Chelsea Echols saved up to pay for one year of college by working a minimum wage job at Macy's after graduating from high school in 2014. But money was tight at home — her mother was suffering from multiple illnesses, including pancreatic cancer, and her only chance at earning a college degree depended on whether she would be awarded enough financial aid.
Today, Echols is the executive assistant to leadership within the financial aid office at her alma mater, St. Petersburg College (SPC), will be pursuing a master's degree in higher education and student affairs at the University of Florida next fall, and is a self-published author. Throughout her college education, Echols advocated on behalf of her fellow students as a member of the Student Government Association, and helped hundreds of students receive financial aid when she served as a peer advisor. Plus, Echols recently earned seven NASFAA U credentials in topics ranging from student eligibility to satisfactory academic progress (SAP).
It's only natural that Echols is on a mission to show others the large impact that financial aid can have on students' lives, and over the past year, she spearheaded, produced, and published SPC's second edition of "Financial Aid Works! Student Success Stories," a compilation of testimonies from students whose lives were changed by the financial aid they received to pursue a degree at SPC.
"Without financial aid, and the individuals who helped me understand it, I wouldn't be here," Echols wrote in her own story, which is the first piece she included in the compilation. "I wouldn't be serving our students through my work, through my activities in student government, or through my volunteering. I definitely wouldn't be obtaining my education."
The story behind SPC's effort actually began a decade ago, when Mike Bennett, Echols' boss and 2007-08 NASFAA National Chair, came to work at the college. As he walked around SPC's campuses, he recalled, he was constantly approached by students who wanted to share how financial aid had allowed them to enroll at the college and pursue careers in their fields of interest.
Bennett, associate vice president of financial assistance services, asked associate directors from different campuses at SPC to collect stories from students about how financial aid helped them, and who on campus served as a mentor for them. Those stories, and accompanying pictures with students and their mentors, comprised the first edition of the "Financial Aid Works! Student Success Stories" in 2014.
"Sharing our 'Student Success Stories' is an exciting opportunity to put a face on our important work and financial aid area," Bennett said. "It's a way to acknowledge staff who were instrumental in a student's success, and it's an opportunity for our bosses or president to say 'I see you and I celebrate you.'"
Echols said that her biggest motivator for picking up the initiative again five years later was SPC President Dr. Tonjua Williams' vision for the college to be a "community of care."
Echols then approached Bennett about producing another edition of the success stories, and sent out a survey to students in February 2019 — with help from different departments on SPC's campuses to disseminate the online questionnaire — to find out how financial aid and staff have helped them. After ensuring that students submitted accurate information, Echols reached out to them to learn more about their stories and draft short articles, which were featured the following August and sent to senior leadership, multiple departments, and were mentioned in SPC's blog.
"Students were really happy to share their stories — some see it as therapeutic that there's someone who wants to listen, and that they can have a positive impact on others. Staff also see their names in the stories and they get excited. I've gotten a lot of thanks," Echols said.
Bennett said that the aid office is hoping to produce the student stories annually, and that it will be looking into using videos to showcase students' journeys moving forward.
"I would tell other schools … just do it, and you'll be very happy and pleased with the results," Bennett said. "I love that it brings our staff together and students together to celebrate together."
If you would like to hear more about SPC's success stories initiative, you can contact Mike Bennett at 727-341-3012 or via email.
Our members are constantly going above and beyond to help their students succeed in higher education. NASFAA's Member Spotlight stories feature initiatives that our members have pursued that exceed the traditional scope of responsibilities of a financial aid office. If your university or financial aid office has taken on a project or unique efforts to help students, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Publication Date: 9/24/2019