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Why Crashing Was the Best Last Big Thing I Did Before the Pandemic

Selah Cosentino of Vantage West Credit Union shares her experience during and following Crash the GAC 2020 and encourages other emerging professionals to consider crashing this year, even with the barriers from COVID-19. Applications for Crash the GAC 2021 are open through January 31, 2021.

  • Selah Cosentino Senior Communications Specialist at Vantage West Credit Union

Before the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic or the virus was on every person’s mind, 60 young professionals and emerging leaders from credit unions across the nation gathered in Washington, DC for Crash the GAC 2020. It’s astounding what has happened since that week, and I’m here to share my experience during and following Crash the GAC.

A Brief History of Crash the GAC

Every year, Credit Union National Association (CUNA) hosts the Governmental Affairs Conference, or GAC, in Washington, DC. This conference is a place for credit union executives, leaders, board members, and advocates to hear the latest in the credit union movement and connect with other passionate leaders. The week culminates in “Hike the Hill” — an opportunity for credit union employees and advocates from every state to meet with their representatives on Capitol Hill to discuss important issues affecting credit unions nationally and their members locally.

Historically, GAC attendees were primarily C-suite and Board level leaders. But in the late 2000s, a young man who worked in the credit union industry and cared deeply about the movement changed that. He gathered several other young professional colleagues and together they “crashed the GAC.” They wanted to show that their age or job title did not stifle their passion or ability to advocate for and spark change in the movement.

That first Crash led to an official program called “Crash the GAC,” led by The Cooperative Trust (from Filene Research Institute) and CUNA, and sponsored by SavvyMoney and Visa. During this six-day program, emerging leaders participate in all the keynote sessions, breakout discussions, networking receptions, and exhibit hall opportunities that GAC offers. In addition, Crashers attend 2.5 days of Crasher-only programming where industry leaders speak directly to the small group of young professionals. They focus on professional development, what to expect at GAC, why the credit union movement matters, how to get and stay involved with the movement, and more.

My Credit Union Journey

The Cooperative Trust selects one or two emerging leaders from each state to represent their state as a Crasher. For 2020, they selected me to represent emerging leaders in Arizona, as well as my Credit Union, Vantage West Credit Union. I will be forever thankful for this opportunity, to collaborate alongside other credit union advocates, and to bring what I learned back to my colleagues in Arizona.

I had just started working at Vantage West after relocating back to Arizona when applications for Crash the GAC 2020 opened. I didn’t know much about credit unions, aside from the fact that they don’t have shareholders. For that first year, I’d been seeking and soaking up as much information as possible to understand the broader role of credit unions in our economy. Many of my colleagues, including my leaders and peers across departments, were incredible resources and shared tools and insights to help me learn. One of those colleagues told me about Crash the GAC and encouraged me to apply.

Fast-forward a few months, and I excitedly boarded the plane to DC anticipating a week full of information. I expected my brain to get loaded with knowledge that would help me understand credit unions on a deeper level. What I did not anticipate was a direct and meaningful connection between my brain and my heart to be forged. But that is exactly what happened — it started during orientation on the first day, and is continuing even now that we’ve been home from GAC for over a year. I got the knowledge I sought. But I also received significantly more.

Surprises at GAC

The first orientation/team-building day was for Crashers only. Many GAC attendees were not even in town yet. We met first thing in the morning at The National Union Building in the heart of Penn Quarter.

Several of us were moved to tears on the first day. For me, the reason was that I was touched and inspired by how openthe entire group was to new experiences, ideas, and people. Our first topic was a presentation and discussion around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). That first day set the tone for how the group interacted and learned throughout the entire week. We came from different states, backgrounds, and world-views. But we united on the credit union philosophy of people helping people.

From Crasher-focused career development presentations including, “Finding Your Why,” “Building an Innovative Mindset,” and “Your Elevator Pitch,” to crash courses in credit union history and advocacy, to hearing from renowned leaders including Jim Nussle, Gigi Hyland, Antonio Neves, Andy Janning, Ryan Donovan, Tony Hernandez, to networking all week long … it was a week we will never forget.

All of these lessons and conversations culminated in the final day, “Hike the Hill.” During this renowned event, credit union advocates speak with their state representatives on behalf of credit unions. I joined Vantage West leaders and others from our league, Mountain West Credit Union Association, to share the credit union difference and request our representatives’ partnership in the work we’re doing for our Members and communities – and the people of their districts.

Crash and COVID

During late February when we were in DC for Crash, COVID-19 still felt like a far-off reality that others were facing, but not us. As our entire nation felt this year, it’s astounding how quickly that shifted.

A couple days after we all got home to our credit unions, most of our credit unions were thrust into pandemic planning.

During this year where every business and person has faced new and stressful experiences and changes in many areas of life, I am deeply thankful for the #CrasherFam. During Crash, everyone said this group of fellow young professionals and emerging leaders would become the people we “grow up with” in the credit union movement and throughout our careers. I didn’t expect them to become a support network and collaborative group just days after returning home.

Throughout the pandemic, our group text message thread has remained active. We’ve shared ideas and resources weekly and sometimes daily with one another on topics including:

  • Helping members feel special when you cannot see them in person (many of our credit unions started writing positive and encouraging notes on drive-thru envelopes and received enthusiastic feedback from members)
  • Processing and managing SBA PPP loan applications
  • Ideas to streamline credit union scholarship application processes
  • DEI communication approaches, public statements and internal employee groups
  • Phases and plans for reopening branches and safely returning to offices
  • Credit union young professional webinars and other learning opportunities

Filene Research Institute created the COVID-19 Resource Hub for all credit unions, based on topics we were seeking via our group chat.

Like many conference attendees, I went to Crash the GAC to get information. But I left with a family. That’s the power of Crash, and that’s the power of credit unions.

I cannot imagine going through this pandemic and this year without the #CrasherFam I gained from Crash the GAC 2020. To have a group of more than 60 people I can reach out to with questions on anything, and can also offer solutions and recommendations based on my expertise, is a remarkable gift that benefits each of our individual credit unions, our professional and personal lives, and our movement as a whole — ultimately positively impacting our members, which is what it’s all about.

Wrapping It Up

You can’t really leave Crash without believing in the credit union mission, or the #CUDifference – and I never would want to. Credit unions were birthed out of the desire and need to serve the underserved. Credit unions unite across geographical borders to do one thing: Help people. There are countless ways we each get to do that, and every single person who works at a credit union has the unique opportunity to make their members’ and colleagues’ lives betterthrough their job.

I’m on a mission to share that profound privilege and responsibility with fellow credit union professionals, and to evangelize the benefits of credit unions to the people I know.

Like many conference attendees, I went to Crash the GAC to get information. But I left with a family. That’s the power of Crash, and that’s the power of credit unions.