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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Alana Jennings from Park University

April 4, 2011

Alana Jennings, Retired Assistant Director of Student Financial Services, Park University

Pam King:  You recently retired on February 28th, how many years had you been in the financial aid industry? 

Alana Jennings:  Just short of 13 years but they went by in a flash. 

Pam King:   Were all of those years at Park University? 

Alana Jennings:  Yes, I started out as the ‘receptionist’, talking with students and answering the phones.  I decided that was the perfect place to learn as much as I could about the financial aid process and when Park decided to add the position of Financial Aid Counselor, I became the first one.  That was exciting, building a position from day one.  I spent 7 years as a Counselor before taking on the challenge of another new position to Park–Assistant Director, Training.  

Pam King:   What did you do before you discovered financial aid was your calling? 

Alana Jennings:  I started my work life in a collection agency that worked for the trucking industry before leaving to become a dispatch supervisor for the Southern Platte Fire Protection District. After that, I was lucky enough to stay home when my children were little and then started substitute teaching when they started in school.  When they were both in high school, I looked to teach but there were no open positions. That’s when I spotted the opening in the financial aid office.  I interviewed with Pat Hollenbeck and was offered the ‘front desk’.  I have been fascinated ever since.  There is one thing you can say about financial aid–it is never boring.

Pam King:   And now that you are retired, what are your immediate plans?  You mentioned a backyard project?   

Alana Jennings:  You are close when you say a ‘backyard project’.  My husband of 38 years and I are hitting the road soon in our 5th wheel trailer and truck. Our house is for sale and we intend to move our ‘backyard’ to some very exciting places over the next few years.  Along the way, I intend to visit as many Park distance campus centers as I can.  And I asked Cathy Colapietro, our Executive Director of Admissions and Student Financial Services, if I could visit high schools along the way to spread the good word about Park University.  Would that make me a “roving Park ambassador to the big backyard”?  

Pam King:   With all of your experience in the industry, what do you feel was the biggest change that you have seen?  

Alana Jennings:  The biggest change I remember personally in the SFS office at Park was the conversion to scanning documents.  For anyone who has been around a financial aid office for a while, those huge files for students, loaded down with the paperwork we were required to keep, are a memory best left to the past.   Change was/is an every day fact of life in a financial aid office.  So many things have made a difference in the recent past:  things as simple as when MPNs became a ’10 year’ document instead of having to complete one for each loan processed and as complex as the recent changeover from using Private Lenders to process Federal Student Loans to the required use of the Direct Lending Program. 

Pam King:  What about the biggest challenge?  

Alana Jennings:  I hate to make this a personal issue, but the biggest challenge I see to the Financial Aid Office is keeping experience and talent.  There is generally a lot of stress in financial aid offices and you have to find the right kind of person to deal with that stress, whether it comes directly from the students, the school administration or the governmental regulatory side of the business. There just isn’t any give in that wall of demands and, like most industries, we find there just aren’t enough hours in the day to process, keep up with regulatory demands and provide the service that we want to provide.  The common denominator is always the staff and I’m proud to say that we have some really great people in the Student Financial Services Office at Park University.     

Pam King:   What has been the most positive change for students over the years?  

Alana Jennings:  Service!  Like most operations that provide service, financial aid offices have worked hard to make procedures flow more smoothly towards the end game–to provide less stress for students.  At Park University, the Student Financial Services office has been in the fore-front advocating for automation, web-based information and processes as simple as direct deposit that have made things much better for the students. The work the Financial Aid Offices do makes it possible for millions of students to get the education, the information, needed to keep all the wheels of the world turning. 

Pam King:   How do you see the future of the financial aid industry in the next 2 to 5 years? 

Alana Jennings:  Like everyone else, the financial aid offices will be trying to do more with less.  I think FA offices need to pump up the volume about how important they are to the colleges remaining solvent AND how important financial aid is to the future of the United States.   Education is the basis for everything that comes after.

Pam King:   What is your fondest student memory? 

Alana Jennings:  Oh, so many.  There was always candy on the corner of my desk and I would come back from meetings to find notes from my ‘secret admirers’ –they were usually the athletes who probably shouldn’t have been eating that candy anyway.  But they always said thank you and that was nice.  While I was cleaning out my office, I found a post card that had come from students in 2003 (I am a terrible pack rat) that were on study abroad.  They were thanking me for all the help I’d given them in getting their financial aid in place so they could go overseas.  The funny thing was that most of them were actually students of Brad Bunge (my partner as a counselor).  He never got a post card and felt slighted.  When I found that card, I made sure that Brad finally got ‘his’ post card.  Brad and I also used to go together to graduation, every fall and spring. It was sad to say goodbye but great to see our kids finish what they’d started.

Pam King:  What one piece of advice would you offer to new financial aid officers?  

Alana Jennings:  Park SFS Director, Carla Boren, and I were talking recently about the hiring process–how important it is to find the right person to work in the financial aid office. Flexibility is one trait that is highly prized. It is so great when you have the right mix and the office hums along like a well-oiled machine. The only advice I can offer is come on in and make yourself at home–and it will be home! There is always room for one more person who wants to make good things happen. The future is in your hands. Did I remember to say that Financial Aid Offices are famous for their food days?  

Pam King, Partner Solutions Strategy and Missouri

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