Brenda Hicks’ Closing Remarks: NASFAA’s Outgoing National Chair Reflects on the Past Year

At the close of the NASFAA 2021 Virtual Conference attendees were able to hear directly from Southwestern College Director of Financial Aid Brenda Hicks, whose reflections on the past year as the 2020-21 NASFAA national chair left many with a feeling of hopefulness for the year to come. For those who were unable to attend the event, as well as those who would like to experience it all over, NASFAA is providing members with a transcript of Hicks’ remarks so that we can be reminded of how far we have come during this past year that has presented unique challenges, both personal and professional, and pushed us to find new ways to thrive.

Brenda Hicks’ Closing Remarks: 

My good buddy Mark Twain in his lesser known book called Innocents Abroad, says this: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” I agree with this statement to some extent. I think it’s important to distinguish that Mark was not talking about going to a beach resort where everyone around you speaks English and your experience of the area is limited to your hotel room, the restaurant and the beach. He’s probably also not talking about your 75th family outing to Disney or Universal Studios. Mark is talking about stepping outside of your comfort zone. 

Now – for full disclosure – there are many people in this association who have this travel thing down (Andrew Hammontree, Craig Slaughter, anyone living in Alaska – Hi Alaska!). I am nowhere near the level of those individuals, but I have traveled. Thanks to the foresight of my loving, camperowning, Trailhound grandparents, I started that travel at a very young age and learned from the best.

As a result, I have spoken to a large number of fishermen. I have conversed with truckers on a CB radio. I have met and befriended many a research librarian. I have had wide and varied conversations on airplanes (Yes, Justin, on airplanes.) on topics such as what it takes to make it as a kiwi farmer, and the challenges inherent in being a military chaplain. I have seen big-time and small-time museums on just about every topic imaginable. I have traded dad jokes with park rangers. I have tasted lawn grass soda on Route 66. I have sat in the kitchen of a diner and had the best steak of my life. 

I have eaten meals with strangers. And I have laughed, cried, stood in line, shared stories and danced with all kinds of people from many walks of life. What I have discovered through all this travel is that I like people. I like listening to people. I like hearing stories. In fact, I stumbled across a good word a few years back that my husband and I talk about frequently called ‘sonder.’ (spell) Sonder is the realization that each person you pass on the street, everyone living in the houses you fly over and working in the buildings you can see from your office window – each one of those people is living a life that is as vivid and complex as yours. That concept fascinates me. 

Now here is the amazing thing – somehow I had the good fortune to have stumbled quite by accident into this field of financial aid. I was texting with my youngest son yesterday – he needed groceries – and I told him I work with the kindest people in the world. His response? “You guys are a bunch of helpers.” And I thought, yes! We work in this field where the focus is access and success. We take these individuals who are on journeys that are full of potential, full of dreams and we help. I feel so blessed to work in a field where I can contribute in some way, hopefully positive, to another person’s path. 

Helping people up is a worthy vocation. Southwestern College is a United Methodist college. The United Methodist faith was founded by John Wesley who has a saying that any good Methodist probably has as a refrigerator magnet: “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as you ever can.” Financial aid is perfect for that kind of mission. 

Whether on purpose or by happy accident, this conference has had an intense focus on just this kind of goal. I’m even going to count the fascinating session yesterday on competency based education and subscription based programs – what an interesting way to honor (and fund) individual journey. Love it. The Pell for incarcerated student’s session presented by members of that working group gave me so much hope. That is such a long overdue change and, as they said in the session, it’s a critical social justice issue. 

We had two task forces this year that did outstanding work on issues of diversity and access who are presenting their work this week. The pre-conference session on eliminating bias was outstanding and contained ‘best practice’ ideas to increase access thereby increasing diversity and ultimately helping more people continue their journey. Tomorrow, you will hear from the task force on under-resourced schools. Another terrific report from a group that thoughtfully considered what it means to be under-resourced - defining the illusive concept so we can explore operationalizing initiatives in that area. Every session, every chat room has had individuals who are passionate about access and about helping people achieve their goals. As I said to my son, financial aid people are some of the kindest people I know. 

I’ve spent this past year beating everyone over the head about establishing mentoring programs in your states and regions. I won’t do it again. But I’m a member of Generation X. We X-ers are in a unique position. We are poised in the middle of having learned from financial aid giants; the people who made this profession what it is today. And on the other side is all this great, untapped, new energy. Because we’ve spent so long in the position of student to the Boomer generation, it’s difficult sometimes to see ourselves as the teacher. But we need to step up. The older I get, the more excited I am by the young people in this profession – younger X-ers, as well as Millennials as well as now Gen-Z. This year’s diversity leadership pipeline class is a prime example. What a great group! We now have 18 graduates of that program. They are and will continue to make a difference. Think about what we could do with a program like this in every state and region. It’s so exciting to watch. 

It’s been a great year. And yes, I mean that. There is one lesson I’ve spent my life learning. It’s a lesson you can only learn in hindsight and sometimes after long periods of pain. I stand before you today grateful for this lesson as well as for the pain. There’s a Bible verse from Paul that illuminates what I’m talking about. Paul writes, “….we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope.’ (Romans 5:3-4) It’s important to note that Paul wrote this while he was in prison and during the reign of an Emperor who was a pretty nasty guy. 

And the lesson I’ve learned is this: I am not in control. If there is anything that teaches a person that lesson it is a national emergency in the form of a virus no one can see but everyone can catch and if caught has the ability to kill. 

There is little argument that we have suffered. Some of us far worse than others. Professionally, we had to figure out how to ‘do’ financial aid from our homes. This was more of a challenge for offices still relying heavily on paper and manual processing. We had to learn and adopt new software enabling us to meet together and do our work virtually. We had to relearn how best to communicate with and serve students. And on top of all this shifting and adapting – a process, by the way, that psychologists say takes on average 18 months to accomplish successfully – Congress created and we implemented new programs established by CARES and HEERFs 1, 2 and now 3. 

We had to quarantine, frequently. Some of us got sick. We had to learn to live and work at home while our kids also lived and attended school from home. We had to learn to accept pet and child interruptions in meetings as a normal part of life. We dealt with feelings of fear, isolation and loneliness. We watched helplessly as we and our students lost family members and friends to the virus and were unable to attend or hold the services that help the living cope with these kinds of life events. 

And yet – we endured. We learned about yoga and meditation. We read. We ate together with our immediate family around the dining room table. We learned how to connect with extended family virtually. (I taught my 80-year-old father how to use Zoom so he could attend church services only to have him Zoom bomb me the following day during a staff meeting!) Speaking of zoom bombing, we all learned that computer cameras come with their own perils, but it is so much better when we turn on our camera and look at each other in meetings. We learned the limits of our introversion and whether or not we were integrators or compartmentalizers. We created virtual happy hours. We learned how to play games and do crafts and sing and dance together online – something we all demonstrated quite well on Tuesday night. 

There we were, enduring. Worthy stuff. Sometimes painful stuff. But the stuff that builds character. 

One entity that has not only survived, but has also thrived is NASFAA. I am eternally grateful for my NASFAA membership as well as for the entire NASFAA team. This group, these individuals (who thanks to Off the Cuff and the many webinars now sort of feel like part of my extended family – like those people who always come to family dinners and you aren’t sure, but think….they just might be related somehow) they have stayed in the game, saved my bacon and kept pushing forward all through the pandemic. They produced countless webinars, held discussions with Ed officials and members of Congress, implemented grant programs, led task forces, negotiated contracts, held expenses down, thought creatively, managed flexibly all in service of us, their members. I am forever in their debt. 

I also want to again thank the board of directors. Confucius says “When you are the smartest person in the room, then you are in the wrong room.” I’ve never been in the wrong room. It has been a distinct pleasure to lead this group of individuals. I share this ‘pandemic chair’ status with Paula Luff, my good friend from the Midwest region. Neither of us expected the ride we signed up for. I think back to conversations we had early on about plans and laugh and think…there you are...I am not in control. Paula is a calm presence in trouble and a perfect person to have led the first part of this crazy storm. 

I also want to extend a very public, very long overdue thank you to my boss, Dean Clark, who I told in all honesty: “Don’t worry, I’ll never get elected.” And I would also like to thank my President, Brad Andrews. Both are excellent leaders and a joy to serve. Thank you to my young team: Brailea, Brianna, Kathryn and Krysta. These four individuals strolled into my life and make day to day work a complete joy. I also want to thank my immediate family: my husband Ross, and my two boys Sam and Isaac. Ross is my best friend and my rock who has taught me about margin and the blessings of a quiet life. Sam and Isaac are the embodiment of my soul and my heart. Being witness to their journey through this life is beautiful, fascinating and terrifying all at the same time; better than any thrill ride and a ride I would never want to miss. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention – this close to Father’s Day – my Dad, Coy Allen; the scientist I grew up with who taught me to question, to research and to always ask why. 

Yes, we have suffered and yes, we have endured. And yes, we have built character. The only thing remaining, is hope. And hope I have, NASFAA members. I have a lot of hope for the coming year when I will be able to see you in person. I have hope as we work together to implement a FAFSA which will streamline the aid process and significantly decrease (fingers crossed) verification. I have hope that we will see our students return to campus and enjoy a basketball game with popcorn together in the fieldhouse. I have hope that we will emerge from this stronger, more efficient, and with a deeper understanding of the importance of connection. 

So, yes, it’s been a great year. And I choose to rejoice in the suffering. Because through that suffering, we have endured, and through endurance we built we built more efficient processes, discovered new ways of connecting and learned important lessons about ourselves. And because of our growth, I can now say that I have hope for the possibility contained in the months and years ahead. 

Thank you NASFAA members for this opportunity to serve you this past year. And it’s time now for me to hand over the reins to the very capable Brent Tener.


Want to catch up on other conference content you may have missed? Registered conference attendees can access session recordings, handouts, and Today’s News recaps on our 2021 Virtual Conference Sessions webpage. Recordings will be available for one year after their original air dates.


Publication Date: 6/29/2021

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