Cathy Bowen: Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Cathy Bowen, professor of agricultural and extension education and consumer issues, has spent nearly 30 years at Penn State helping Pennsylvanians and students to become financially literate, and manage their resources. Much of Bowen’s work has focused on perennial consumer problems that help individuals and families strengthen their ability to navigate in society and improve their financial literacy.

During her decades of work at Penn State, Bowen has tackled consumer problems that originated from federal and state level public policies such as providing personal finance classes to bankruptcy filers, educating the public about household waste management to protect the water supply, health insurance education, and various projects to improve financial education in high schools.

Personal finance education has been a theme of Bowen’s work. In 2004, Bowen launched the Penn State VITA - Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program to help income eligible individuals with a perennial need, filing a tax return. VITA is a nationwide program sponsored by the Internal Revenue Service that relies heavily on local nonprofit organizations to reach those who need help at the local level. Her long-term goal was to help taxpayers improve their financial literacy since many would be coming back year after year to get help with their tax returns. 

Bowen’s initial plan was to start at University Park and expand to all 67 counties with a program. While the program did make it to a few counties in Pennsylvania under the auspices of Penn State Extension, changes in personnel halted the expansion. However, the University Park program continued and actually expanded when law and accounting students began to volunteer.  Thirteen years later the student volunteers are at the heart of the Penn State VITA Program. During the 2017 filing season, 40 law and accounting students were responsible for assisting nearly 700 taxpayers file their income taxes. The monetary value of this volunteer effort was just under $1 million.

The VITA volunteers must be prepared every fall and early spring to assist taxpayers with their returns. In exchange for volunteering, students receive an excellent on-campus educational opportunity, Bowen said, that bridges classroom theory with life. The VITA program incorporates hands-on experience with a practical but important financial issue that the students will face in life. In addition, they have an opportunity to work with community members and develop their ability to interact with strangers  --skills that are highly valued by employers. In short, students who volunteer for VITA have an engaged scholarship experience while contributing to the community.

Bowen has published on the work with VITA and has another article forthcoming in November that focuses on health insurance and financial literacy of VITA taxpayers.

Bowen also has been on Penn State’s Financial Literacy Advisory Board since 2013. The board oversees the financial literacy program, which aims to provide Penn State students with the skills to manage their financial resources in an effort to foster financial stability through workshops, webinars and peer-to-peer financial education and resources. The board provides direction for the growing financial literacy program at Penn State.

“It has been my goal to help people manage their resources to their benefit,” said Bowen.

It is this kind of work, actions that make a practical impact, that gives her the most satisfaction, Bowen said. It was her own childhood that sparked her interest in a lifelong career related to consumer matters and money.

Bowen grew up in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. As children, Bowen and her two siblings learned a strong work ethic from their parents, who worked extraordinarily hard in physically demanding jobs to provide for the family. Her childhood experience pushed her to take a different path. “That is a reason why, I think, I was motivated to move in a new direction.”

Bowen said she didn’t choose teaching as much as it chose her. People in her community and family who had gone to college were educators; she chose this path because that was what she knew.

As a student, she earned a bachelor’s degree in home economics education from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical (A&T) State University, a master's in home economics education and a doctorate in home economics education with emphasis in family resource management from the Ohio State University. Nationwide home economics education has been renamed family and consumer sciences.

Now, Bowen brings the lessons of her youth and her professional experience as an educator and researcher to bear in her work, providing meaningful learning experiences for students and working to improve the Penn State/State College community at large.

Through her work and long experience, Bowen has learned that the best way to reach people and students is by simplifying the approach. She aims to keep her work on the “practical side” so it is usable by others.

Bowen has incorporated this philosophy into a general education course that she developed and now teaches (Consumer and Financial Skills – AYFCE 270). This course introduces students to key financial concepts that can prevent financial missteps early in life and points them in the direction of actions and habits they can establish that will secure their financial future.

“Whenever I’m talking to or trying to teach people I try to keep it as basic as I can, increasing the chance that the message gets across,” she said.

“You have to be helpful and kind to everybody that you meet because you never know the impact you’re going to be making and what little thing you say or do will influence someone’s life,” said Bowen.

In partnership with the Office of Strategic Communications, the Office of the Vice Provost for Educational Equity at Penn State is introducing an ongoing series titled Penn State Faculty Profiles in Diversity and Inclusion. Profiles will be distributed periodically on Penn State News and will explore the teaching and research accomplishments of featured individuals. The series will cast a specific light on the ways each individual’s background informs his or her work as a faculty member and more broadly as a member of the University community.

Last Updated October 06, 2017