Offices are strange places. Good thing the financial aid office is the best!

Offices are strange places. Good thing the financial aid office is the best!

Before returning to work in financial aid full time after I graduated as a work-study student at Metro, I was a canvass director. In my mind, my job description was pretty exciting: smash myths, reclaim the streets and mobilize resources for what is now The Blue Bench, a survivors’ services organization. This is just a fancy way of saying that I went door-to-door on cold, dark nights (and enthusiastically encouraged other people to do the same) to talk to strangers about really hard subjects and ask for money. I barely had a chance to sit down on the job and when I did it was on a dusty curb under the skeptical scrutiny of Neighborhood Watch’s sideways glances. Definitely a different kind of stress than working in financial aid but at the core of both is the same spark of social justice, compassion and a desire to provide access to needed resources and information.

For me, transitioning back into such a starkly different work environment than I had become accustomed to was a huge challenge at first. It got me thinking about human nature and just about everything under the sun – probably a little too deeply. I found myself wanting to fix things that weren’t broken and eventually thought, perhaps we have evolved for survival and our brains are just wired to find (and solve) problems. So, while this may have been helpful when we had to hunt and gather for our food, these problem-seeking skills could actually end up interfering in an environment where no immediate problems exist. Here in our lovely, climate-controlled offices where all of our human needs are met and we face no immediate threat of danger, we have skills that don’t want to go unused! We might have a tendency to look for problems or things that “need fixing,” and not always in a productive way. The unfortunate target of our over-active, anachronistic brainstems might be our internal procedures, our interpersonal relationships or even our student body. Even when we work in a fun, productive and passionate office like I did, we all might be susceptible to this…or maybe it was just me.

If the act of sitting in an office itself is not a struggle for you personally, working in financial aid requires us all to manage the unique, delicate and seemingly disparate challenge of mitigating fraud while ensuring access for our most under-resourced and high opportunity populations. In my past life as a victims’ advocate, one of the nuggets of insight I took away from all my crisis intervention training was this: the very characteristics that make you effective at your job are the same ones that make you vulnerable, putting you at risk of feeling the negative consequences of your work. On one end, this could be a vulnerability to the pain of others or perseverating on a story when a student shares why she can’t get her parents’ information on the FAFSA. On the other, we run the very serious and devastating risk of becoming jaded with all the fraud cases/student mismanagement of resources that we may think we’re seeing.

If we were to act on our jaded feelings (however unintentionally or subconsciously), it is absolutely devastating – to the very mission of our institutions, to a student’s future, to the wellbeing of our colleagues and ultimately to our own job satisfaction, happiness and health. So how do we maintain a good balance? I think we all lean a little bit more to one side or another and we should take a second to identify where we lean – is your knee-jerk reaction to be concerned with fraud mitigation or with ensuring access? It’s a personal bias that is unavoidable but cannot interfere with your professional judgment. The FAA determination of unaccompanied homeless youth status is a key example of this professional challenge – the only thing in the realm of financial aid that doesn’t require hard documentation!

I recently provided a training on conducting unaccompanied homeless youth interviews and, understandably, received some questions and concerns: “It sounds to me like students might be able to slip through the cracks and lie about their living situation just to get a Pell Grant.” “Are you saying we should approach every student at the front desk as if he were an unaccompanied homeless youth?”

At first, I thought, “Well, no, we don’t want to treat all students like unaccompanied homeless youth, do we? That’s just ridiculous!” My answer now is essentially yes – if a student comes to the front desk with a rejecting FAFSA due to a missing parent’s signature, start with a question instead of an answer: “Can you help me understand why your FAFSA isn’t signed by your parent?” Instead of, “You need your parent’s signature on the FAFSA.” It’s this simple question, instead of an immediate problem/solution approach, that could change someone’s life. While it does open the door to a more personal, in-depth conversation, taking this approach could give you the opportunity to provide the best customer service a student has ever received. It might even lead to a career-long relationship with someone who needs a person in a position of power whom they can trust. It’s that easy to take this “trauma-informed approach,” and that’s a big deal.

It’s true, there may be students who violate the statement they agreed to when they signed their FAFSA and are eventually charged with fraud (we actually just had a previous student convicted yesterday, so there is justice). However, if one student makes a false claim and 20 are asked the right questions and because of that have access to an education, I’m okay with that. I suppose that’s my bias and knowing this allows me to keep it in check and seek another’s opinion when necessary.

Here at Community College of Denver, we are incredibly lucky to have such a solid, positive and helpful team. Each member sees his contribution to the big picture, whether it’s scanning documents, presenting at orientation, processing verification or helping a student navigate a dependency override. This sense of positivity, trust and support is something we each have a responsibility to actively nurture and protect each day, especially when we’re feeling the most vulnerable. Sometimes this just means giving the benefit of the doubt to a colleague who might be at her wit’s end or taking a walk with someone from another department.

We are all individually responsible for doing what we can on a daily basis to make our jobs satisfying and fun and in financial aid I have definitely found that we rock at this – if our potlucks and parties, conferences and meetings are any indication of this, you know you’re in good company in financial aid! We tend to be the one-stop-shop for the multitude of diverse needs our students have so we see it all. One thing I know about people who face a lot of challenges is that they definitely know how to celebrate!

I’m pretty sure most of us don’t go to college with the end goal of becoming a financial aid administrator but I know for many of us this work definitely strikes a chord and fulfills our desire to help others, learn something new every day and problem solve. Here’s to keeping your job interesting, fun and positive – you may not be able to control much at work but you’re in charge of that!

Shannon Webber
CCD Financial Aid