Roberta Johnson

She joined Iowa State's financial aid staff in 1982 as a secretary for the student loan unit, and advanced to serve as coordinator of student loan processing for 15 years. Johnson was named associate director of student financial aid in 2000, and in 2005 (after two years in an interim role), director. Last summer, she was named executive director as part of a leadership transition and will retire from the university in early July. Inside talked with her about the notion of service, especially during new student orientation.

The basics

Title: Executive director, office of student financial aid

Years at Iowa State: 42; nearly 41 in student financial aid, one year with the former Land Use Analysis Lab, agronomy department

Education: B.S. (2), home economics education and elementary education; M.S., counselor education (community counseling), all from Iowa State

First-year students received their financial aid award letters back in February. What do they need from your team during orientation?

It's all over the board. We assist an average of 200 students and their parents a day, not counting those who attend our overview sessions. Some who come to orientation haven't accepted admission, much less their aid package, and they have questions about it. Some are dropping off a local scholarship check, so we process those. Our proximity to the ISUCard office influences some of our traffic: While they're in the building, parents think it would just be nice to sit across a desk from someone for reassurance that everything is OK with their financial aid.

Four of our counselors take turns presenting a financial aid overview in the Curtiss auditorium twice each morning. We have a team of 26 full-time staff on a fairly elaborate intranet calendar for answering phone inquiries and assisting walk-in families. The system has an appointment kiosk function, so one of our student employees stands outside our offices and collects and enters student names and ID numbers. Everybody "on duty" gets pinged that someone is waiting, and the next available counselor goes to meet them. 

Are you in that mix?

Yes. I love it. I try to clear my calendar for the mornings because that's when the volume is heaviest. Over 40 years I've observed that even though the way youth are growing up has changed dramatically, the same nervousness and excitement, that same anxiety -- especially among parents when it's a first child going to college -- is there. 

There's a lot of reassuring parents that at Iowa State University we do a wonderful job of wrapping our arms around our students and taking care of them, that there are a lot of resources here to help their students be successful. Parents can advocate for their child, but the student really needs to take some responsibility -- and that's an important message to convey, too.

My team's goal is that when U bills print at the end of July, students see their financial aid is ready for them. Orientation helps us get there.

What I've learned is that everybody's story is different; so stop and listen to their stories.

Roberta Johnson

Has 40 years in financial aid immunized you to students in impossible situations?

What I've learned is that everybody's story is different; so stop and listen to their stories. It's dollars and cents, but financial aid is a very emotional topic. Families are trying to figure out how to pay for an education, not a car. My approach has always been, 'Let's talk about options and choices.' Family dynamics and expectations vary so much, but the goal is that students accumulate as little debt as possible and understand the difference between good debt and bad debt, for example, credit card debt.

I think the time I spent in a counseling practicum for my master's degree gave me a heart for people who are living on the edge. Today, we have students whose strategy for saving money is to not eat. That's not a good solution, and we need to help them look at all their options.

Financial aid service has evolved with time and technology. Is there an accomplishment you're especially proud of?

[Former treasurer] Joan Piscitello and I worked with our IT team to become one of the first universities in the nation, in 1993, to use electronic funds transfer (EFT) for student loan funds. From there, we kept going. A student loan program proposed under President George H. W. Bush finally was piloted under President Bill Clinton -- what would become the Federal Direct Student Loan Program. All the work we did on EFT really helped us get ready, and Iowa State was among the first 104 universities in the nation to join the program. So, the ADIN system that Workday soon will replace started as a customized solution to enormous manual processes.

When I started in 1982, we processed every student loan application manually. We were dealing with more than 700 lending institutions all over the country and spent hours calling banks to see when their checks would arrive. We'd create a receipt for each check, alphabetize them in large boxes and walk them to the treasurer's office for disbursement. Through all those years in the weeds, I kept thinking, 'There has to be a better way.' 

You picked July 5 as your retirement date, not, say, May 5. Why?

Orientation is energizing. I like talking to students and parents and helping them realize Iowa State is really a great place with lots of resources to help students be successful. 

June is a very busy time for my staff. We have an 'all hands on deck' approach because this has to be a team effort. Even though it's orientation season, there are professional development opportunities occurring this month, so some of my staff will be away for up to a week at a time. They really need to attend to stay current on changes -- and be in a better position to carry the torch when I leave.