Over spring break, I spent three days in the Office of Financial Aid at the University of Southern California. Since this week preceded the week of acceptance decisions, it was a fairly hectic time as everyone in the office was working to ensure that the final roll-out would be flawless! However, that made the experience so much more interesting since I got to sit in the midst of a veritable firestorm of activity.
The first day, the alumni hosting me,, Ms. Noemi Tagorda ’00, invited me into her office and gave me a run down of the financial aid office’s responsibilities. She also gave me a tour of the office, and then assigned me the task of trying to forecast the potential impact that changes to the Cal Grant (which is the financial aid service operated by the state for needy students) might have on USC. This work was quite fascinating – it really gave me a chance to see how statistical models can be applied to real-world scenarios, and more broadly, it showed me the nuances behind policy making. Throughout the day, she also allowed me to sit in on a variety of meetings she attended or led, which involved discussions between the many members of the financial aid office, including the dean, the communications director, and many others. It really gave me a feel for the degree of interconnectivity between different departments, and also highlighted, for me, how crucial polished interpersonal skills and the ability to work well as a team are for certain jobs.
The next day, I continued with my task (which made me realize how different real world application of skills is from pure problem sets), and also got to attend a couple more meetings with Ms. Tagorda. She also allocated part of the morning to familiarizing me with financial aid allocation policy formulation by running me through a couple case examples of fictitious students who “applied” to USC and who had very different (and oftentimes extenuating) circumstances that had to be taken into consideration when trying to figure out if and how much aid USC should and could offer. It was a fascinating, multifaceted process that definitely gave me a newfound respect for the range of concerns that have to be addressed in any field involving policy implementation. Additionally, I learned about the involvement of many schools, USC included, in spearheading lobbying efforts in Sacramento to encourage the state to sustain, if not increase, its aid for nonprofit higher education institutions, but above all, to hopefully prevent cuts that may threaten the ability of such schools to continue to be needs-blind in their admissions decisions.
The final day, I continued with the predictions and also got the chance to see how the online rollout process works, especially the portals that parents and students could use to view their financial aid awards. I ended the Princeternship by talking with Ms. Tagorda about paths to financial aid professions and other policy-oriented fields, as well as general impressions from the experience. I was truly impressed by the amount of friendliness shown by all the staff in the financial aid office, and even more impressed by their dedication to using limited resources in as efficiently as possible to allow as many admitted students to attend USC as possible, and it gave me a much greater appreciation for the processes that must have allowed me to receive financial aid from Princeton. The total experience was a great learning opportunity, and a highly productive way to spend Spring Break!