CHRIS AND HELEN- THE DOOR OPENERS

When we began the McKelvey and Lenfest Foundation Scholarship programs eleven years ago, we were not familiar with the vagaries of higher education. Having been in basic education for all of our lives, our goal was to get rural kids to go to college and to have them complete school in four years.

Carol had some experience with her Bright Futures Heinz Foundation grant, working with two rural school districts. I had little in the way of connections to higher ed. and its serpentine way of doing things. I had deliberately kept away from colleges and universities as a place of employment, either as a faculty member or an administrator.
As we met with staff at the colleges that we had researched that might handle rural students on the personal level, we met both Chris and Helen. Both are financial aid experts and heads of financial aid at both a public and private college. Chris has just retired from Mansfield University and Helen still occupies the chair at Susquehanna University.
As the years have gone by, we have met countless admissions and financial aid officers from some of the finest universities. There does not seem to be a standard way of doing things for each of the schools. Sure, there is a FAFSA form, which determines how much aid you might get from federal and state coffers, but beyond that, there are individual decisions.
There have been many strange happenings (at least for us) in the doling out of funding for kids. In one instance, a student could not afford to go to a public college and was able to afford a private college. I know, for the uninitiated, that sounds ludicrous, but I assure you it is true. The young man just graduated from the private college.
There really is not agreement between classes of schools as to how to do things. You might think that Ivy League schools have agreed to do things the same way- no they have not. One would think that public colleges in one state have the same method for figuring things out, after all they cannot give out scholarships, but they do not do it the same way. I often wonder if the various schools compare their methods and wonder what the heck is going on.
That brings us to Chris and Helen. Let’s look at Chris first. He had been at the same institution most of his working life. Not only was he in charge of freshman finance, but he also recruited students. Chris’ aims were to get youngsters onto campus and make sure that they graduated in the least time possible.
His understanding of each kid’s need was encyclopedic. He could rattle off their grades (most times) and knew more about veteran’s college benefits than any one that I have known. He was able to package all of these programs together and get the student into Mansfield. He was especially adept at working with the inside people, such as the bookstore to make it easier for students to get the books that they needed. Books now cost about 600-700 bucks a semester.
At a point in the McKelvey Foundation program, Andy decided that kids, who had left school within the last few years because of money problems, should be given a chance at a scholarship. In order to get the word out, we set up a video conference with all six of our state college finance directors. We explained what the idea was and hoped that they could identify such kids.
Chris found us 45 scholarship winners, the other five combined found us two. Did all of the students, make it to graduation? The answer is no. However 50% of them did and most finished in four years. That is one heck of a record for kids who had been out of school for a year or two. National statistics do not come close to this record.
How about Helen? Helen’s view of finance at Susquehanna University is similar to Chris’s but with one difference. Susquehanna can give out scholarships. Helen has restrictions to what she can do, but she always seems to come up with an answer. Our McKelvey and Lenfest scholars have been universally successful at Susquehanna. Helen keeps on eye out for them and many of them see her as their contact.
She has made the President of Susquehanna,Jay Lemons aware of our kids and has arranged for us to have lunch with him and our scholarship winners. When we approached Helen about a student who had been at a public college and needed to have a more challenging environment, she made it all happen. The student has been very successful there.
Although she is not the admissions officer, she works very closely with Chris Markle, who is of like mind about students. Helen has helped us on a yearly basis with our Lenfest parents. She has been a part of the seminar at the PHEAA (agency that distributes state funding to students) headquarters to explain college finance.
Are there others like Chris and Helen? Yes, there probably are. These two, however are special and we have been fortunate to know them and work with them. There are many many students who have been made whole by their involvement.

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