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].
Ryan West, FAAC®
Executive Dean of Student Services
Chemeketa Community College
Meet Ryan West, FAAC®. Ryan started his career as an auditor for a public accounting firm, but would later move back to his alma mater, Western Oregon University, as a financial aid counselor. Now, 21 years later, Ryan is the executive dean of student services at Chemeketa Community College. He was recently promoted to this role after serving as Chemeketa's director of financial aid and veterans' services.
Beyond his job, Ryan has served as the past president of the Oregon Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (OASFAA). Additionally, Ryan has been involved in both OASFAA and WASFAA as a trainer and presenter.
For Ryan, the most rewarding part of his job is seeing how education transforms the lives and future trajectories for students.
"This feels especially true for me at the community college level where we have a lot of students from families that are stuck in generational poverty cycles," Ryan said. "And we have a lot of short-term programs that with not much time and with not very much money can give people good wage jobs. It's exciting to see that."
Learn more about Ryan, his interests, and his career path in the Q&A below!
How did you get your start in financial aid?
After graduation, I started my career as an auditor for a public accounting firm, and pretty quickly realized that it was not the career I wanted to pursue. And so six months later, a financial aid counselor position came open at Western Oregon University, and I applied for that and was hired, and that was 21 years ago.
What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?
I enjoy seeing students achieve goals, work through their struggles and see them cross the stage at graduation. That's particularly rewarding for me. The work that we do, of course can be frustratingly bureaucratic, but the end result of seeing the difference that it makes in people's lives is super real and rewarding.
If you could change one thing about financial aid, what would it be?
It's tough to think of just one thing. There's so much potential for things I'd like to see changed. I suppose the simplest thing I could think of was greater amounts of gift aid for more people, which as I say that, I realize is two things — more aid for more people. But that would certainly make the job easier and more enjoyable and maybe have a bigger impact for people. From a statutory or regulatory standpoint, I'd love to see loan proration rules ended and something less complicated and more logical to replace R2T4.
What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?
I wish people truly understood the breadth, depth, and complexity of the rules we work within. It strikes me that when the financial aid office is running really well, higher level administrators can sometimes think that the work must be really simple, which can result in disinvestment of staffing and resources. I think we're kind of on the cusp of major changes in our industry where greater skills related to technology, coding, and programming will be needed in financial aid, maybe more so than the skill sets that were needed for things like verification, which seem to be changing or sunsetting.
Tell us about your institution. What are some unique aspects of Chemeketa Community College?
We are a community college, so we have nondegree programs, certificate programs, and associate degree programs currently. We're going to be the first community college in Oregon with an applied baccalaureate degree this fall. We're excited to be trailblazing in that way. I know other states have gone before us, but we'll be the first in Oregon.
One of the most exciting institutional projects that we've had in the past few years is the creation of what's called the Chemeketa Press. This was a faculty-led initiative to respond to rising textbook costs. Using open education resources and writing their own textbooks, our faculty began publishing textbooks at lower cost for students. We concentrated on classes with high-cost textbooks and high-volume classes where a lot of students have to take the class. This has saved students over the last several years, literally millions of dollars. When we do our cost of attendance development and survey students and look at book costs in our bookstore, we're actually seeing our book and supply costs shrinking in our cost of attendance, which is a fantastic result.
Do you have any recommendations for people just getting started in the field?
I'm totally convinced that the biggest contributor to my success in financial aid and the enjoyment of the work has been networking with professionals. I've been really involved with OASFAA and WASFAA. I just find that financial aid is better as a group project, or at least the administration of financial aid is better as a group project. I highly recommend new people trying to get out there to attend conferences, trainings, or any in-person opportunities to cast a wide network.
I'd also say when you're ready, I recommend people trying to present or teach about financial aid topics, as it is a great way to become and stay well informed about the programs and rules that we work with. I think every time I present on a topic in financial aid, there's either some nuance that I am thinking about it in a different way, or I learned something that maybe we've been doing in a way that could be done better. I think putting yourself out there is a great way to engage and learn in the profession.
What's something you couldn't function without?
In life in general, I'd say chocolate. Financial aid specifically, perhaps still chocolate. But for me, time alone in nature is particularly rejuvenating. Oregon is a great place to do that, because we have everything — beaches, mountains, forests, and deserts. I'd also say humor. I like laughing at the ridiculousness of life. And there's often a lot that we can laugh about in financial aid.
What's on your bucket list, or any upcoming travel plans?
Sadly, I don't have any upcoming travel plans, but I'd like to get something scheduled sometime soon. I don't necessarily have a bucket list, but this year a goal for me has been trying to say "yes" to newer experiences that might put me outside of my comfort zone. So an example of that would be that I just recently accepted a new position at Chemeketa, which feels challenging, exciting, and a bit terrifying.
What's helped you the most in getting through the past year?
It's been a pretty tough year professionally. We're dealing with shrinking budgets, shrinking staff, and shrinking enrollment, which can feel stressful and challenging. But I'd say we at Chemeketa at least are having our first school year that feels the most normal in this post-COVID era. And that has been good.
I think for me, setting solid, appropriate work boundaries has been really good. The work we do never ends. And any of us could spend countless hours working ourselves to a sort of bitterness and there would still be more to be done. I'm certainly not afraid to work hard, but at the end of the day I'm good at walking away confident I gave it my all, and I want to be able to do the same at home for my family and myself. So that has felt really good.
What's the best thing that has happened to you recently?
Honestly, getting an email from you about this recognition was pretty uplifting, as I always read about the amazing financial aid administrators in NASFAA's publications. Maybe on a personal note, it's been fun and stressful to watch my oldest kid navigate college. I've enjoyed watching my daughter compete in cheerleading competitions and my 13-year-old decided this year he wanted to start playing basketball. Watching that has been pretty fun and rewarding.
Publication Date: 2/14/2023