A few days ago, I was talking to my grandmother about my new job. “What is your job again Alex?” my Grandma asked. I energetically responded, “I’m a Financial Aid Advisor for the College of Science and Engineering. I advise students on their financial aid, do FAFSA/TAFSA presentations, and inform students about scholarships”. A slight pause and then “But what to you do?” my Grandma asks again. “I help students with their financial aid and answer their questions” I replied.
As student affairs professionals, we are often asked what we do for a living. We go into great detail describing our day-to-day duties of programming, mentoring, advising, and outreaching to blank stares. And then one of two responses; “So, you teach?” or “But what do you?”. Slightly less enthusiastically, we respond back saying we work with college students in a non-teaching role. Our counterparts smile politely and nod, satisfied with our response and move onto a more familiar topic.
While comically, the “what’s your job?” question seems to be even more relevant as our duties and responsibilities change every few weeks (or days). It seems that all student affairs professionals-new and seasonal- are asking ourselves what we actually do at our jobs. Moving from graduate assistant to full-time Student Affairs professional in an unfamiliar role, I find myself asking that question on a weekly, and sometimes daily basis.
I serve as a Financial Aid Advisor within the Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships at Texas A&M University-Commerce. My position was recently created as a part of a new retention model called the Success Teams where each college has a designated Academic Concierge(s), Academic Advisor(s), and Financial Aid Advisor. These three positions work together to help students navigate through their college journey at TAMU-Commerce. I serve on the College of Science and Engineering Success (CoSE) Team with two Academic Advisors and one Academic Concierge.
As a newly created position, my duties change and adapt to best fit into the Success Team model and carry out the mission of the Financial Aid Office. My main responsibility is to serve the students within my college in advising them on all things financial aid including grants, loans, and scholarships. If a student wants to drop or withdraw, I review their account and talk them through how it will affect their financial aid. With the FAFSA and our Scholarship Portal open, many of the questions I am fielding relate to the FAFSA application and how to apply for scholarships. Additionally, I work outreach events such as giving FAFSA presentations to prospective students, help with the FAFSA application, and talk with prospective students about financial aid. Any financial aid related questions from current and prospective CoSE students are sent my way.
In my short time working in the Financial Aid Office, I have quickly learned how little I knew about the Financial Aid world. As a graduate student, I learned about student development theory, student populations, budget, and higher education organization, but not much time was spent on financial aid. And financial aid is a world of its own; acting as the money manager simply moving the money from the source (federal, state, or scholarship) to the student. Much of how Financial Aid offices process and disburse aid to students is determined by the rules and regulations of the U.S. Department of Education. While all offices at institutions have to abide by state and federal regulations, financial aid offices have far less leeway in what they can and cannot do in terms of awarding money to students. There are certain policies and procedures that must be met for funds to be awarded to students and for students to maintain their aid. And as we all know funds are limited and only go so far. Financial Aid has to work within the parameters of the state and federal governments to best serve the largest number of students.
Financial Aid seems like this out-of-sight, out-of-mind office that we do not think about that much. However, financial aid affects many of our students either in terms of grants, loans, or scholarships and can be a major source of stress for students. Depending on the student and their situation, financial aid stressors can linger with them throughout the course of their semester. It can also affect their academic progress as dropping or withdrawing can have financial aid consequences that may determine if a student finishes their degree or not.
There are valuable lessons in beginning a student affairs career in the Financial Office. The technical aspects of learning operating systems such as Banner and EAB will transfer into other functional areas. However, the biggest lesson of financial aid is learning and understanding how financial aid works. So many students pay their way through college using financial aid, and yet so few of us really understand financial aid. By knowing the basics of financial aid, I hope to be a better advisor and mentor to students in my next role. Whether we are in housing, student activities, orientation, or mentoring roles, learning the basics of financial aid can better serve our students as they plan their academic journeys and navigate through our campuses.
Author: Alexandra (Alex) Harrel works as a Financial Aid Advisor at Texas A&M University-Commerce and is a member of NASPA. She loves reading, Disney, and Sonic Happy Hours. Alex can be found on Twitter at @harrelalexandra.