Monday, January 26, 2015

Retiree Spotlight: Diane Lambart Fleming

(by Diane Lambart Fleming, MASFAA Retiree Involvement Committee Chair)

Welcome to our first in a series of MASFAA Retirement Spotlight posts. Throughout the year, we'll try to catch up with some of our MASFAA retired colleagues and see how they're doing! First up is our own MASFAA Retiree Involvement Committee Chair, Diane Fleming.

I am a native Michigander who grew up in a downriver suburb of Detroit, called River Rouge.  My father immigrated to America as a child, and so that makes me a first-generation American!   My parents valued education very much and expected all of their children to attend college.  Regrettably, my high school counselor advised me not to go to college as he didn't think I was “college material.”

Consequently, I attended Detroit Business Institute for a year to acquire shorthand skills that were necessary to get a secretarial job with one of the Big Three auto companies.  I worked for Ford Motor Company for six years, during which time I never once used those shorthand skills!!

In 1977 I started working as an Office Manager at Memphis State University (now University of Memphis).  This was my first job in an academic environment, and after observing the students at MSU, I eventually became convinced that I could handle the academics of college life.

Could you briefly describe your career in financial aid? 

When my husband accepted the position of Chair of the Department of Mathematics at Central Michigan University, I was fortunate enough to get a job, also at CMU, in the Office of Scholarships and Financial Aid.  I began my financial aid career as a receptionist, which was perhaps the best training I could have had to prepare me to eventually become a financial aid officer. Receptionists – those front-line people who talk to students, parents, and other departments, either in person or on the phone, have to know a lot about ALL aspects of financial aid and be able to explain it simply and calmly.  I must admit that sometimes I flunked the calm bit….

My entire career in financial aid was spent at CMU, starting as a receptionist, then office manager, and when I finally completed my bachelor’s degree in political science, I was promoted to Assistant Director, and eventually became the Associate Director for Compliance and Client Services. In 1991 I became active in the Michigan Student Financial Aid Association (MSFAA) as a member of the Professional Development Committee.  In 1992 I was asked to represent Michigan on the MASFAA Conference Program Committee.   Thus, in the course of two years, my entire concept of financial aid evolved from just having a job, to establishing a professional career, which ultimately developed into a passion for what financial aid professionals do. I had the privilege of serving as president of MSFAA and MASFAA, and also as a Representative-at-Large on the NASFAA Board.

What did you like most about working in financial aid and being involved in MASFAA?

Working in financial aid helped me gain confidence in my ability to make a difference in the lives of the students and parents that are so completely dependent on us to not only help them get into college, but also to ultimately persist and graduate.  I guess I eventually became confident that I was “college material” after all!  Like all FAOs , there were many favorite components of my job, but I would  have to say that my passion for interpreting regulations and being the de facto University compliance officer were among the most challenging and rewarding of my responsibilities.

I cannot overstate what a game-changing experience it was to become involved in my state, regional, and national financial aid associations!  Financial aid people are like no others in the academic community.  We share, we problem-solve, we act as a sounding board, we support, we sympathize, and we celebrate together. And we make lifelong friends along the way!!

What advice might you suggest for someone beginning a career in financial aid?

I would encourage that person to learn as much about financial aid as possible.  Stated another way, don’t just learn your own particular job, but find out what all the other people in the aid office do. Financial aid is a multi-faceted profession and involves not only students and parents, but the entire academic institution, lenders and servicers, as well as state and federal entities. Additionally, I would encourage that individual to become active at the professional level as quickly as possible.  The training, professional development and networking at the state, regional and national level are incomparable and indispensable.

What do you feel has changed the most in our industry since you retired?

There is a much greater emphasis on accountability, transparency, simplification, cost, student loan debt, servicers, Congressional efforts to promote persistence vis-à-vis the 150% Rule and LEU, and Gainful Employment regulations.  Two years of work on the Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act begins all over again with the political change in Congress for 2014….  Oh, what’s the question again?  Answer:  Same-o, same-o.  Everything old is new again!!

There is one area of financial aid that seems to always be problematic, especially to new professionals.  Exercising professional judgment presents many questions and at times, prevents aid officers from acting in the best interest of a student because of a misperceived reaction from the Department of Education.  I recall one incident when a student appealed the decision of a colleague regarding an independent override.  After meeting with the student, clarifying the obvious inconsistencies in his story, and gathering third party documentation, I over-turned the original decision and made the student independent.  This individual is now a highly successful national athlete, making millions of dollars a year, and is giving back to the community.

How have you been spending your retirement?

It took a bit of adjustment from being completely immersed in financial aid for almost 30 years to not going into the office every day!  I am still subscribed to finaid-l (send email message to FINAID-L-SUBSCRIBE-REQUEST@LISTS.PSU.EDU to subscribe), and of course, the NASFAA Today’s News, so I keep abreast of current issues, regulations, and challenges. I recently had the privilege of helping out two colleagues from other institutions, which, I have to confess, was more rewarding for me than it probably was for them!!  Also, I continue to serve on the MASFAA Board as chair of the Retiree Involvement Committee, which gives me the chance to remain in touch with the many, many friends I have made over the years while still making a contribution to our profession.

Retirement has provided more time to be involved in activities that are near and dear to me:  teaching English language classes to international students at CMU, volunteering at the local soup kitchen as a cook, expanding my involvement in the Lions Club, both at the local and District level, more time for church activities, and of course, more time for all things related to sports at CMU! I tell people that it’s in my marriage contract to go to all – or most all – sporting events at CMU. Trumping all of these things, of course, is family.  I am blessed to still have both of my parents, and spend a lot of time with them as they cope with the health issues related to being 92 and 88 years old respectively.  We have one child in California, one in Virginia, one in Arizona and one in Michigan, so our travels take us across the country.  Life is good – I highly recommend retirement!!

What final thoughts would you like to share with MASFAA members?

There are many rewarding jobs/careers/professions in which one can be involved.  I will be forever grateful that through sheer happenstance I wound up in a financial aid office and had the opportunity to help literally thousands of students obtain a postsecondary degree.  America is the only country in the world where opportunity, desire, and determination are the keys to personal success.

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