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Profiles in Financial Aid: Mary Sommers from The University of Nebraska Kearney

October 29, 2012

Mary Sommers, Director of Financial Aid, The University of Nebraska Kearney

Most Financial Aid Administrators would be happy with either an outstanding staff or enjoyment from their employment. Mary Sommers has both. Mary is the Director of Financial Aid at The University of Nebraska Kearney and a recent recipient of NASFAA’s Meritorious Achievement Award.

“I’m enjoying my 25th year in financial aid this year, and the job is much different than it was when I began my career at Rocky Mountain College (MT).” What isn’t different is Mary’s contribution and dedication to an industry that has benefited from her involvement. She has served as President of RMASFAA as well as NeASFAA (Nebraska). She has also served as the chair of the RMASFAA Summer Institute and is the current co-chair of the RMASFAA Leadership Pipeline Program. She also finds time to serve on the NASFAA Board of Directors as a Representative at Large.

“My staff at UNK is phenomenal,” boasts Mary. “ They each bring different skills to the table when working with students, but the best thing they do is collaborate. They are truly student affairs professionals.”

Mary credits Bob Walker, Director of Financial Aid at Creighton University (NE) and Sandy Calhoun, recently retired Director of Financial Aid at Colorado State University (CO), with helping her see the big picture. “I still go to Bob with tough questions and situations, while Sandy has always helped me with the balance piece-being an effective leader on campus while being a good wife and mom at home.”

Can you guess correctly? Most people don’t know this about Mary, but she was one of the following: (a) a rodeo champion (b) a winner of a regional spelling bee (c) a reporter and anchor on a radio show. The answer can be found in this article.

Mary notes that automation and complexity are the greatest changes she has seen during her 25 years in the industry. “It is more complicated now to administer financial aid, and the over-site and the regulations are far more extensive.”

I love to cook and it actually helps me to relax“says Mary. And if she could invite 3-4 people to dinner, who would they be? “My friends from Montana, Bill and Teresa O’Conner, would have to be included because Teresa is my inspiration for cooking. Because my faith is important to me, C.S Lewis needs to be at the table to talk about philosophy and spirituality. And the last seat goes to my current pastor Joe Hannapel. That would be a great dinner party.”

Mary’s favorite book is To Kill a Mockingbird, while her favorite move is Fargo. Since family is near and dear to her heart, you would expect her favorite TV show to be Modern Family, which it is.

Mary didn’t hesitate when asked about her favorite vacation. “Honestly, it was our first trip to Disney World with son Sam and daughter Sarah. I hate to admit that we totally bought into every commercial Disney has ever produced about great family experiences. Sam and Sarah (even now as moody teenagers) will talk about that trip with smiles on their faces.”

When not working, Mary spends as much time as possible with her children, Sam (17) and Sarah (13), who are getting more independent every day. “Hanging out with my husband and best friend Matt is always a highlight of any day for me,” boasts Mary. To relax even further, Mary heads to the kitchen to cook.

Regulations are a necessity in the financial aid profession. If Mary could change just one regulation, it would be pro-rating loans for students who graduate in December. “It is simply unnecessary and often hurts students who are in one of the most expensive semesters of their college career.”

The long hours and burdensome regulations sometimes can be overwhelming. But Mary says it’s all worth it. “The most enjoyable part of our profession…an easy question to answer… the students. We all have students that really touch us because they have been tenacious and persistent despite extraordinary difficult circumstances. Being able to participate in their success is a privilege and the best part of my job.”

We never know where the road of life will lead us. In Mary’s case, the road led her to a profession that she truly enjoys and strives to improve. So many people have benefited from the road she chose. Imagine if she had taken a short cut and pursued a career as a reporter and anchor on a radio show (Wichita, KS and Sioux City, IA).

Don Buehrer, Regional Director, Nelnet Partner Solutions

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