MVP Heather Boutell, FAAC®

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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]

Heather Boutell

MVP Heather Boutell, FAAC®
Director of Financial Aid
Vanderbilt University School of Medicine

Meet Heather Boutell, FAAC®, director of financial aid at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. 

Heather’s career started when she entered a student personnel graduate program at the University of Louisville. Looking for a graduate assistantship at her university, Heather came across an opening in financial aid and decided to apply.

“I had no intention of staying in financial aid,” Heather said. “My goal was to work somewhere fun. I was going to work in student activities or Greek life. Now, 32 years later, I'm still in financial aid, hopefully having some fun.”

Since completing her graduate program, Heather has worked in aid offices at Bellarmine University and the University of Louisville, and at the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority (KHEAA). 

Additionally, Heather has served as the president of the Southern Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (SASFAA) and the Kentucky Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (KASFAA). She has also served on the NASFAA Board of Directors as a regional past president, a representative-at-large, and a commission director. Most recently, Heather was on a panel at NASFAA’s 2023 National Conference on flexible work in financial aid and higher education.

Learn more about Heather, her interests, and her career path in the Q&A below!

What have been some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in the profession since beginning your career?

The role of financial aid has expanded so much since I first started. Our focus used to be to get the right money to the right people at the right time. Now, I feel like there's so much more. Aid offices are called upon to holistically support the students. We have to offer financial literacy topics and we have to help students with food insecurity. We have to remain compliant and focus on things like Constitution Day, voter registration, cybersecurity, things that have nothing to do with financial aid. I feel like the hats that we wear now, compared to when I first started, just continue to grow. Our jobs are so much more than just giving out money.

Tell us a little bit about your institution and your current role.

I've been at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine for four and a half years. The Vanderbilt University School of Medicine has about 600 graduate students, and they are in 10 different health-related degrees, with the medical degree program being the largest. I love to get to work here because I get to see the future of health care. These students give me a lot of hope, because they are so passionate about making a difference. The majority of my career was at an institution that was primarily undergraduate. So now my focus is just on different things, like student loan repayment plans, Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF), scholarship awarding, and financial literacy. 

What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?

Graduation day is my favorite day. I love commencement. It's critical for me to keep motivated because I believe that sometimes it's super easy to get bogged down in queries, reports, and data. Commencement shows me the students that I've helped have been able to earn a degree, and it helps me see that my work really makes a difference. I work really hard with my students to help them understand their aid so they can worry about their curriculum and become excellent health care professionals. Occasionally, on graduation day, I'll get a “thank you.” And that keeps me going for the whole next year, just to know that I've made a difference for somebody.

If you could change one thing about financial aid, what would it be?

I would get rid of the ridiculous, outdated origination fees on student loans. My medical degree students pay so much in these origination fees. Their cost of attendance is a bit higher. I'm constantly having to ask students to clarify how much they want to borrow.

Advocacy is a real passion of mine. I've been to Capitol Hill many times, sometimes as part of the NASFAA Advocacy Pipeline, others as part of a leadership conference. It is my favorite thing to talk to legislators about things that I think should change. And this is one of them. Usually, I get pretty good support from both sides of the aisle on this one. But we're not seeing any legislation passed. 

What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?

I want to start out by saying that we're fun. Because honestly, I didn't even think we were fun when I started in this profession. 

Financial aid is such an important part of student success at all levels of college. Our offices intersect with just about every office. We influence recruitment and retention. Financial aid people really care deeply about students and not just regulation. I think a lot of people view us as the office of ‘no.’ But we really care deeply about students and student success. I just wish that financial aid professionals will be valued more for the difference that they make to college success. 

I want to make sure I say that I'm really lucky to work at a place that supports me. They give me a seat at the table where I can help influence to create change. That's why I love where I work, because I do feel like I am valued. But I know that many of my colleagues out there are not. 

Do you have any recommendations for people just getting started in the field?

The big one, I think, is that learning about financial aid can be overwhelming because there's so much to learn. But all of us still, even after 32 years in the profession, consult the Federal Student Aid (FSA) handbook and we ask questions, and we have things we have to learn because just as you learn things, things will change. So that's a big one — just to continue to learn and be patient, because none of us know everything. 

Connecting with colleagues and other institutions to me is super important to get other perspectives. The folks in our aid offices typically will share their procedures, processes, and their ideas. And then attending your state, regional, and national financial aid conferences. To me it is so important to be able to learn, but also to connect with your colleagues. The financial community has become an extended family for me. My financial aid friends, for instance, stood beside me to motivate me and support me.

What's the best thing that has happened to you recently?

The NASFAA National Conference in San Diego was an amazing time for me. It happened to be my 30th wedding anniversary. My husband went out to San Diego with me. We spent a few days before the conference in La Jolla. There was beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, and we played a little golf. It was a great time.

And then right after our mini-vacation, I went to the conference. I got to see so many colleagues and connect. I presented a session on remote work, which was the last session of the conference, so we didn't know how many people would attend the last day. At the end of the session, I was traveling down that large escalator and one of the people that attended met me there and handed me chocolate. She wanted to thank me for my session and the energy that I brought to the topic. She was from Kazakhstan. And so we stopped and talked a little bit about aid in Kazakhstan and what she did. I was so touched by that — that she would stop and thank me and give me chocolate. It was such a big moment and I just loved NASFAA so much this year. I thought it was a great conference.

What's something you couldn't function without?

Besides my morning Diet Coke — which anybody that knows me would probably laugh and say, ‘Of course it's Diet Coke!’ — the other big one is Sharpies. I use Sharpies every day to create my list. I take written meeting notes with my Sharpies. The colors help me remember topics and things. And sometimes you can even tell my mood by the color Sharpie I use to start my day.

Anything you've learned in the last year, or a new hobby you've picked up?

I am working on my doctoral degree in education (Ed.D.). I had always wanted to earn my Ed.D., but when I was younger, I just got busy. My kids went to school, then college, and I was busy in an aid office and really couldn't devote the time or energy to an educational doctorate. But I decided two years ago to start this program. What I am learning right now are qualitative and quantitative research methods. It's nothing exciting, but it is interesting to learn these topics and helps me as I read journal articles and dissertations, just to get a better idea of what the statistics mean. Hopefully, I'll earn my Ed.D. The goal is December of 2024. 

What is a goal you've set for yourself for the upcoming year?

The year ahead brings so many new things with FAFSA simplification, a new repayment plan, and the SCOTUS decisions. I think it's really easy to get bogged down with all the changes, and the unknown is a little scary. A personal goal of mine is just to continue to reflect joy and passion for what I do to my students and my co-workers. That may sound silly, but it is a goal and a choice that I have to make every day because it is so easy to watch all the webinars and just get overwhelmed with how is all this going to happen? How are all the borrowers in the country going to enter repayment? There’s just so much. For me, I just try every day to go in and choose joy and let my students see that and know that I'm there to help them.


Publication Date: 8/2/2023

Pat P | 8/15/2023 5:20:01 PM

I love seeing your name, picture and your story. I still remember when we served NASFAA at the same time representing our regions. I'm so glad you are still having fun in financial aid. I am too. Pat Peppin

Raul L | 8/2/2023 10:1:13 PM

Congratulations my friend!! You are definitely an MVP!!!

Kathy B | 8/2/2023 8:8:36 PM

Well said, Heather. I love your passion and positivity. Congratulations!!!! I admire you.

Henry Q | 8/2/2023 2:39:03 PM

I got to know Heather through our mutual service at the SASFAA New Aid Officer's Workshops at Furman University years ago. She is all everyone above has said, and more. Congratulations on this recognition, Heather! Although I know you didn't seek it, you certainly deserve it!

Sara E | 8/2/2023 11:32:46 AM

What a fantastic article Heather! Great words of wisdom for those starting in FA. You are amazing!

Gregory T | 8/2/2023 9:45:08 AM

Heather is a great colleague and great friend. This article and interview were spot-on about her life and her work. I thoroughly enjoy working with Heather with the NASFAA Leadership Conference in February each year.

Emily O | 8/2/2023 9:20:35 AM

Congratulations Heather! So well deserved!! So thankful to have you as a colleague!

Rhonda B | 8/2/2023 9:15:48 AM

Heather's passion and leadership are two of the many things I love about her! The article gave my day boost. Thank you!

Mendy S | 8/2/2023 9:15:12 AM

Congrats to one of the most dedicated and passionate FAAs I know! Keep up your amazing work, Heather!

Lisa K | 8/2/2023 9:0:00 AM

Congratulations on this well-deserved recognition!

Brenda B | 8/2/2023 8:45:39 AM

MVP! FAA Rockstar!

Great MVP Spotlight on one of the many devoted FAA’s in the profession. Her passion and devotion for our profession extends to students, families, associations, colleagues and friends. I’m proud of her devotion and accomplishments and she’s a great role model for those in our profession. For the new generation of professionals this is a leader that serves with passion and joy.

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