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].
Meet Dr. Kimberley Willis, director of financial aid at The College at Brockport State University of New York.
Kimberley has worked in higher education since 1999 but only recently made the transition to financial aid at the tail end of 2019. Prior to that, Kimberley was working in the registrar’s office at SUNY Geneseo, but she decided to jump into the world of financial aid after being prompted by some colleagues.
“I just believe Brockport was looking for something different and took a chance on me and I would like to think since I'm still here, that they believe they made the right decision,” Kimberley said. “I don't take this opportunity lightly because I know it's a tough job and I am very much dedicated and committed to lifelong learning, because that's what it takes to work in financial aid.”
Kimberley has been very active in leadership roles. She co-presented at the College Board Forum 2023 with a presentation entitled “Evolution of Need Based Aid,” in addition to co-presenting with Daniel Barkowitz for their SASFAA conference as well as the NASFAA leadership conference. Kimberly also served on the Succession Planning Task Force two years in a row: 2022 and 2023 at the NASFAA Leadership Conference, and has served as DEI Chair of NYSFAAA for two years. She has also participated in NASFAA’s Advocacy Pipeline.
Learn more about Kimberley, 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?
As far as a change is concerned, at this point in time all I can see is FAFSA simplification. I have a short tenure in this field and that's been the biggest change. We've been waiting for it, it was supposed to come last year, but they delayed it, and now it's here and we are in the thick of things.
In this field you have to be very patient and flexible. That's just the nature of the field, and you have to have big shoulders so that you can defend why things are being delayed because people, who are not in this field, may not understand why we can't send out our award letters, why we're not packaging, and why there are delays.
Could you tell us a little bit about your pathway to your current institution and your current role?
Before financial aid I started in 1999 as an assistant bursar, in a bursar's office as an assistant bursar at a community college, Monroe Community College. I worked in that office for about 10 years before moving to registration and records where I was the master scheduler, also known as the associated registrar. I worked in that office for about five years and I actually did a stint in campus events for about six months before I became the registrar at SUNY Geneseo. I was then at SUNY Geneseo for five years.
It's like I'm making my way to the different student service offices. I started at SUNY Geneseo in 2015 and then this opportunity came up. I applied and I took the leap of faith and came on over to SUNY Brockport.
What do you find the most rewarding and fulfilling about your work?
For me personally, coming into Brockport as a newbie, coming into financial aid as a newbie, I find it rewarding to change the culture of the perception of the financial aid office, because we're considered a scary place.
Students have a reluctance to come see us and we're talking about money. So automatically, it's a scary place to visit. We also want to make sure we are demystifying the financial aid process and being more welcoming. I enjoy talking to students and working with students. I am not some Wizard of Oz behind the curtain that hides until I absolutely have to come out. I'm always out there trying to meet students and talk to them and love putting a smile on their face. When the light bulb goes off in their head that just makes my day.
What's something you wish all higher ed folks knew about financial aid?
That we are not the ‘dark side’ as we are often referred to. I don't like that connotation. I don't like that we’re perceived to be that way. We are financial aid professionals and we are here to help, we are not here to give bad news.
When it comes to finding solutions we'd like to talk about what it is that our colleagues and upper management are trying to get to, or get at, and work to find ways that we can compromise and go get that information in a different way.
Do you have any recommendations for people just getting started in the field?
First of all, I would say give yourself grace. Be patient with yourself because financial aid, I can't say it enough, is hard. Financial aid is complicated, financial aid is not something where you read a book and you're done, even though I've heard that before. People think you could just read a manual and then you're all done.
But also get yourself a mentor in the field and join your local organizations, your regional organizations, lean on your colleagues and your network. Trust your team, because they're subject matter experts, and then know that you are not alone.
What's something you couldn't function without?
Personally, I couldn't function without my amazing husband, my son, and my family.
Professionally, I couldn't function without our students, my team and supervisor as well as my most amazing mentor Daniel Barkowitz, who needs no introduction to financial aid. He's known all over. He's like family to me.
Outside of that I could not function without NASFAAs tools and resources, their webinars. I even listened to ‘Off the Cuff’ this morning, and most importantly, AskRegs. Whenever we run into a snag, we jump right over to AskRegs.
What's on your bucket list, or do you have any upcoming travel plans?
I'm taking a cruise to Alaska this year, sailing out of Seattle, Washington. It’s a seven day cruise to Alaska and I have never been before so I am looking forward to it.
If you weren't working in financial aid what would you be doing?
I know, without a shadow of a doubt, I'd be a personal trainer. I started getting serious about my fitness journey in 2022. I love it. I know it's not all about working out. It's not all about the gym, it’s also your eating habits. Eating healthy and just overall fitness.
If I couldn’t be a personal trainer I'd be a makeup artist.
What's helped you the most in getting through the past year?
Lots of prayer along with my me-time and the gym. If I didn't have the gym there might be some trouble, I have to go and just work out all my stress.
What's the best thing that has happened to you recently?
Well, hello being nominated for the spotlight! I find it truly truly an honor. Especially being so new to this field. I don't take it lightly. I'm humbled by it and I'm very happy about it. It makes me want to work harder and be doing even better.
Publication Date: 2/12/2024