After nearly 25 years in financial aid, Evelyn Disla-Hernandez found herself at her first in-person NASFAA conference this week for NASFAA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference & Expo — specifically, for the first ever FAAC® Forum held exclusively for certified aid professionals.
There, in a room underneath the main conference floor, Disla-Hernandez gathered with other FAACs from across the country to talk about developing a sense of community among financial aid colleagues, how to be leaders in their offices, and building on their foundation of financial aid knowledge.
“The level of collaboration is different than at other conferences,” such as the Federal Student Aid Training Conference, said Disla-Hernandez, the associate director of financial aid at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. “Because everybody in this room is certified. You're all kind of at the same level, it makes the interaction and collaboration different. So I really enjoyed it and I'm going to keep pushing to come to more of these.”
The forum marks the next chapter in the Certified Financial Aid Administrator® program that has helped more than 300 aid administrators earn their FAAC designation since its inception in 2019.
Daniel Barkowitz, an FAAC® and the assistant vice president for financial aid and veterans affairs at Valencia College in Florida, said the program’s growth is a testament to financial aid administrators’ desire to have a metric or standard that shows their commitment to the profession and their growth within it.
“As an FAAC®, you have to demonstrate a certain capacity of knowledge and experience,” he said. “So we know we have a common set of experiences here that we can build upon and it really helps frame that next level.”
Participants spoke to the importance of connecting with each other in person for the first time, and Barkowitz — who also serves on the program’s Commission — said it’s not just about what is learned during the informative sessions, but also what is shared informally between attendees during breaks, meals, or simply while waiting for the next panel or speaker.
“I'm sharing job descriptions with folks and having the opportunity to really dive deep into a particular topic, which you don't always get out of a session and you really wouldn't do in an online conference either,” Barkowitz added. “Because when it's over, everyone goes back to their workplace. But here, you really have those moments of opportunity.”
Over the course of about three days, FAAC forum participants networked, received a crash course on how a bill becomes a law (and where the aid office comes into play in implementing laws), detailed the art of explanation and how to put it to use on their campuses, and dreamed up the financial aid office of the future, among many other important topics.
For Mendy Schmerer, the director of student financial aid at the University of Oklahoma’s Health Sciences Center, the few days spent with other aid administrators served as a breath of fresh air to not only refresh some of her hard skills, but also to interact with colleagues and share stories of how they have overcome two of the most challenging years of their careers.
“I think we're all just so taxed right now that anything we can do to mitigate some of that burnout
is really really helpful,” she said. “It does re-energize [you]. And you get to engage your brain in such a different way than you do on an ordinary basis.”
As the program looks to continue to grow and take on its next iteration, Shannon Crossland, director of student financial services at Frank Phillips College in Texas and current chair of the Commission, said the community they are building among aid administrators will continue to serve as the foundation moving forward.
“All of us here are passionate about the students and the families we serve and keeping that at the core and building upon that — that all centers around our community,” she said.
Publication Date: 2/18/2022