2001 Oscar R. ‘Jack’ Hendrix Award spotlight – Chris Johnson

My Path in Financial Aid

My career in Financial Aid began in the era of mainframe and dummy terminal.  We still had paper financial aid transcripts.  We had paper Pell payment documents attached to SARs.  Our business history was preserved on shelf after shelf of wide green bar reports.   We handed out paper checks when students started a semester.  Then came 1996.  My director, Diane Del Buono, embraced direct lending and experimental sites.  We began to use Windows 95 machines.  At the same time, we began using Macintosh SE30 machines as our terminal emulators, which presented us the opportunity to also use these personal computers for email, word processing, spreadsheet and HTML development.    

I started out as a state classified employee opening mail, processing incoming financial aid transcripts, checking in verification documents, answering phone calls from students and parents from all over the country and working with students each day at our front counter.  I moved up after a year to assistant director.  My primary area of responsibility was verification and student appointments.  I was promoted to associate director a couple of years later with functional oversight of all verification and professional judgment functions.  I got involved during this time with helping establish our first graphical internet presence on the web.  Somehow, I found myself less and less involved with direct student contact and more and more involved with desktop computer support in the office, along with reporting.  After Y2K came and went, our school then seriously began to look at client-server enterprise software for all our processing, including financial aid.  I became involved with PeopleSoft implementation in 2004 with my focus on financial aid.   I eventually left the financial aid office to work for our student information systems office.  Finally, I moved to our institutional research and planning office nearly 3 years ago where I continue to assist financial aid staff with their data and reporting needs.    

The most rewarding part of being a member of RMASFAA was my exposure to other FA people from all different types of schools.  I learned that someone working in a one- or two-person office had a broader knowledge of all facets of financial aid than I had working in an office serving thousands where I specialized in one facet of the business.  I learned that a person working R2T4 at a tribal school had a far greater challenge trying to locate a “lost” student than I did at my school.  I learned that my 2-semester school with a trailer summer was not necessarily the “normal” school year arrangement.  Being new in my career in the 90s, I saw that many people at the conferences were older and had spent years in the financial aid office, regardless of the school type.  That was comforting when deciding whether there was a chance I could have a 20+ year career in Financial Aid.

My advice for new people is to attend the conferences in your state and region.  Learn how other people do the work that you do.   You may find some who do things in a way that you would NEVER do it, but you will also find ways of doing things that are an improvement.  The regional conferences seem to have better luck attracting Department of Education attendees.  It’s good to associate faces with the names you see on publications and try to get a sense of their personalities.  If your school allows it, participate in committees and run for office.  You learn a lot from this and your school benefits.

By Chris Johnson, University of Kansas

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