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.
Director of Financial Aid
Portland State University
Meet Elijah Herr. Elijah has worked in financial aid for more than 10 years after previous careers as an illustrator and graphic designer and then a brief stint as an economist. "No one plans to be in financial aid. We just all kind of at some point end up in it, sort of like the Island of Misfit Toys in a way," he said of his path to his current role as director of financial aid at Portland State University (PSU). Between different periods of attending school as he was striving to be an economist, he kept returning to Portland Community College (PCC), his hometown school that he first attended after high school. After graduate school, Elijah landed a job at the community college working at the help desk, both because he loved the mission of the school and "partly because that's the job I could find at the time."
From there, Elijah got tasked with helping the school revamp its financial aid office's website and messaging, relying on his graphic design background to help overhaul the layout. He then transitioned to becoming a cohort default coordinator at PCC before being promoted to assistant director of financial aid. After a little more than two years as director of financial aid at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon, Elijah returned home to Portland to serve as the financial aid director at PSU. "It's been a whirlwind education and I've had a lot of great mentors and very patient people who have taught me a lot about financial aid," he said. "As I always say, financial aid is a team sport."
Elijah has served as a steering committee member on NASFAA's Advocacy Network and was previously a member of the Advocacy Pipeline. Read more about Elijah's life, career, and aspirations and join us in congratulating him!
Is there anything in particular that drew you to pursuing a career in financial aid?
I was a financial aid recipient, and a first-generation student. And I can speak directly to the transformative power of higher education. My family came from generational poverty. It was a cycle of poverty and education really brought me out of that.
What do you find most rewarding about your work?
Any time a Pell Grant student graduates from the university. We have thousands of them here and we actually have really good success rates with our Pell Grant students. When students graduate, you know that you just changed a life.
What's one thing you love about working at Portland State?
It's my hometown! I remember growing up with PSU as the local university. It's great to see it grow up and to really become a very well-rounded place for opportunity in the middle of downtown Portland.
What's helped you the most in getting through the past year?
It's been a weird year because I haven't stepped foot on campus yet. I got hired on May 1 of last year, so my entire experience at the university has been remote. But I'll say, at least in my professional career, having a great team, having a really, really solid group, has been huge. And we do a ton of work. It's been a heavy lift year for this team, and I just am so impressed by them and their commitment to mission.
What's one thing you always keep at your desk?
Well actually, the desk itself is my answer. At the beginning of the pandemic I invested in a nice workstation and I think that has kept me very, very sane considering the notion that I'm going to be sitting here for a long time.
Is there anything you are most looking forward to this summer?
I got my second vaccine recently, so I just want to see some family and just get out of the house. To be able to go to a movie or go get something to eat at a restaurant is what I'm really excited about.
Anything you've learned in the last year, or a new hobby you've picked up?
Well, I don't know if I picked up a new hobby, but I kind of returned to an old hobby. I started doing a lot more art. My previous career was as an illustrator, so it's been nice to sit at home and rediscover some of that stuff.
What is a goal you've set for yourself for the upcoming year?
I want to complete my PhD. I'm an ABD (all but dissertation), so I just have to finish my dissertation. I put it on hold when I took this job because I was like, "Look, this is remote and crazy and there's so much stuff going on, I just need to set this aside." So I've got about 100 pages and a lot more work to do, but I would really like to get that finished.
Want to say hello to Elijah or reply to something he 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: 6/9/2021