10 Recommendations Experienced Financial Aid Professionals Have for Those Who Are New to the Field

Whether you're fresh out of college or transitioning from another field, the insights and recommendations from seasoned financial aid administrators can help guide you as you get started in the financial aid profession. To shed light on the essential advice for newcomers, we've compiled a list of ten recommendations directly from NASFAA’s Most Valuable Professionals (MVPs)

  1. Find a mentor

“I think one of the biggest recommendations I have is to find a mentor, find somebody who's going to be your cheerleader, who's going to cheer you up on the tough days, and celebrate with you on the great days. And then pay it back. Once you've found somebody who's in your corner and is a mentor for you, then find somebody you can be a mentor for.”

Heidi Carl, Executive Director of Financial Aid, Purdue University

  1. Be patient

“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.”

Dr. Kimberley Willis, Director of Financial Aid at The College at Brockport State University of New York

“For somebody just getting started, I also recommend people to be patient with themselves. Financial aid is so broad. There's so much information to consume, and you don't have to know it all at the same time. But I think the strength that some of our best professionals have is to know where to find the answers. Be humble. Know that you're not going to know it all the time and engage in problem solving strategies will help you be successful.”

Amy Hager, FAAC®, Director of Financial Aid, Moberly Area Community College

“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.”

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

  1. Get involved

“I know financial aid can kind of be a lot sometimes, but I promise, if you breathe and you begin to network within the financial aid family, and get involved within your associations from a state, regional, or even a national level, then I promise you it will be well worth it.”

Jacquelyn LeSueur, Associate Director of Financial Aid at Mississippi State University

“I would say to be involved in committee work and to eventually serve in leadership capacities. Involvement with your colleagues in this profession is a very, very rewarding experience.”

Kathy Bialk, FAAC®, Executive Director of Student Financial Aid & Scholarships at University of Kentucky 

“There are also states and regions that offer scholarships to the annual conference, if you've not been. I know both Illinois and Indiana did and I received the one for ILASFAA, the Illinois Association, and MASFAA, the regional association. Those really springboarded me into my involvement within association work.”

“I would also recommend just being on the lookout for other opportunities. I was a member of NASFAA’s Diversity Leadership Program, and other states and regions offer great programs.” 

Alex DeLonis, FAAC®, Assistant Vice President of Student Financial Services, Saint Louis University

  1. Never stop learning

“Newer staff should fully embrace all the training workshops that they can attend, their state conferences, and credentials, which I was very involved in for the last five years through EASFAA. The credentials are great and targeted and easy to achieve.” 

Catherine M. Boscher-Murphy, Associate Director of Financial Aid at Montclair State University

  1. Network and build relationships

“Making those industry connections is really, really helpful because there's a willingness to share that I don't think you find in other industries. I'm at the point in my career where I try to be that person for others. I try to make sure to pay it forward.”

Charles R. Mayfield Jr., FAAC®, Director of Financial Assistance at Northwest Missouri State University

“The most important thing is to make connections. I don't think I would be in my position without networking.” 

Nicholas Prewett, FAAC®, Executive Director of Financial Aid, Stony Brook University

“I would say to anyone starting out that financial aid is a unique profession. It’s very family-oriented, meaning all the professionals within the profession are like family. We speak the same language, we understand each other, and someone is always available to help you. It’s one big network.”

Joan Bailey, Director of Financial Aid at University of South Florida Health Office of Financial Aid

  1. Trust and lean on your colleagues

“The connections you make with your colleagues are vital, so besides working hard to advance your career, you should also work on building relationships both in your office, across your institution, and also in your regions.” 

Brian Drabik, FAAC®, Director of Financial Aid Operations at Northwestern University

  1. Explore higher education and seek a broad understanding

“I would urge new people to the field to explore higher education and seek a broad understanding of not just the specific area to which you're assigned, but seeking out the context of the work of our colleagues across the institution, understanding what teams are trying to accomplish, and understanding the purpose of student activities. Each area you uncover and learn more about will help you in holistic decision-making and in identifying the broad impacts of the decisions you make and the actions you take.”

Gena Boling, FAAC®, Associate Vice Provost for Enrollment at Cornell University

  1. Get out of your comfort zone and say “yes” to new opportunities

“I have a bit of a life philosophy, where it’s basically found in my ability to say ‘yes’ to new opportunities. So my recommendation, especially at a professional setting, is when you're asked to take on a new project, to try something new, or to get out of your comfort zone, be OK with saying ‘yes’ because you never know what that's going to lead to.”

Patti Kohler, FAAC®, Vice President, Financial Aid at Western Governors University

“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.”

Ryan West, FAAC®, Executive Dean of Student Services at Chemeketa Community College

  1. Build your time management skills

“There’s also the importance of time management. I do have an MBA and found myself using a lot of the things I've learned during my time matriculating through that program that helped me keep from being so overwhelmed when you have all of these deadlines. It's better to just map out a plan. It is even in the Bible, ‘Without a vision, the people perish.’ So sitting down, mapping out a plan, and prioritizing what's within that plan will go a long way.” 

Sharmain Lazard-Talbert, Interim Assistant Director Enrollment Services at Southern University at Shreveport

  1. Don’t lose sight of your why

“It's also important to realize what a difference you make for students. It may seem like a day-to-day call or something, but some of that advice that you give a student, you don't even realize until you meet that student later on at graduation, what impact you had on their college career.”

Traci Armes, FAAC®, Deputy Director, Scholarships and Financial Aid at University of Texas at Austin

“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.”

Melet Leafgreen, FAAC®, Director, Student Financial Aid at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center

What advice do you have for people just getting started in the field? Let us know in the comments below!

Need more guidance? Be sure to utilize these NASFAA resources for new professionals: 


Publication Date: 4/24/2024

Frank R | 4/24/2024 4:34:40 PM

Wonderful list! While the role and responsibilities of the FAO are almost incomparable to those of 50 years ago, I would highly recommend new professional work to adopt them all. I would like to add "Have Fun" to the list, but from all that I'm reading it seems difficult to find the time. While we were processing BEOG payments with carbon paper and and qualifying GSLP applicants on a typewriter, I think in the 70's and 80's, to a professional, all would acknowledge that besides the rewards of the work, it was fun. Best to all.
Frank R. A. Resnick, DFA Central CT State University 1980-87.

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