For the lucky few, discovering their life’s passion is easy. For others, like mid-Missouri native Marco Pantoja, it can take time and exploration.
Pantoja is the interim director in the MU Office for Financial Success. His journey to the position was anything but predictable.
Pantoja grew up in California, Missouri, where he experienced firsthand how his parent’s lack of financial acumen impoverished the family. Shortly after high school graduation, he decided to become a U.S. Marine. He celebrated his 18th birthday in boot camp. Among his duties were teaching electronics at training commands and schools. He achieved the rank of sergeant.
After nine years of service, he was honorably discharged and returned to civilian life, determined to find his niche. Returning home to California, Pantoja, now age 35, observed how his parents continued to struggle financially with no possibility of a comfortable future retirement.
“I know what it’s like to not be equipped with the proper financial knowledge,” Pantoja said of growing up poor. “It’s like trying to play a game without knowing the rules, and the consequences are detrimental.”
Through his experiences in the military and growing up, Pantoja began to realize how money, or the lack thereof, affected the trajectory of people’s lives. He decided to pursue a career in personal finance.
In summer, he graduated from MU with a degree in financial counseling and is pursuing a master’s degree while working at the Office for Financial Success. The office raises awareness of the importance of personal finance and aims to increase financial literacy through education. MU staff, faculty and students can receive free and confidential financial counseling. Pantoja also gives presentations to students on personal finance.
“We see both proactive and reactive cases,” Pantoja said. “Individuals will schedule an appointment to learn something new and apply it to their lives and individuals will come in for guidance when experiencing a financial crisis.”
The office handles many cases involving student debt management and loan repayment. The average debt for Mizzou graduates is $23,000, Pantoja said, and although less than the national average of $30,000, the amount can still be difficult to manage.
“I value the time I spent in the military and the opportunities it afforded me to find my passion,” Pantoja said. “Even more so, I appreciate growing up in poverty. With that experience, I can relate on a deeper level to individuals experiencing financial stress.”