MVP: Most Valuable Professional is an occasional series that features a brief Q&A with a different NASFAA member. Do you know a financial aid colleague with something interesting to say? Send the names of potential future MVPs and a short note about why you're nominating them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Executive Director of Strategic Enrollment Initiatives and Student Experience
University of Texas at San Antonio
Meet Erika Cox. Erika has worked in financial aid since completing her undergraduate work at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where a work-study job helped her pivot to financial aid as an enrollment services officer at her alma mater. Having now worked in higher education for more than a decade in different departments within enrollment management — with her main focus being financial aid — Erika has used her undergraduate degree in communications to help students navigate the process — just like she was helped.
"I wouldn't have been able to go to school without financial aid, and that was an extremely formative experience for me to see the kind of care and concern that this individual gave me," Erika said. "I knew I wanted to go into a field where I could help people. I just didn't know what that meant. And once I got started counseling students, I realized that that's exactly what I was doing."
Erika has been active in her work with NASFAA, first serving on the Conference Mentor Task Force in 2017 and then volunteering as a member of the Diversity Toolkit Task Force in 2018. Now working as an executive director of strategic enrollment initiatives and student experience at the University of Texas San Antonio, Erika’s volunteer work serves as a welcomed reminder for how rewarding her career continues to be.
"When I volunteer at commencement, seeing the students cross the stage reminds you why we do what we do," Erika said. "I find that to be an uplifting experience that I usually try to volunteer for."
Do you have any advice to those getting started in the field?
I think one thing that has helped me is my network. Financial aid is not a profession that you can do in a vacuum. It is very rewarding work, but it is extremely hard work. I don't think any of us get it 100% right all the time and yet there's a lot of immense pressure to feel like you have to get it right all the time, with compliance and audits and regulations and everything that's thrown at us.
I feel like what has sustained has been my network that I've developed over the years, to our state and our regional professional organizations. My advice would be to realize that it's okay to make mistakes — everybody does learn from them. Learn your resources and expand your network.
Is there anything in particular about the financial aid system that you would like to see change?
We need more funding. We need to expand the Pell Grant. More students need access to education, and the way that we do that is by taking the burden off of them, by expanding how many students can receive Pell and how much they receive. That's definitely, from the student perspective, what I think would help the most. For students and staff, it would be easing up on verification. It's just a burden to the students and also to staff with time that can be spent doing other things. Very rarely have I had dramatic changes to a student's EFC because of verification. It just doesn't happen, and yet we spent so much time doing it.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
I love talking to the students. I've been at home for a year now, and I actually was on campus for some reason last week, and I got to actually help a student and family who just stumbled on campus. I get a lot of energy from seeing students that are coming to college for the first time especially, it's just very, very rewarding.
There’s also my team. I work with the best group of people. They make it a lot of fun to come to work, especially when we're under a lot of pressure and stress, which definitely, especially, has been happening now.
What is one thing you love about working at your school?
UTSA is a really vibrant university. The best way that I can describe it, and anyone that works here I think will tell you that it is like familia. It is a family and we serve a very high proportion of first-generation college students. A lot of times whenever they're coming to visit, they're not just coming themselves. They're coming with mom and dad, maybe they have their grandparents with them, and likewise when they cross the stage, it's this very celebratory feeling — there's mariachis that are there. It really just feels like family and it's contagious, the staff feel that way. It's just a really fun place to work, and I really miss campus.
What’s helped you the most in getting through the past year?
It's really been my colleagues. We tried at the beginning to host after work get-togethers over Zoom, and being able to just kind of not be "on," but talk about all the things we're going through, has been such a source of relief for me. I get my energy from people. Granted, Zoom is not quite the same, but I really feel like I've leaned on probably a handful of people that I'm particularly close with at work, to really just feel better about things. I think what the pandemic has done is it's required us to be operating in a very reactive type mode, or crisis mode. And that can get really tedious after a while, so having a couple of colleagues that you can just "vision" with has been like a sense of recharging for me to talk about people, about what can we do better, what can we do differently. I think that's been really my anchor to stay sane.
What’s one thing you always keep at your desk?
My calculator. I can't use my phone. I have to have a regular calculator because if I'm going to be talking to a student about, let's say, their aid offer or anything like that I need to have my calculator and it has to be your old school with buttons that you can actually press. If I try to use my phone I’m all thumbs and I can't use it.
If you could learn a new skill what would it be?
I want to learn how to surf, for sure. I boogie board. I stand up and paddle board, but I want to learn to surf.
Is there anything you are most looking forward to this spring/early summer?
I'm happy enough to be recently vaccinated, so I'm hoping to start transitioning, maybe, back to campus over the summer. I know y'all are probably thinking in San Antonio it's always hot, but we had a very awful winter if you saw the snow, it was horrible. I don't know how people deal with snow. I'm looking forward to getting back out and enjoying our parks again. We toured a lot of parks last year and there's some great watering holes, so that is what I'm most looking forward to this summer is the beach, and going to the rivers and getting into water.
What’s your favorite childhood TV show and why?
It probably would have been "Family Matters." When I was a kid I loved the TGIF lineup. I mean, we used to do the Urkel dance and all that stuff, so that's the one that sticks out to me and came to me first.
If you could have a super power, what would it be and why?
I think I would fly so I don’t have to go through TSA checkpoints, whenever we start flying again. Also, I wouldn't have to sit in traffic going to work every day and that would be amazing. I guess along with that, that would mean I would have to be super strong, so that I can take my family with me.
Want to say hello to Erika or reply to something she said? Please leave your remarks in the comments section below. You can also take a look back at our past MVPs to read any you missed the first time around.
Do you know a financial aid colleague with something interesting to say? Send the names of potential future MVPs and a short note about why you're nominating them to email@example.com.
Publication Date: 4/15/2021