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].
Kathy Bialk, FAAC®
Executive Director of Student Financial Aid & Scholarships
University of Kentucky
Meet Kathy Bialk, FAAC®. Kathy got her start in financial aid after a short stint as a residence life director, which helped her find an open position in a financial aid office.
"After graduating from college and then taking a year to study abroad in Poland, I came back to my alma mater [Alliance College] and worked as a residence life director and financial aid officer position opened about a year later," Kathy said. "I actually asked to be considered for that opportunity. It not only matched my educational background and skill sets, but it matched my passion. I knew how critical the work was, for me personally."
Prior to her current position at the University of Kentucky, Kathy worked as the assistant provost and director of student financial aid at the University of Iowa, and also served as director of student financial aid at Marshall University in West Virginia for almost a decade.
Kathy has been active in her volunteer work and has served as the past chair of the Certified Financial Aid Administrator® Program Commission, a member of the ethics commission, the Leadership & Legislative Conference Task Force, as well as a reviewer for the Editorial Board of the Journal of Student Financial Aid.
Learn more about Kathy, her interests, and her career path in the Q&A below!
How did you get your start in financial aid?
My first start was actually being a financial aid recipient myself. It was so critical to me, succeeding to earn a college degree. I was very interested in understanding all the terms and conditions of my aid and the one thing that I clearly understood was that my financial aid and scholarships were limited to four years. So I also made the point of studying the academic catalog to ensure that all the courses I took applied to my degree and there wouldn't be any delays in requiring me to graduate on time.
It really planted a seed for myself.
What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?
I believe this work is noble and critical. Educating students beyond high school certainly benefits individuals and their future families, but society benefits as a whole as well. It's truly all about the students.
Most of my contact is really working with my staff and staff development, so I get really rewarded. At this stage of my career, I especially enjoy cultivating the professional growth of others, aiming to develop future leaders in the financial aid profession. All of the folks who are doing the frontline work, they have a great impact on students.
If you could change one thing about financial aid, what would it be?
If I had to say one thing, and there are a lot of things, I would say I wish there was an increased prioritization of funding sources from federal, state, and institutional levels, and that there'd be greater prioritization to enable us to provide funding to meet students' financial need.
So many students struggle, and I think if I had to pick one thing, it would be increased appropriations, increased institutional endowment, really having a huge effort to actually have the funding to meet the students’ financial needs.
What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?
I think it's perception. Many times financial aid is viewed as a barrier, when in fact, it's an enabler. But with students having to take on significant amounts of debt and families struggling, it's just a very anxiety-driven type of experience that they have.
Tell us about your institution. What are some unique aspects of the University of Kentucky?
There are just so many great things to say about the University of Kentucky, but I'm going to just narrow it down to how fortunate I feel working at an institution that really, truly supports the success of students.
We have a financial aid program called the UK LEADS program. It offers opportunity-based scholarships and grants that help students with their unmet needs. It was just very apparent when looking through our institutional data that students who had unmet need greater than $5,000 had significant risks. Those are the students who had a huge risk in succeeding. We really try our best to meet students’ unmet needs because we know that that is a significant barrier.
Do you have any advice for people just getting started in the field?
Take advantage of the training and professional development opportunities and networking. Beyond that, I would say to be involved in committee work and to eventually serve in leadership capacities. Involvement with your colleagues in this profession is a very, very rewarding experience. Often when I go to a conference, I consider it therapeutic and I return from that event refreshed.
Anything you've learned in the last year, or a new hobby you've picked up?
The pandemic has helped me realize and actually seek a way in which I could center myself to reduce stress, reduce anxiety, through mindfulness and meditation. So, that is something that recently I engaged with, and has been very, very helpful.
What is a goal you've set for yourself for the new year and or do you have any traditions for celebrating the start of the new year?
It's going to be a significant period of transition. We're not only going to be in a situation where we have all of these new things, upcoming FAFSA simplification, and so on, but we will also be simultaneously initiating a number of what I would call strategic initiatives. I think the strategic goals are to be better using data and technology for problem solving, providing students with high tech, high touch, personalized outreach, counseling, and services.
We also need to do a lot of work to be able to engage and to really create the financial aid professionals of the future — that's an underlying underlying goal along with all the other work that we're doing.
Do you have any fun activities planned for the winter months?
I learned to garden about 10 years ago when I started my doctoral journey. I absolutely love gardening. It's really only pretty much December through February that I'm not doing too much gardening, but I started very early with seedlings. My gardening lasts all the way to the end of fall and even in the fall I’m planting bulbs. That's my hobby, but I also enjoy my family and trying to have a good work-life balance.
What's something you couldn't function without?
On a professional level, it would be that I can't live without the engagement of my colleagues.
What's one thing you are looking forward to the most in the upcoming year?
Our work consistently changes and I really embrace change. What I'm looking forward to in 2023 is positive change. Change is coming, but I look forward to anticipating change that's going to bring so much optimism and so much positivity. Sometimes change is really painful, but I'm looking for it to be less painful. I want change to evoke excitement, positivity, and optimism.
Want to say hello to Kathy 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 protected].
Publication Date: 12/20/2022