The following blog post was written by Shannon Lu, a faculty member at the Centre for Excellence in Immigrant and Intercultural Advancement.
Have you ever read through all the terms on a contract? Picture yourself standing in the mall getting your new cell phone. What did you do with the ten page contract they put in front of you? You signed it and got your phone. But before you signed, you asked a few pertinent questions based on your knowledge and experience.
Now, picture one of our immigrant students in the same position. They don’t know what to ask or even that that they have the right to ask. They know for sure that they can’t read that contract (I know that I struggle…) So, they sign, not really knowing what they’ve committed themselves to.
Htoo came to me at break with a letter from his insurance agency – a bill for a $400 cancellation fee. Htoo had gotten much needed insurance for his vehicle but six weeks later, he found that he could get the same coverage with another company for half the cost. He had cancelled his first policy and signed with the second company. Now he didn’t know what to do. He had gone to the company’s office and they had blandly informed him that he had agreed to this cancellation fee when he had signed his contract.
I weighed my options. My first thought was to try to empower Htoo to stand up for himself with this company… but he had already tried this. My experience in the past has shown me that many companies are rather callous towards people they deem to be powerless and many of my students have been intimidated in these situations.
So I phoned the insurance company, passed the phone to Htoo who gave them permission to speak to me, and explained the situation to them. After explaining Htoo’s reason for cancelling his contract, I went on to tell them that his reading level was not sufficient for him to understand the contract and that the cancellation policy had not been clearly explained to him before he signed. The company immediately agreed to reduce the cancellation fee to $40.
With Htoo’s permission, this situation turned into a valuable Financial Literacy lesson for the whole class. We had a long discussion about legal contracts and the consequences for breaking them. The idea of a cancellation fee was new to many students and they were surprised to learn they were bound by the same kinds of terms for their cell phones and, perhaps, even their apartments. I think that students need to be empowered before they get into trouble and that teachers need to consider advocating for them if they do put a foot wrong. What do you think?