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Profiles in the Financial Aid Profession: Pam Fowler, our current NASFAA Chair

September 9, 2011

Pam Fowler-Executive Director in the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor and current NASFAA Chair

Anne Watson: You became a “Big Ten” Director at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, quite a few years ago. How has that experience been for you? What major changes did you make in your office? 

Pam Fowler: When I arrived at the University of Michigan fifteen years ago, I was almost overwhelmed by the size of the staff.  There were about 62-65 people at that time and I wondered how I would remember all their names and what they did.  I told staff when they came up to me to tell me who they were and what they did so that eventually I would remember it all.   The first thing I did was to give everyone a questionnaire that asked about their perceptions as to the needs of the office, what was right and what was wrong.  I read the responses on the plane each weekend when I returned home to St. Louis.  They were very enlightening and gave me a sense of direction and set my priorities for the office.

I thought I knew a lot about UM but quickly found that I did not.  I had to learn to be patient (I am not a patient person).  It took me a few months to get the hang of how thing are done around here but I did learn and I even found a way to work within the system.

I don’t think I made major changes but staff at the time certainly thought I did.  I simply trusted staff to do their work and do it well.  They are very, very good at what they do.  However, my predecessors tended to micromanage which I do not do.  I let everyone do their job without my interference with the understanding that if problems arose, I would be informed.

I have to say that at the University of Missouri-St. Louis I was the only African-American director on campus and I encountered racism almost daily.  I was also the first African-American director of aid at UM and in the Big Ten, but I have never experienced racism in either setting like I did in St. Louis.

Anne: You are currently serving as NASFAA Chair. Congratulations!! Our state (Michigan) is extremely proud of all of your accomplishments.  What is your goal for NASFAA this year and what do you think will be your biggest challenge?      

Pam: I realize that in one year one person cannot accomplish very much.  The role of NASFAA chair, in my opinion, is to act as an ambassador for the association and to bring the association closer to its members.  However, I hope to provide assistance to the directors at what the Department of Education calls “small and under-resourced schools”.  The schools on this list are mainly HBCUs, Tribal and HSI colleges but also small schools that have high default rates, poor support from their administrations and difficulty serving students.  The aid directors at these schools face enormous odds everyday and need support.  I hope NASFAA can assist the government in their efforts to provide assistance and get these schools back on track.  As a Standard of Excellence Reviewer, I have seen firsthand the difficult time directors at some of these school have each and every day.  I want to provide some small measure of assistance.

I also hope to get NASFAA’s undergirding more stabilized by having our Articles of Incorporation and By-Laws thoroughly reviewed and changed where needed.  I have appointed an ad hoc committee of past chairs to do this.  Justin Draeger has made tremendous strides in reorganizing the NASFAA office and staff to better support our mission.  But in doing so we found several instances where practice does not align with our governing documents and that needs to be corrected.

Anne: From both your perspective as a major DL director and the NASFAA Chair, what are your thoughts about the federal loan servicers role in the new environment and what suggestions would you like to share with us to ensure the best possible service to students and  schools?

Pam: My thoughts stem from my experience with my son who has both DL and FFEL (PUT) loans in repayment and whose servicer for the DL loan was switched to the FFEL servicer, so my opinion of this entire process is negatively skewed.  I truly believe everyone involved wants to make the repayment process uncomplicated and clear to students.  But everyone cannot be out for what is best for their bottom line and accomplish this.   The demise of the FFEL program brought about a new day for many lenders and servicers.  It was inevitable that this happen but many are not willing to go quietly into the night.  Having the government as a revenue source is very much wanted to many businessmen in all types of business, but in student loans, the student must come first.

Anne: What do you like most about your job?

Pam: My interactions with people, all people, students, parents, staff and colleagues.  I love that this profession is all about helping; helping students and helping each other.  I know of no other profession that embraces everyone in it the way aid professionals do.  I have a wonderful, hard-working and knowledgeable staff that makes my job very easy.

Anne: Rising default rates are a concern to all of us. What recommendations would you make to schools for improving their rates.

Pam: Do whatever they can to keep the student in school to graduation.  Be more proactive when students have financial and academic problems.  We have always required an academic plan for SAP appeals at UM and I am happy to see the government now requires one.  Financial aid can be the catalyst that gets a student and an academic advisor to have a meaningful conversation.   With the exception of community colleges, these students were admitted because they met at least the minimum admission criteria, therefore, they should have the wherewithal to graduate with proper support.  We need to do everything we can to ensure that students get what they need to graduate. 

Anne: Who within the financial aid community has been your mentor?

Pam: Who has not is probably an easier question to answer.  I have learned something from everyone – those who mentored me and those I have mentored.  Courtney McAnuff, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Rutgers got me into this profession and has always encouraged me. All of my colleagues in the Big Ten mentor me as well and so does my staff.  My current boss, Lester Monts, Senior Vice Provost, and Dr. John Matlock, Associate Vice Provost are great inspirations and mentors.

Anne: Some of us are aware of you maintaining residence in two states, Michigan and Missouri. I will not ask which State you like the best, but how do you manage such a feat?

Pam: It is not as easy as it was before my husband’s death that’s for certain.  I manage to get home at least once a month and take extra time around the holidays.  However, the older the house gets the more work it needs to maintain it.  I spend a lot of vacation time with repairmen these days.  But the house is somewhat of a sanctuary for me.  I am really at peace when I go home to St. Louis.  When the tension at work gets too bad, I go home for an attitude adjustment.

Anne: When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Pam: I really had no idea.  I suppose I could have been anything which made choosing something very difficult.  Had my uncle, a very successful lawyer in Detroit who died much too soon, lived; I would have been a lawyer.  He always said he wanted me to become one.  He is the only person who ever had that discussion with me.  There are days I regret I did not become one just for him.

Anne: What is your favorite book, movie, TV show or food?

Pam: My favorite movie is “Gone With The Wind”.  I first saw it the first time years ago at the State Wayne Theatre in Wayne by myself.   I went alone because I had heard so much about it and had read the book that I had to see it for myself.  I was mesmerized.  I love a good story about a strong woman.

Anne:  Name one thing that many people do not know about you.

Pam: I can’t think of anything someone doesn’t know about me.  My life is an open book.

Anne: Are you still a member of the BMW Club? I think I lost my membership several years ago when I transitioned into the “Lender’s world”. Tell our readers how the “club” came into being.

Pam: I was the first to tell the story of the BMW but I am not the first member nor did I coin the phase.  The phase was first strongly stated by Mariko Gomez, former director of aid at Southwest Texas State University.  She said it to Pam Britton, at that time MASFAA President, at a NASFAA BOD meeting in Jackson Hole, WY.   We were having lunch after a very heated exchange during a federal update via conference call.  Pam, who had a tendency to do this, spoke her mind vehemently and then wondered if she had hurt her colleague’s feeling and should apologize.  Mariko told her she meant every word she said because she came from a long line of Big Mouth Women from the Midwest.  I simply relayed the story to the MASFAA membership, ordered the sweatshirt ( I still have one or two in the basement) and gave them  to the more vocal women of MASFAA.  I am happy to say the tradition continues.

Anne: Name some of your professional affiliations and of the many awards you have received,  which one(s) means the most to you and why?

Pam: If the award means I did something to help someone else, then it means a lot to me.  I try to serve my fellow professionals and my profession and my students.  I try to be a solution and not a problem (but sometimes by being a problem you drive a solution).  I try to compromise for the better of all involved so that when the day is done, we can all continue to work together for students.  That being said, everyone one of these awards is prominently displayed on my office wall and I am humbled by each one of them.

  •  Meritorious Achievement Award, July 2009, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
  • Regional Leadership Award, October 2003, National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
  • Meritorious Service Award, October 2001, Midwest Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
  • Purdy Distinguished Service Award, October 1998, Midwest Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
  • Distinguished Service Award, February 1990, Michigan Student Financial Aid Association;
  • Service Recognition, National Direct Student Loan Coalition;
  • Faculty Recognition Certificate, 1989, Eastern Michigan University, Division of Student Affairs.

Anne: On behalf of Nelnet, thank you Pam for this interview opportunity and good luck as NASFAA Chair and in your future endeavors.

Anne Watson, Midwest Regional Director for Nelnet Partner Solutions

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