Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Event
                Often times we ask how someone became interested in a particular job or how we got into a profession.  When I ask fellow financial aid experts how they got into the profession, I often hear that they just “fell into it”.  Many of us were work-study students or graduate students in a financial aid office and just sort of stuck with it after graduation.  However you got into financial aid, there seems to be that one event/student that helped solidify our love for this noble profession.  We love our jobs because we make a difference to our students and schools, despite not getting enough credit.
                I got into financial aid in 2001 when I became a graduate student in the Office of Financial Aid at the University of South Florida.  At first it was all fun, getting to see the behind the scenes of how college financial aid works, awarding students, talking them through regulations as a peer.  Then comes the day when you move on to a full time position.  That first year as a full time financial aid professional is like basic training just a year in length.
I always say it takes a year in financial aid before you really get a good understanding of how things work.  It’s during that first year that many of us begin to wonder if financial aid was the right choice.  You deal with the first of many irate students; a few helicopter parents, you read several heart breaking SAP appeals, and wonder if this is something you can do for the next “x” years.  You may suddenly realize you are doing seven jobs at once or that staff from other departments do not seem to be as pressured, deadline driven, or as accountable as financial aid staff.  But there is always that one moment when you decide that it was the right choice, that despite the angry students that you face there were numerous other students that you never got to see because they got everything they needed.  Those students were in class, pursuing their dreams of a higher education and you were a part of that success.    
                For me that moment occurred toward the end of my first year as a Financial Aid Counselor.  With the large number of students at USF we would often encourage students to assist themselves.  One of the largest requests we got that year was for letters for proof of aid awards so that students could use that for rental agreements, car purchases, etc.  In most cases students were directed to log into their self-service and simply print off their awards to use as proof.  For most cases when the student did this it would work and be accepted by the entity.  It’s that one time it didn’t that left an impression on me and something that I carry with me to this day. 
                You know that student, the one that seems to come into your office every day to check his aid status for the 30th time.  Well that student came into the office one day; in fact it was his second trip into the office.  The student was told to log in and print off his award notice just as hundreds of students before him were instructed.  I then overheard him try to explain that his application specifically asked for a signed statement.  When I asked him what kind of application, the student explained that he was applying for a special program for first time home buyers.  Impressed that a college student was looking to buy a house I took him back to my office to learn more.
                During our chat I learned that in his scholarship searches he came across some programs for first time home owners and just didn’t have enough verifiable income without including his financial aid.  Because of the nature of the program he needed more than just a print out, so I made the time to help the student write a letter that would present him in the best light to receive a mortgage.  If he came into the FA office every day to check on things I knew he would be the kind of homeowner that would keep track of his finances and that he would be as successful in home ownership as he was as a student.  The next week the student came in to check on his financial aid as unusual.  I had almost forgotten about the letter and our conversation, until he handed me a letter.   You see, what took maybe 10 minutes out of my day not only affected this  student and his dreams of higher education, it affected his life in ways I hadn’t thought about when I decided to write that letter.  My words don’t do it justice so I will let his words show you:

Not only was he the first in his family to graduate college but the first to own a home.  To this day I have that letter in my desk drawer, to remind me on the bad days that I got into financial aid because I love working on behalf of students.  Being just a small part of that success is worth all the bad days, irate students, helicopter parents and regulation changes combined.

Thank you,
Wayne Kruger, FASFAA President