Monday, April 13, 2015

Illinois Association Student Financial Aid Administrators Annual Conference 2015

(by Janet Ingargiola, 2014-15 ILASFAA President)

The theme “In Concert” of the ILASFAA Spring Conference was a wonderful experience for all in attendance in East Peoria’s Embassy Suites & Conference Center, on April 8-10, 2015. We had approximately 268 attendees this year. Considering the budget “issues” in Illinois we were thrilled to see so many colleagues in attendance. It was a joy to have the “Band back together”.

We had 40 “Newcomer’s” and over half were able to attend our Pre-Conference Newcomer’s Session to ensure they got the most out of this first time experience.

The live music of the University of Illinois Springfield Camerata Scholarship Ensemble welcomed members as they checked in and moved on to the opening session area. The Ensemble was marvelous and multi-talented, their music helped set the positive tone that followed the entire conference.

The conference opened with the Pulse of Peoria whose dynamic Drumline got our pulses racing and our hearts soaring when hearing about these impressive young people and some of the challenges they face on their road to college. They are all so talented and an example of what we wish all of our nation’s young people would follow. What a privilege it was to have them with us.

The “In Concert” music theme and real musical performers helped ILASFAA make beautiful music together. The observation of Justin Rosenstein, the Asana Co-Founder, that; “Working together in concert more smoothly not only helps us move more quickly; it changes the nature of what we undertake. When we have the confidence that we can orchestrate the group effort required to realize them, we dare bigger dreams.”

Our vocation as Financial Aid Professionals is to help others dare to pursue their bigger dream and in coming together to train, network and share experiences at our annual conference we make the difference for our students to end on a “high note” with resources to complete their educational goals and have the career they wanted.

I chose this theme for a number of reasons, my love of music and how I believe that music is the common language that all of us in one way or another relates to. Music inspires us, uplifts us, can console us and can just simply make us happy.

My hopes were that at the “ILASFAA In Concert” members could wash away the concerns of their everyday financial aid life for a brief time and would network with their colleagues. I hoped they would revisit with the “oldies” and make new tunes with folks they just met. I hoped they would head home content in knowing they learned new skills to add to their Songlist and they confirmed they are in harmony with current practices. I hoped that they further complemented their skills to orchestrate all their players on campus to make beautiful compliance music together.

We collected paper evaluation forms this year (as well as keeping the online option) and from reviewing them this morning it appears my hopes have been realized. Positive reviews and comments from members confirmed this.

Our guests:

  • Sara Beth Holman, MASFAA Past-President and Director of Financial Aid at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin provided a MASFAA update for our members as well as conducting the session; Positioning Yourself on Campus. Her advice that “building relationships with key colleagues on campus is critical in ensuring that your voice is heard before things happen . . . rather than being the person who has to figure out how to adapt after they have happened” was well received and of great benefit to attendees. Her knowledge as well as her humor was most welcomed.
  • Justin Draeger, President and CEO of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) joined us at our conference. Justin provided an update of what is taking place now and what might take place concerning Federal Student Aid programs. Justin was inspiring as well as ensuring us that NASFAA is singing our same songs and they do all in their power to ensure access, affordability and resources to those pursuing higher education. We appreciated Justin’s time considering what a tight schedule he had.
  • Angela Smith, Training Officer (Region V), Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, was with us. She provided a general Federal Update session and several other sessions providing federal student aid training. We were fortunate to have her time and expertise and her session on “Ask a Fed” which was standing room only, truly was a “sold out” venue. 
  • Eric Zarnikow, Executive Director of the Illinois Student Assistance Commission (ISAC) stated that they are able to provide their services with “A Little Help From My Friends” and he appreciated the partnership that ILASFAA and ISAC have had for many years. He provided an update on our state student aid programs as well as state budget and legislative activities. We are fortunate to have such a dedicated individual with an orchestra of liked minded staff working hard in such difficult financial times to represent the needs of all of our students but particularly the economically disadvantaged.

We were privileged to have many ISAC staff presenting our sessions in a variety of topics. An overview of the ISAC Audit Process was provided as a two-part session and while not always in two part harmony members concerns and questions were well received. I think members left with a better idea of the process and what is expected from the institution as well as from the ISAC auditing staff.

Ben Burton, President-Elect, Indiana Student Financial Aid Association (ISFAA) and Chief Student Financial Resources Officer, IVY TECH Community College was our MASFAA State-Exchange attendee. Ben presented his session, Consortium and Contractual Agreements whose description; “I’ve been everywhere” was on the spot in describing how to manage our “wandering” students' financial aid needs and remain in compliance.

Cyekeia Lee, Representative for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth presented the session; Being Their Advocate: Assisting Homeless Youth with Higher Education Access. This session provided us with valuable information and strategies to better serve this population of our nation’s most vulnerable youth who need us so much to help them achieve a better life through education.

Sessions were offered by many of our members who gave of their time to present on a variety of “Top 10 Hit List” topics. It is a bonus to have so many competent professionals wanting to give back to the membership. We could not conduct such a quality training conference without their generosity.

Our ILASFAA Support consisted of Academic Works, CEFCU, Charter One, Discover, First Marble Head, General Revenue Corp., Great Lakes, iHelp, Inceptia, ISAC, MOHELA, Navient, PNC, Sallie Mae, SALT, Toad Code Inc., USA Funds and Wells Fargo. Not only do these supporters help us keep conference costs manageable for our member’s but many of their representatives presented at sessions. We thanked them by hosting the ILASFAA Support reception with great food and live music performed by Scott Kaczinski, a singer/songwriter who performs original songs and a wide variety of music for various venues.

Scott also performed on Thursday morning as folks were heading in to first sessions. We had the music of The River City String Duo perform as we entered lunch and before we began the Business meeting. Members’ said they appreciated the halls filed with music and it created the right tone for a day that was fully packed with training and professional development. We ended that day with a dinner and then live music from a Peoria local band Jammsammich. Their formula of groove-driven funk, R&B, retro 80’s tunes, island jams, and liberal doses of comedy was welcomed by members who danced, laughed and sang-a long.

The ILASFAA Charity consisted of individual ILASFAA members donating amazing baskets to be raffled at the conference. Proceeds from the raffle will be donated to our upcoming Reality Store. The 2014 Reality Store was very successful. FAAs throughout the state of Illinois gathered at Kershaw Elementary School in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood for our annual Reality Store held 11/21/14. 74 students, grades 6-8, took part in it. 94% of the students enrolled at the school are classified as low-income. The purpose of the Reality Store is to provide financial literacy education to young people through experiential learning by allowing students to make real-life decisions akin to those their parents make on a day-to-day basis. We were touched by one young student whose career goal is to become a financial aid administrator, how great is that!

As well as the basket raffle to support the Reality Store member Marchello Johnson, University of Illinois, asked us to bring dry goods and toiletries for the Seed of Hope Food Pantry. Members heeded his call; it took him several trips to load up his car with all the donations. Our vocation makes us a very giving group and in tune with the needs of our communities. We can sing John Lennon’s “Imagine All the People Sharing All the World” as a song that rings true.

One of the highlights of the conference was the opportunity to recognize and thank our own by presenting awards. Mary Shaw, Chair of Awards and Recognition (and ILASFAA Past-Present) and the committee worked at selecting and compiling data for this year’s recipients. These were presented to members for their years of service in the financial aid profession, their retirement announcements as well as several select awards:
  • Meritorious Service was presented to Sue Swisher, Saint Xavier University, Sue is also the MASFAA President-Elect.
  • Sustained Service was presented to Karen Belling, Wheaton College, Amanda Fijal, University of Chicago and Cheryl Howerton, Milikin University. 
  • New Professional was presented to Aesha Williams, Illinois Institute of Technology
  • President’s Award was presented to Sam Nelson, Director of Outreach Development, Illinois Student Assistance Commission
  • Committee of the Year was presented to ILASFAA/ISAC Rules & Operations, Cheryl Warman, Oakton Community College as Chair.
It was a fantastic conference and would not have been so without the devotion to detail, mindfulness of resources and talents that the Conference Executive VP, Michelle Cornell, Illinois State University, and her Conference Team made up of Program Chair Brandon Huiner, University of Chicago , Facilities Co-Chairs Tammy Garza, Lakeview College of Nursing and Becky Prather, University of Illinois Springfield, ILASFAA Support Chair Kathy Bangesser, Highland Community College, and Event Registration Chair Jenny Stout, Eastern Illinois University along with their committee members. They took to task the work required in creating and executing the “Concert”. Thank you is never enough to say for the amount of time and hard work these individuals donated to the membership. They truly “Rocked” us all!!!

My “Swan Song” at the end was in saying that, “I love our profession and the fact that we are a positive instrument in our student’s lives. We are unique in our vocation and thus many on our campus colleagues view us as beating by a different drummer. I see this as a good thing, we do have a key role in helping the individual in meeting their educational goal and in keeping our school in compliance with the seemingly endless supply of rules and regulations coming from an endless supply of entities (kind of like Jazz sessions). It is one of the most interesting and rewarding positions on our campus. Nobody gets us like us and that is why I have enjoyed our ILASFAA conferences through the years. What a wonderful opportunity to be with those who understand your joys and frustrations. When we support each other, grow in our profession and keep the “Songs” of our students in our heart we really do make beautiful music together.” The Gavel was passed to Amanda Fijal, University of Chicago, who is the 2015/16 ILASFAA President.

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