Brenna Cancilla and Annika Echarti took different paths to UCLA Extension. Cancilla, who grew up in the L.A. area, felt stuck in her job in the TV industry and was ready for something new. Echarti, who worked as a financial coach in her native Germany, wanted to enhance her skills and learn more about working in the U.S.

But while pursuing their certificates in personal financial planning last year, Cancilla and Echarti found common ground – especially in a shared desire to help others earn, save and prepare for successful financial futures of their own.

"When it comes to your finances, there are all these little things that you can do that make such a difference over time, but that can be daunting," Cancilla said. "If I can help people understand those tools, then I know they won't have to be intimidated by them."

Echarti and Cancilla were both drawn to fee-only advising, meaning they wouldn't be selling products on commission. The approach is a way to ensure that clients' interests are always the top priority, and something they agreed was a strength of the UCLA Extension program.

"It's about transparency, honesty and real empathy," Echarti said. "There's never an ulterior motive. You're always working in the clients' trust."

That people-first approach to financial planning helped Cancilla and Echarti stand out when they entered a student competition run by the National Association of Personal Financial Advisers (NAPFA). The pair decided to work together after a UCLA Extension instructor brought the competition to their attention.

"The contest is meant for people who are still learning, and when we entered we were midway through the program," Cancilla said. "It was really nice to be able to take the skills from the classroom and apply them."

Echarti and Cancilla worked over the winter break, including on Christmas morning, coming up with a mock financial plan for the competition. The result, a 20-minute video presentation for Molly and Arthur Weasley from the Harry Potter books, mixed technical recommendations, such as tax-advantaged ways to save for college funds, with a personal touch to help the Weasleys embrace the importance of planning for the future.

As finalists, Echarti and Cancilla were paired with a mentor who helped them refine their presentation. When their work was selected as the winner, they were given a scholarship to to attend a regional NAPFA conference.

"The competition was a lot of fun and a great learning experience," said Echarti. "But even if we hadn't gotten through to the next round, I had already won an amazing friend."

Having earned their certificates in March, Echarti and Cancilla are now both working in the financial advising industry. Moving forward, they said they'll continue to learn and to look for ways to make financial planning more accessible and user-friendly.

"I noticed that a lot of people in the program specifically care about reaching people in their communities, and making sure that financial literacy is widespread," Cancilla said. "That's something that really appeals to me."