What Keeps Us Going

We approach the dog days of summer and a memory is warming me today.  I would like to share it with you, my colleagues and friends.

If you  have been in financial aid for as long as I have, you may remember the end of the Vietnam War (as an Aid Officer…not an infant)…and perhaps your community also received an influx of Vietnamese refugees,  as did mine in that era.  You may then chuckle at the memory of the USDE solution to Documentation of Independence for these bewildered and bruised refugee students trying to answer FAFSA questions about their parents AGI and FIT. (It wasn’t funny to these tragically disrupted students.  Most of them had no idea if their parents were even alive.)  But, the Departments wisdom dictated that we send a certified letter to Vietnam (with which we had no diplomatic relations at the time…and therefore no mail service) and if no response in thirty days, we were empowered to “deem” the student independent.  So, we dutifully and bureaucratically mailed bushels of FAFSA-stuffed green-stamped envelopes to persons in a war ravaged country far, far away…with no mail service.  Done!  Wait 30 days and process!

One very hot, summer day, the LA traffic had been particularly stagnant. My long commute had been compounded by my own freeway-side flat-tire. I stumbled into my office, dirty, sweaty, and terminally frustrated.  My hands, grimed with tire dust, picked up a slender onion skin envelope: return address = Viet Nam.  My frustration inflamed into anger.   “Now what!  How dare “they” add to my burden?”

I furiously shredded open the fragile envelope.   In my grimy hands, was a tear-stained letter from a mother overwhelmed with relief and joy.  She had hired a “scribe” to translate our letter into Vietnamese and to translate her letter to us into English.  The “scribe’s” impeccable, elaborate penmanship described her thrill at learning that her 18 year old son, whom she had not seen or heard from in six years, was alive and attending university in America.  Her regret at being unable to help him financially was palpable.  She had recently been released from a ”re-education camp” so she had nothing but prayers with which to assist her son.  She enclosed a letter written in Vietnamese to her son and begged that I deliver it to him.   Her letter ended in prayers of thanksgiving that I, a bureaucrat and stranger, whom she described as “a kind person”, was helping her son and that I be blessed with health and long life.   My fury evaporated into my own tears of gratitude.

I immediately strode across campus to the student’s classroom, now oblivious to the 100+ degree heat.  In front of his class, I handed him his mother’s letter.   “My mother’s alive!”, he exclaimed in surprise and delight.  We all cried with him.

I am grateful that I get to work in the frustrating field of financial aid, where I can touch people on some of the best, and some of the worst, days of their lives.  Better yet, I can actually be of help.  I can actually be the door to their dreams.  How many others can claim that as part of their daily grind?

So…as we slog through these last weeks before Fall term starts and as you answer the 50th phone call today, as I just did, and as we answer the same questions over and over again…questions that should have been asked and answered last March. Let’s just bless them with kind and thorough answers, as we try to hold on to the joy:  the joy of graduation four years hence, the joy of being a real difference maker, and the joy of serving our students, our communities and our country.

Oh, and the student?  He turned out very well indeed.  He now owns a small chain of jewelry stores; his flagship store is in Beverly Hills, CA.  I am told he donates regularly to the college.

Brought to you by:
Lois Madsen, Training Committee
Director of Student Financial Planning, Kansas Wesleyan

One thought on “What Keeps Us Going

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