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Back Story

Stumbling Into Student Services

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Charmaine Daniels admits that she stumbled into her first full-time job. 

“I was a student worker at the student accounts office of Florida A&M University,” she recalls. “I took a call from a lady who said she was calling for her skycap at O’Hare airport because his daughter was a student there and had issues with her account. Because of FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), I couldn’t go into any details with her, but I was able to recognize the situation and say, ‘OK, we’ll take care of it.’”  

While making small talk with the caller, Daniels explained that she was about to graduate and move to Chicago. The lady said, “When you get to Chicago, come see me. I’m Judi Flink, the director of student financial services at University of Illinois at Chicago.”

 After arriving in Chicago, Daniels did just that. She visited Flink, not sure what to expect. “There’s something about you,” Flink said. “I’m impressed with your customer service skills. This is the job I have for you, and this is the day you can start.”

Three months later, Daniels was a supervisor. Five months after that, she was embroiled in the Banner Enterprise Resource Planning project. 

After nine years with the University of Illinois, Daniels moved to Atlanta for a job at Georgia State University. She is now the associate vice president for student financial services at Morehouse College in Atlanta.

Since you arrived at Morehouse last November, what have been your priorities?

The first thing that I did was conduct a strategic analysis. When you’re at a smaller institution, the inclination is sometimes to use manual processes. I’ve found that the size of your institution doesn’t matter: Automation always helps improve efficiency and accuracy. One of the main things that I’m working toward is automation of routine functions. 

Second is implementing baseline functionality. This will allow us to improve our efficiency, because we can use the same upgrades as everybody else and be on the same software implementation schedules.

Third is reporting. Morehouse has made some great investments in technology for reporting software. We want to continue to leverage that platform to enhance our operation. 

How have student financial service operations changed in the last decade?

Before, we could work in silos with our own fiscal policies. Today, with so much competition for students and the focus on outcomes, we have to partner with our enrollment colleagues to provide solutions and options for supporting student success.

In my experience, collaborating with enrollment is one of the most important steps that we can take. Those of us in student financial services are used to moving in our own circle, but we need to go across the aisle.

Constructed in 1889, Graves Hall is the oldest building on campus and named after the college’s second president, Samuel T. Graves.

What, specifically, can student financial services do to contribute to student success?

Student financial services can contribute to student success by providing students and their families with access to their financial account information in easy and user-friendly ways. Families need to understand their bills and charges. 

Also, thinking of ways to operate in a more real-time environment. Do our operational practices make sense for students in this day and age? Do they complement the way students learn and interact with the university?  

What can institutions do to improve their student accounts receivables?

Having automation helps to improve the efficiency of operations in accounts receivables. We need to have regular and timely processing of our operations. That’s basic. But, we need to also understand our student population and their options for payment. For example, we should use data about student payment trends to understand the best type of payment plan to implement. Does an annual plan or a semester plan make more sense? We should use data—not somebody’s gut—to inform our decisions.

Of course, we need to engage with students—something that we don’t do as much as we should. We need to find out what types of services would help them meet financial obligations, in addition to having open lines of communication, because we can’t operate without understanding what our customers need.

Tell me about a challenging situation you faced and how you dealt with it.

IRS Form 1042-S is required to be filed for international students who receive scholarships from U.S.–sourced funds. When I first got here, I didn’t know anything about this form. And, unfortunately, the person who previously handled the process was no longer with Morehouse. 

I spent a good week or so crawling through federal regulations regarding 1042-S. I reached out to colleagues and used my network, and with the information available online, I was able to complete the process. Now that I’m the 1042-S expert, I’m transferring that knowledge to someone on our team so that they can also become familiar with the filing process and federal protocol.

What’s the most important professional lesson that you have learned?

Don’t attach your identity to your job or title. It’s a fast way to lose yourself. Even though I may be good at what I do, my profession doesn’t define me. I’m more than my title—I’m a whole person. I’m a mom, a wife, and a good friend. The central part of my identity cannot be defined by where I work.

What’s the biggest risk that you have taken in your career and how did that work out?

While I was working at Georgia State, I hired an employee from Colombia, South America, who couldn’t speak much English. 

I needed to hire an IT professional for the student accounts office. She stood out from the applicant pool. She was a Banner software superstar with great experience, but when we brought her in for an interview, we found that it was difficult to communicate. 

I decided to pull her in for a second interview and sat her down at my desk and said, “Show me what you can do.” She did, and I hired her. It was the best decision I ever made. For the first six to eight months, we communicated via e-mail using Google translate while she improved her English skills. She is now one of the most sought-after IT resources at Georgia State University. She eventually moved from my office to central IT because they realized she is a rock star.   

What is your biggest success?

The people that I have touched. When I look over my career, I can see the positive impact that I’ve made on my staff’s lives and careers. Judi, my first boss in higher education, showed me how to empower people and give them access to development and resources. Employees who know that their managers are willing to invest in their careers want to perform at a high level. 

By helping people grow and develop, you get employees who value you and the organization, and the work that they are doing. That approach has never failed me.

What challenges have you overcome in your life or career?

I had a child while I was in college. My boyfriend—who is now my husband—and I were single, broke college kids. When I found out that I was going to have a baby, I planned to drop out for a while. Johnoson Crutchfield, Sr., then director of student accounts at Florida A&M University, inspired me to finish school. I went into his office and said, “Hey, I know I owe a balance, but I don’t know how I’m going to pay it. I’m going to take some time off.” He helped me resolve my balance and gave me a job working in student accounts.  

I wasn’t even going to be a college graduate. I was going to be a dropout. He completely changed my life by showing that he cared about my future. 

So, you married your college sweetheart. Tell us about your family. 

Yes, Jerrold and I got married before I graduated. We now have a 20-year-old daughter, Jazzmin; a 15-year-old son, Aaron; and a 12-year-old daughter, Lauren.  

How do you unwind from the pressures of the job?

I watch HGTV. That’s my guilty pleasure. I do DIY projects around my house, such as replacing tiles in the bathroom, kitchen, and basement. If I’m not doing that, I’m trying to invent some new dish in my kitchen.  

MARGO VANOVER PORTER, Locust Grove, Va., covers higher education business issues for Business Officer.

Credit: Morehouse College