After six months of the nationwide COVID-19 pandemic, financial aid administrators have experienced many changes in how they work, assist students, and engage with their colleagues. Aid administrators across the country were sent home to work (many telecommuting for the first time) and in-person conferences were cancelled. Blue Icon Advisors, NASFAA Consulting, wanted to provide a forum for financial aid and enrollment management professionals to network and exchange ideas with colleagues in their sector in a safe, remote environment — and "Let's Talk" was born. Since the first "Let's Talk" sessions took place on March 19, 2020, "Let's Talk" has hosted over 800 individuals from more than 700 schools.
The format of "Let's Talk" is simple: provide a forum for conversation, with moderators from Blue Icon and discussion leaders from the financial aid community. Everyone is invited to join via Zoom video conference and participate verbally, as well as via the group chat.
For the first two months, the sessions focused exclusively on challenges surrounding interruptions to study, disruption of in-person financial aid office operations, and applying for and distributing Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funding. With guidance changing nearly every week, talking about the effects of COVID-19 never left a lull in the conversation.
"I'm thankful for the Let's Talk events, as they allow me to connect with financial aid professionals from across the nation, especially during these unprecedented times brought on by COVID-19," said Shelia A. Thomas, director of financial aid at Wiregrass Georgia Technical College. "The financial aid world has always been complicated and ever-changing; COVID-19 kicked up the intensity. Formats like these provide a lifeline to financial aid professionals."
"Let's Talk" provided networking opportunities for both new and experienced aid administrators.
"These sessions are so very valuable to me," said Denise Welch, director of financial aid at Panola College. "I don't feel alone in trying to figure everything out by myself."
Recognizing the unique characteristics schools have, sessions are often separated by school sector or program type, which participants appreciated. Blue Icon also saw the value of diversity in school type and financial aid experience by keeping other topic discussions as open forums for all schools.
Mary Booker, executive director of student financial services at the University of Delaware, agreed, saying she "liked the fact that the schools were similar in size, but still diverse."
"Having differing levels of financial aid engagement really added to the value of the conversation," she said.
Similarly, Anne Moore, director of student financial services at Berkshire Community College, said it is "vitally important, yet rare to engage in a nationwide forum with community college peers by which to share common concerns and creative solutions.
Even though the COVID-19 pandemic drove the use of video conferencing, schools also recognize the value of this resource-friendly option. Mary Ellen Duffy, vice president of financial aid and compliance at Mildred Elley commented, "A one hour Zoom meeting is far easier to attend than traveling to a conference or sector meeting."
Blue Icon Advisors will continue offering "Let's Talk" networking opportunities through 2020-21. View the latest dates and session topics to find an opportunity to join the discussion.
Publication Date: 9/21/2020