James Korman, Zeyu Chen (Glow Award winner) and Marrea Walker-Smith (Ignite Award winner).

Spark! Symposium focuses on financial health

Photo by Maria Errico

Graduate students’ research shows how education and technology can increase equity and opportunity

Financial health is a critical determinant of overall well-being, with a growing recognition among researchers that financial adversity and limited options have negative consequences not only for personal physical and mental well-being but also for the well-being of societies. 

Seven graduate students recently took the stage in the University of Delaware’s FinTech Innovation Hub on the Science, Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) Campus to present their Spark! in 5 Symposium talks on financial health. The students all come from different disciplines and use different methods, but they share a common cause: equitable opportunity. 

Education to develop financial efficacy was a key theme of the April 18 event. Marrea Walker-Smith, a master’s student in economics and entrepreneurship for educators in UD’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, began her talk by describing Chester, Pennsylvania, where she grew up and now works as a consultant for the Chester Housing Authority.

“The people who live in this low-income, high-crime community are concerned about safety and survival, so financial education is often not a priority,” she said.

Using community-based research, Walker-Smith is designing educational, vocational and financial resources that address the specific needs of Chester’s residents through a new, local entrepreneurship center. 

“The program participants I work with don’t know what’s in my bank account or that I own my home, but they see the car I drive and the clothes I wear, and that’s how they judge success,” she said. “We must help people connect success to financial security rather than the purchase of luxury goods, a behavior known as ‘wealth signaling.’”

The Spark! panel of judges gave Walker-Smith the Ignite Award as their pick for the night’s outstanding presenter. This panel included banking and financial services representatives from the event’s sponsors, Cross River Foundation and Discover Bank.

Two Spark! presenters were guests from Morgan State University, a Carnegie-classified high research (R2) institution and Maryland’s preeminent public urban research university. Adeniyi Adewole, who is pursuing a master’s degree in accounting at the Graves School of Business and Management, pointed out that only 17% of U.S. adults say they took a personal finance class while in high school. His research focuses on the outcomes of providing gaming applications, online modules and community events for middle and high school students that focus on topics like budgeting, investing and business ownership because, he said, “we need to show people what finance and financing looks like early on, so that they have the best start with money.” 

Olumide Abejide, an MBA candidate at Morgan State, also talked about an educational initiative, but one directed at college seniors. With a three-tiered approach involving financial planning, technical and leadership training and tailored credit services, Abejide hopes to close the minority wealth gap that exists in the United States where “African Americans make up 13% of the population, but they own only about 24 cents per dollar compared to white Americans.” 

Wealth disparity was also central to the talk given by James Korman, who recently received his doctorate in political science and international relations from the College of Arts and Sciences at UD. Korman’s presentation highlighted the relationship between wealth inequality in Latin American countries and the prevalence of long-term corrupt political influence known as state capture. Korman’s innovative use of data analysis revealed that “the greater share of wealth that the top 1% hold, the more state capture we can expect across any given Latin American country,” he said. State capture erodes trust in government and reinforces financial inequality, according to Korman’s findings. 

Using AI to safeguard financial access 

Zeyu Chen, a doctoral student in financial services analytics at the Lerner College, received the audience's vote for the Glow Award with his presentation on improving the fairness of machine learning in the loan application review process. When reviewing large numbers of loan applications, Chen explained that “automated decision-making to assess loan risks is necessary but may discriminate against protected groups of people because, although direct discrimination is avoided by not selecting things like gender or race as a variable, other variables may stand as a proxy for those discriminatory practices.” His work involves the search for variables that are uncorrelated with sensitive attributes but still possess strong predictive power for machine learning. 

For Connor Onweller, a doctoral student in computer science in UD’s College of Engineering (COE), guarding against financial exclusion involves ensuring that people with visual impairments have the tools they need to understand complex information, identify patterns and trends and make decisions based on visual information. 

“What is immediately understandable in a graph of 900 or 1,000 lines of data would take a person using a screen reader hours to get through,” he said. “The goal is to make a system that can automatically describe information graphics in a way that allows them to get key takeaways from data in a reasonable amount of time. Large language models are a promising way to do that.” 

Syed Ali Asif, also a doctoral student in computer science, is working to promote financial health in the metaverse by creating an emotionally intelligent virtual buddy to protect people from cryptocurrency and NFT scams. Using artificial intelligence and sentiment analysis, this “virtual buddy” would help people make informed financial decisions. 

“Whatever you can do in real life, you can do in the metaverse,” Syed said. “My virtual buddy would provide real-time emotional support and guidance for complex decisions.” 

Making research accessible

The spring 2024 Spark! Symposium reflects UD's deep commitment to promoting cross-department collaboration and off-campus partnerships.

“The Spark! in 5 Symposium brought together graduate students from two institutions that care deeply about advancing financial health,” said Carlos Asarta, professor of economics in the Lerner College and co-director of the FinTech Innovation Hub. “We are proud of all the students who participated in the symposium, excited about the empowerment their ideas and products will bring to those who need them most, and grateful to Cross River Foundation and Discover Bank for their sponsorship of the event.”

The Spark! in 5 Symposium was created out of collaboration between multiple units at UD: the Graduate College, FinTech Innovation Hub, Corporate Engagement, and Development and Alumni Relations. This year’s event was also the first Spark! Symposium featuring graduate research outside of UD. 

“I am excited to see how we could expand collaborative efforts within and beyond UD by providing opportunities for graduate students to showcase their research,” said Suprawee Tepsuporn, the Graduate College senior assistant dean for graduate student professional development.

The biannual Spark! Symposium allows UD graduate students and postdocs to present short-form talks on their research to a diverse audience. To learn more about the program and see videos of past events, visit the Spark! Symposium web page.

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