This time of year always brings excitement and anxiety for Student Financial Aid and Enrollment Services. First, we begin awarding financial aid to prospective and current students at UTSA for the upcoming fall semester. It’s exciting because we have the opportunity to open doors to education for many of our students. There’s also a bit of anxiety because we always wonder if it’s enough. Have we provided the right amount of financial aid to students to either bring them to campus for the first time or to retain them? Have we communicated the steps needed to be ready for the fall? These are important questions we have to ask every year, especially now that the university is focused on improving 4-year graduation rates.
It’s also an exciting time of year because students are getting ready to graduate. Because we help students with enrollment needs such as transcript requests, registration and final financial decisions, we get to see the excitement in our graduating seniors as they apply for jobs or graduate school. It’s a great honor to have served students throughout their time here at UTSA and see that final result!
As the primary customer service arm for the enrollment offices at UTSA (250,000 calls per year and thousands of students visiting the counters or emailing us, outreach to thousands of students and parents) and the steward of more than $270 million a year in financial aid revenue from federal, state and institutional resources, we recognize the importance of what it means to be effective leaders, regardless of our role in an office. There are changing regulations and rules that we have to implement. Students’ needs are changing. We must be diverse. We have to provide access and opportunity while striving for Tier One status. We are also accountable for ensuring students gain an education that helps propel them into satisfying careers after they leave UTSA. That’s a huge responsibility. I don’t know of anyone who has received a degree in financial aid or enrollment services. From my perspective, that means we are called to serve.
That brings me to the importance of serving first. For Financial Aid and Enrollment Services staff, servant leadership is a natural fit. It’s not about power, it’s about authority. Each member of the staff serves as a leader. As leaders, we are responsible for influencing people to contribute their hearts, minds, spirits, creativity and excellence (Greenleaf, 1977). Serving people is a choice that all of us make as we work together in an ever-changing environment. Sipe & Frick (2009) have identified Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership. Each of these pillars helps us focus on serving others and being good stewards of the resources we have available.
A servant leader is a person of character. We must maintain integrity, demonstrate humility and serve a higher purpose. It’s about students. We are called into our jobs. Every decision we make, whether it is financial, program-oriented or service-oriented, must be ethical and made with integrity. As we begin awarding students for the upcoming award year, we must be reminded about how important those financial decisions are to the success of our students.
A servant leader puts people first. We are here to help others meet their highest priority and development needs. That holds true for the people we lead and for our students. We have to build relationships across campus and take care of the people we work with and serve. We do that through the service we provide to students and through our teamwork. We have several formal and ad hoc teams focused on specific action plans to meet our strategic plan.
A servant leader is a skilled communicator. That involves listening and speaking effectively. We must have empathy and ask for feedback. We have to listen to the needs of those around us and not be afraid to hear critiques, learn from them and move forward. In our line of work, financial aid and enrollment services sometimes has to deliver bad news to students regarding eligibility or aid available. We have to deliver that in the best possible way so students feel valued. Every interaction is an opportunity to communicate to our students and to provide a learning opportunity.
A servant leader is a compassionate collaborator. One of our Four C’s, collaboration is about strengthening relationships within the division and across the campus. We have to be able to negotiate conflict and listen to diverse thoughts and ideas. The very nature of our enrollment services functions requires us to collaborate with several offices. We attend multiple staff meetings, communicate changes across all areas affected and work to facilitate implementation of new regulations.
A servant leader has foresight. This is our opportunity to be creative and to imagine the possibilities. We have a clear purpose ahead of us in Financial Aid and Enrollment Services. We are here to serve students by providing excellent customer service, accurate information and a wide range of funding opportunities. Our industry is moving at the speed of light so we have to think ahead and be creative with the resources we do have. As Diana Martinez, Director of Student Financial Aid, states, “we are the office of change.” Change has been evident in the past several years with state funding cuts and potential changes to our federal programs.
Servant leaders are systems thinkers. We have to think more strategically and lead change effectively. There’s a lot of complexity in our world and in order to serve students, we have to break down the silos and work together. From a Financial Aid and Enrollment Services perspective, we have to consider potential funding cuts, whether they are federal, state or institutional. It’s a balancing act every day to ensure we are providing adequate resources to our students while staying in compliance with regulations. To keep us focused, we keep our mission, vision and core values visible in our work areas, whether in a frame or a handy laminated postcard. Our purpose is never out of sight or out of mind.
Finally, servant leaders must lead with moral authority. We have to create a culture of accountability and inspire trust and confidence. Students have to trust that they are receiving the best possible answer and that we are good stewards of the resources we receive, especially when it’s coming from tuition and fees that they are paying. That has an impact on our training program as well as the services we provide on a daily basis. We have created a training program that provides the knowledge and tools to staff so they are empowered to take care of the student.
As we finish the current academic year and move towards the next one, we must continue to focus on our number one priority, students. Whether we are helping seniors graduate or we are assisting the new class with financial aid and registration, we have an awesome responsibility. Financial Aid and Enrollment Services is heading into our busy season. Our goal is to stay focused on what we can do for students and each other. If we are able to accomplish that goal, we will finish and start both years with excellence. Based on what I have seen so far with our incredible staff, it will be excellent!
Greenleaf, R. (1977, 2002. 2007). Servant leadership: a journey into the nature of legitimate power and greatness. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press
Sipe, J. & Frick, D. (2009). Seven pillars of servant leadership: practicing the wisdom of leading by serving. New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press