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].
MVP Melet Leafgreen, FAAC®
Director, Student Financial Aid
University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center
Meet Melet Leafgreen, FAAC®. Melet’s initial career plan was to become a minister after completing her undergraduate program, but when she relocated to Fort Worth, Texas to begin seminary, a job at her graduate school’s financial aid office changed that trajectory.
“I had financial aid as an undergraduate and I had a good experience with the financial aid office at my undergraduate institution, but I thought financial aid people were accountants,” Melet said. “I thought those were the people I would be working with every day when I was answering the phones.”
But through her graduate school work at Texas Christian University (TCU) Melet quickly realized that the financial aid profession was more than just a numbers game and said the work was so enjoyable that it ended up changing her professional outlook.
“I'm a sort of extreme extrovert and so I don't get frustrated with people asking the same question over and over. I'm just a people person,” Melet said. “I was surprised at the fact that all of my colleagues in the financial aid office are also people-people.”
Melet has been active in her volunteer work and has served most recently as a member of NASFAA’s Ethics Commission, on the planning committee for NASFAA’s Leadership & Legislative Conference FAAC Forum, and the Policy Rapid Response Network Task Force. Melet will also serve on NASFAA’s Certified Financial Aid Administrator® Program Commission for 2023-24.
Learn more about Melet, her interests, and her career path in the Q&A below!
Did you find any similarities between seminary and the financial aid profession?
Most financial aid people are kind, they're empathetic, they may also happen to be good at financial stuff, but at heart they are caregivers and so that was a surprise to me. It was not something I expected, but it very much spoke to me.
I wanted to minister to people because I thought I had something to offer in terms of being a helper, helping people get to whatever was next in their lives. I really did not anticipate how much that crossover here would be when I started working in the financial aid office. What I found was that I was meant to be a helper, to be someone who provided service to people, and who was really a servant leader. I was just not called to do it in the ministry, I was called to do it in higher education.
Was there a specific moment where you realized financial aid was the career for you?
I remember there was one day where I was sitting at the front desk at TCU answering phones and the director at TCU, Mike Scott, was in the lobby. I think he was waiting for a colleague or something and he'd been there for five or 10 minutes and I answered several phone calls. He left and went to lunch or whatever and when he came back he introduced himself and said, “You're really good at this.” I remember thinking all I did was answer the phone. I said to him, “Oh, well, thanks. I don't feel like I'm doing something very hard, just answering the phone and trying to be nice.” And he said, “You'd be surprised sometimes how difficult it is for people to answer the phone and be kind.”
That struck me because that is very natural to me, but it hadn't occurred to me that it was difficult to find people to do that job. Customer service is tough, it is not a job for the faint of heart, and that was a moment that I went, oh, wow, this is a value. I'm providing value to an office or to a group of people, and that was sort of an epiphany for me.
What do you find most rewarding and fulfilling about your current work?
Moving into a director role can be intimidating, it's challenging. I think all financial aid jobs are challenging, but I think being a director is challenging in different ways. I don't see as many students as I used to in person and so what I've traded that connection for is the connection that I can have with my staff, and what I find most rewarding is being able to give them what they need to then provide the best service to students.
So I may not be seeing students every day, but I am indirectly able to really significantly impact the type of attitude people have about the financial aid office, how they see us, and elevate the perception of the financial aid office, and I think that's probably a struggle for many of us on our campuses. That’s something that I take a lot of pride in, I take a lot of pride in my team.
What is it like working in a financial aid office that primarily serves graduate students?
Graduate students are challenging in a whole different way than undergraduates. I remember when I first started a good friend asked what I was going to do all day. You don't have Pell Grants, you don't have Subsidized Usage Limit Applies (SULA), because there's no set loans. You don't do very much verification because we don't have very much need-based aid and you don't do work-study. I remember thinking, he's right, all of my years up to that point had been about knowing the ISIR comment codes, the Pell Grant program and whatnot, and so I thought maybe I don't know what I need to know to go through this.
What I've found is that, yes, those programs don't exist for us, and some of those very labor-intensive programs we don't do, but what we do is very intense and highly individualized. Every graduate student's journey is different. Every medical student's journey is slightly different, and we have to adapt to that. Adapting regulations is not always real easy — we are a square peg in a round hole. We spend a lot of our time trying to make sure we're absolutely in compliance, when the rules in some cases were not written for us. So we trade some of the more well-known regulatory issues like Pell and SULA, and we trade those for academic calendars issues and things of that nature. So, it's completely challenging and never the same thing every day.
What's something you wish all higher education folks knew about financial aid?
I don't think our deans, our faculty, our administration have any notion of how much of an impact financial stress can have on a student's ability to perform. That is something that we have been trying to get across to some of our administrators here. It goes back to an argument, which I think we hear in the K-12 arena, which is that a student can't learn if they're hungry, a student cannot sit in class and be expected to learn in the third grade if they haven't had breakfast, if they're worried about that they haven't eaten.
I'm not suggesting we have very many students that aren't eating, but I think there's a similar notion that you cannot expect someone to focus on cancer research if they're not sure they're going to be able to be in school next semester.
It's very difficult to have someone be completely focused in a clinical setting when they're supposed to be working with patients and remembering all their training and all of that, when they're not sure they're going to make the rent.
Do you have any recommendations for people who are just getting started in the financial aid field?
Financial aid is a profession of carers. It's a profession of people who give. Although we are definitely forced into doing this, at its heart, it is not a bureaucratic profession. It is not a profession of regulation. It is not a profession of rules. Those things all are very, very important and have to be adhered to, but our art form in financial aid is to keep those very high standards while not losing our sense of compassion and our ability to see a student as a whole person, and not as a financial aid offer or a grade.
We serve. We are not here for ourselves, we are here to make the next thing better for people and I think that's what I would say. Don't get discouraged with the regulatory mess that we feel like we live in sometimes — because it's so much bigger than that. The impact that we can have is worth every one of those millions of pages of regulations and that's easy to forget sometimes, because it's a tough job.
Could you tell me something that you couldn't function without?
I couldn't function without British mystery shows. I know it's weird. I've never been to Great Britain so it's not like some connection that I have. I just think that people in that area of the world have a sense of humor that is different, and that I understand. “Midsomer Murders” is probably my favorite show.
Do you have any upcoming travel plans or fun activities on the horizon?
We've decided to take our family vacation in San Diego this summer, just before the NASFAA National Conference. My son has ever seen the ocean. We've taken him to the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, but that's not the same thing. So we are taking him, my husband and I, to San Diego so he can see California and we're looking forward to that.
What's something that's helped you the most in terms of navigating the last year?
Being able to connect with my colleagues across the industry, which was harder right in COVID. We didn't have some of the outlets that we had before. We learned to be much more intentional about that, whether it's just an email or a Skype call or something very simple like that. It's really the people, my fellow aid administrators, who have gotten me through the last kind of odd period.
What's the best thing that's happened to you recently?
The best thing that's happened to me recently is that my husband was just offered a full-time teaching position at the University of Texas at Arlington. He has been teaching high school for 20 years and got his master’s degree, worked really hard, and that is his dream job. We are super excited and proud of him.
My son is almost nine and I think having two parents working at universities, I think that's fantastic for him to see that and to grow up in that world. Being taught that education is important and that it makes a difference to people. That's a big thing that our family has been working toward for a long time.
Publication Date: 5/22/2023