Marquette Business

D.C. trip exposes students to world of commercial banking

Annual fall break trip with Dr. Kent Belasco sells students on banking career

Somewhere in between talking to a congressional chief of staff and a Federal Reserve governor, freshman Parker Sweeney realized the enormous scale of the commercial banking field. 
“One of the biggest things I learned was how much there is going on in banking that we don’t even realize,” Sweeney, a finance and accounting major, says. “The Federal Reserve governors’ decisions impact so much of our daily lives, and I had no idea until I met one.” 
Such revelations are common on the Commercial Banking Club’s fall break field trip to Washington, D.C. Under the leadership of Dr. Kent Belasco, associate professor of practice in finance and director of the commercial banking program, students travel to the nation’s capital to get a thorough understanding of current banking issues. The group meets with legislators, regulators, lobbyists and politicians over the course of three days. 
“Experiential learning is a top priority for the commercial banking program and Marquette Business as a whole,” Belasco says. “It’s incredibly important to augment what students are learning in the classroom with professional encounters that can paint a complete picture of the industry they’re about to enter.” 
The nine students who participated in this year’s trip found it in different ways. Some, like Sweeney, came to Marquette for its highly regarded commercial banking program and knew from their first day on campus that they’d be going on this trip. Others discovered it more serendipitously. Sophomore Joe Griffiths was not even part of the club, but a friend convinced him to go along. 
“I wasn’t even sure what commercial banking was when my friend told me about the trip, so I started to research it a little more and kind of fell in love with it,” Griffiths says. 
Students received a tour of the U.S. Capitol from congressional staffers and spoke with two U.S. representatives about banking policy. Over dinner, the future commercial bankers lobbed questions at John Byrne, the executive vice president of AML Rightsource, a managed service firm that specializes in financial compliance and crime prevention. The group even visited the Marquette Les Aspin Center and learn more about how commercial banking issues interact with the political and legislative processes. 
If this year’s trip has a consensus highlight, however, it was a group meeting with Fed Governor Michelle Bowman, who oversees consumer and community affairs. Bowman explained to students why the Fed chose to raise interest rates over the past two years and answered students’ queries about monetary policy. 
“This is one of the most important people you can meet in our field,” Griffiths says. “She controls such a vital component of the economy, so it was interesting to hear her thoughts on what’s going to happen in the next couple months.” 
Belasco reserved a day at the end of the trip for students to explore Washington, D.C., on their own. The group went to the National Mall, the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian, among other sites. All along the way, older students counseled younger ones about the workload in commercial banking classes, which apartments to stay in and how to prepare resumes for internships. 
“I always thought that Washington, D.C., was just about politics and government; I never realized how important a trip there could be for banking students,” Madden says. 
For Belasco, there’s never a shortage of undergraduates looking to study finance: the challenge is getting them to consider commercial banking over investment banking, private equity or any of the more traditionally popular options. After more than three decades in the profession, Belasco has his pitch down to a science: same potential for high salaries, but better hours and less stressful working conditions. 
There’s also the social impact element to commercial banking. Having meaningful work is more important than ever for today’s college students. Belasco argues students can find that purpose easily on the commercial side of the industry; in fact, he tells program newcomers that modern banking is the single greatest driver of human progress. 
“When (commercial banks) make loans, they make loans to communities, people that are trying to start small businesses and startup companies,” Belasco told eFinancialCareers in a prior interview. “When they do that, they create jobs.” 
This, more than anything, is the purpose of taking students to Washington each year. While prospective bankers have at least some familiarity with the Wall Street side of banking, they’re often less acquainted with the kind of impact government actors have on Main Street banks. 
“Going to Washington made me feel even more assured that this is what I want to go into. Meeting all these people and hearing them describe how important banking really solidified that this is what I want to do,” Sweeney says. 
Many of the students who went on the trip are either continuing their commercial banking education or planning to do so after taking prerequisite classes. They hope to join the dozens of alumni who found jobs within months of graduation; most of them doing so with starting salaries well over $70,000.  
For now, though, the students are focused on figuring out their academic paths, a decision made much easier after an unforgettable trip. 
“I didn’t quite know where in the financial field I wanted to end up, and this just showed that commercial banking could be it for me,” Griffiths says.