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 [email protected].
Associate Vice Provost of Student Aid and Affordability
The University of Texas at Austin
Meet Brian Dixon. Brian started his college journey at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a bachelor's degree in political science and got firsthand experience with the legislative process through an internship with former Sen. Herb Kohl's (D-Wisc.) office, which got him engaged in how the policy side of higher education worked.
Having served in the Navy, Brian personally experienced what it was like to navigate the bureaucratic challenges that military families face in pursuing a postsecondary education and had rewarding experiences in helping families work through a number of logistical challenges, especially during times of need.
"It's a very satisfying feeling to be able to call up a bureaucratic area and say, 'I'm calling on behalf of the U.S. Senator Herb Kohl and I'm looking to assist this family get the medals for their deceased family veterans so that they can properly memorialize them or get a headstone for their grave. So they can properly mourn the loss,'" Brian recounted.
Following his undergraduate degree, Brian ultimately joined his alma mater as an admissions advisor, and shortly thereafter transitioned to the world of financial aid. There, he drew on previous policy experience to see the ways in which families and students can easily grow frustrated with the process of enrolling in higher education, often by getting stuck and not knowing the right words or phrases needed to resolve bureaucratic dead ends. Being able to streamline and cut through the clutter to help people get the results that they're looking for was what ultimately led him to financial aid.
Brian has also been an active NASFAA volunteer, dedicating time as a member of the Advocacy Pipeline in 2017-18, as well as the Conference Mentor task force in 2019.
What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?
BD: The part that I resonate with the most is there's such a big part of our country for whom college would not be a reality without financial aid — and by college not being a reality, access to economic mobility, and even economic stability and resiliency in times like COVID aren't a possibility.
This idea that one of the best things that students can do is invest in themselves, but they need some help. And they need some assistance to do that. I get really passionate about creating sort of faster, friendly, or easier processes that ensure students and families retain their dignity through receiving assistance for others and don't have to pull all their hair out.
If you could change one thing about financial aid, what would it be?
BD: I'd like to figure out how we reduce the number of dead ends, specifically when people are filling out the financial aid application. We know that people have lots of complicated family situations, and I think it's really hard that the financial aid process has to dig so deep into some people's lives. I'm really a big fan of figuring out how we simplify and only ask for the things that we absolutely need. Students get stuck in this process and lots of families just abandon the process altogether.
If I had to pick a secondary reason, it would be support for undocumented students, and figuring out a way that we can help and assist some of these these really hard working, really incredibly resilient students.
What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?
BD: The big message that I try to carry out on a fairly regular basis is that money motivates behavior. I'm working here at the University of Texas and we have about $120 million during the academic year that we award out in the form of institutional grants and scholarships and thinking about those choices and those decisions critically, I don't think that most people outside of financial aid really realize how much discretion there is in those choices. And so institutions — big ones, small ones — wrestle with their values that they're putting in place. Do I value the academic talents of students? Do I value those that are the neediest? I think that's one of the areas that is probably the most critical.
The reason I don't think that people outside of the financial aid office get involved with that is because there's so much jargon and professional language that it becomes incredibly intimidating. As soon as we start dropping around words like EFC and FAFSA and some of these institutional phrases, there are so many acronyms and so many words and phrases that it just really becomes overwhelming for people outside of the financial aid area.
Do you have any recommendations for people just getting started in the field?
BD: One is to be humble, because you will be convinced at various points throughout your career that you are absolutely right, and everything is dependent on this particular decision. You probably are not, it probably isn't. So go take a walk.
The second piece of advice that I would say is put positive in your life on purpose. Negative and draining things just happen. That could just be taking some time and meditating, that might be listening to a pleasant voicemail from a partner or kiddo or friend, or just reading a poem — just doing something that brings you joy and peace. I think that's particularly important during this pandemic, that we're providing that mental health and caring for one another.
How has the pandemic challenged you?
BD: Everybody's rhythm has been thrown off having all these Zoom meetings, which means that the normal cadence of going from meeting to meeting has changed, and I have found that our staff has felt the need to try to work extra when they've been working from home.
This past week was the first week that our staff has started to come back into the office more regularly. I know that other campuses have probably returned to work sooner than we have — here in the Austin area we're just getting to that point now. There's a need to be mindful, there's a need to be careful and cautious.
What's something you couldn't function without?
BD: We have a six-month-old puppy that I couldn't function without, and I also couldn't function without Pokemon Go on my iphone.
What's on your bucket list?
BD: I'd like to go to all the presidential libraries across the country. We're in Austin, so we're closer to another presidential library. That's one of the things my wife and I are really interested in — presidential history. We like traveling the country and getting to see libraries and we have a ridiculously large book collection that involves having a very large storage unit just to store books.
We've been to about 10 of them so far. We have not been to the one in Texas yet, though. We're excited to keep going through that.
Do you have a favorite sport or sports team?
BD: The Milwaukee Bucks. I'm originally from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, so the Bucks winning the championship this past year was very special for us because we watched them a long time for a lot of hard, sad years. That's maybe my favorite sporting event, and then the Packers are behind there distantly.
Anything you've learned in the last year, or a new hobby you've picked up?
BD: Audible books. I feel like because we're spending so much time at home, we're spending a lot more time trying to make sure that we're walking. We take the dogs on lots of long walks. Our dog's name is T'Challa, named after the Black Panther.
I try to listen to two or three audiobooks a week.
Anything on your Thanksgiving menu?
BD: My Thanksgiving menu is not complete without my grandmother's stuffing. My grandmother has this wonderfully decadent cornbread stuffing that has cranberries and apples and bacon and sausage. The top has this nice, sort of crunchy bar to it, but then it's soft and moist throughout the rest of it, and it's absolutely fabulous. It just feels like home. It feels like family and feels like a hug from the inside out.
As we approach the end of 2021, what are you most looking forward to in the new year?
BD: Finishing my dissertation.
I'm also looking forward to, on January 1, starting my new position as the vice provost of enrollment management here at the University of Texas, Austin.
Want to say hello to Brian 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.
Publication Date: 11/30/2021