Q&A With Sheila Meiman, NASFAA’s Prison Education Specialist

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Senior Staff Reporter

Sheila Meiman

With Pell Grant eligibility officially being restored to incarcerated students this summer and Second Chance Pell experimental sites garnering an increased interest, the NASFAA community has been hard at work to assist in implementation efforts to promote equitable access to post-secondary education.

Sheila Meiman, NASFAA’s prison education specialist, recently took some time to share her perspective on the changing landscape of Prison Education Programs (PEP) as well as her role in the PEP community space.

Before joining NASFAA in May of 2023, Sheila was most recently the director of returning & incarcerated student education at Raritan Valley Community College, and served as part of the Pell Restoration working group. Sheila brings a wealth of knowledge and experience in the day-to-day of administering financial aid for incarcerated students and is a respected voice in the prison education community.

This past fall, Sheila participated in the NASFAA webinar “Completing the Paper 2023-24 FAFSA with Students Who Are Incarcerated,” where financial aid professionals walked through the FAFSA completion process with both financial aid administrators and prison program administrators, highlighting the form's questions that are more complex to address.

“I was thrilled to work with the practitioners that were on that webinar, in general people who are doing this financial aid administration have been very generous in sharing their learnings from being part of Second Chance Pell with the broader community who haven't had perhaps a chance yet to engage in prison education,” Sheila said.

Next week, Sheila will join financial aid and prison education practitioners in another webinar focusing on completing the paper 2024-25 FAFSA — register now to save your spot.

Learn more about Sheila, her position, her career, and the PEP Web Center in the Q&A below!

What was your background before coming to NASFAA?

I'm an engineer by education and I spent over a decade in corporate America in a high tech firm before I switched to education. I taught math at a community college and got into the field of higher ed in prison almost by accident. I've always believed that the ability to learn or the ability to access learning is a human right. Everyone has a right to learn.

I've worked in the higher education field for a dozen or so years now, teaching and administering. When Second Chance Pell came about, I spent some amount of time curiously learning the ins and outs of financial aid as much as I could, and I think it's partly my engineering background. I like details, I like processes, I like precision, and all those things describe financial aid. I actually enjoy learning about financial aid and sharing what I know about financial aid, which is what led me to NASFAA.

What do you like most about connecting with NASFAA members?

I’m wildly impressed about the amount of knowledge that both NASFAA staff and members have in the world of financial aid. I have not run into too many other groups of people that are so committed to staying up to date, being accurate, and doing the very best at every minute they can. It's really unique.

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

My main goal and purpose here is to try to integrate the efforts of financial aid administrators with people who are administering prison education programs. As we implement the return of Pell to people who are incarcerated, both of these groups are essential to the students’ success.

Financial aid administrators don't always know a lot about prison education, and prison education administrators don't always know a lot about financial aid, but they need to have enough appreciation and knowledge of each other's work that they're working in concert on behalf of the student.

What’s been the biggest change you’ve seen in PEP programs in recent years?

All these programs right now are sitting in a general landscape of justice reform. There's been a groundswell of interest, change, and discussion about social justice over the past five or six years, and it's lifted up programs that are focused on higher ed in prison and helped mainstream the effort. We're seeing an explosion of interest and an explosion of commitment to quality in those programs. I think a lot of that is because we're sitting against a backdrop of social justice reform right now.

What is something you think the higher education community needs to know about PEPs?

I hope to help people get past any ingrained stereotypes they have about students who are incarcerated. Because the bottom line is that they are just students, and they have goals, they have dreams. They are very focused on succeeding and being the best they can in whatever society they're in, whether it's inside or outside. I'm hoping to help people understand the humanity of our students who are incarcerated.

What sort of administrative complexities are unique to the PEP community?

Much of the complexity for this population is about accessibility of information. These students are often in an information vacuum. Being able to do things that the non-incarcerated take for granted like, “Oh, I can't remember my Social Security number, let me go look it up,” or if they lost it, let me go to the Social Security office and get a new one, or let me sit on hold for three hours with somebody trying to get loan information. Meanwhile, an incarcerated person is limited to a five-minute phone call.

It's the ability to get information and the ability to bring information inside that makes it so much more complex for the students. So much is out of their control and out of their accessibility.

What’s something you’ve learned about NASFAA or the financial aid community as a whole in the last year?

People here know so much, it's amazing! What I hadn't understood before I came to NASFAA was what a warm supportive community financial aid is in general. When you're a financial aid advisor in the field, it's got to sometimes feel like a very lonely job, people around you on campus don't often understand the statutory responsibilities you have to hold, the care and decency in which you're treating the most sensitive information for students.

What do you find most fulfilling about your work?

I love trying to take complex things and break them down for someone who may not have a lot of experience in a certain area. Financial aid is something that you can really do good on, and so trying to blend what I learned being a technologist about how to handle detail, and break it down with what I know having worked in education and social justice for years, this lets me integrate all those things. I honestly have enjoyed this work more than I think anything I've ever done.

Looking for more information on NASFAA’s PEP work? Be sure to join Sheila on January 31, 2024 for the Completing the Paper 2024-25 FAFSA with Students Who Are Incarcerated Workshop.


Publication Date: 1/25/2024

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