Connecting with students prompted career shift
For more than 10 years, Amy Bridenstine has been the face behind the checks that flow from the Accounts Payable desk at Seward County Community College. These days, she has a new role: overseeing the funds that help individual students pay for college.
Bridenstine took on the job of SCCC Director of Financial Aid in July 2019, following the retirement of longtime director Donna Fisher. As head of a four-woman office, she oversees frontline service to students applying for financial aid and behind-the-scenes compliance with federal and state law. The supply closet in the department contains multiple file cabinets with documentation of student aid; it’s a “tip of the iceberg” glimpse into the detailed, vast record-keeping and financial information the office handles.
“I’m not gonna lie, I was intimidated,” Bridenstine said. “Donna was amazing.” The new director was thankful the staff in the office held to the same standard established by her predecessor. “Faye Zimmerman, Cindy Michel and Tammy Garth are fantastic, super-efficient, kind to students. I pulled the lucky straw.”
Bridenstine also found that while financial aid encompasses an “astonishing amount of information,” the starting point is the same for everyone.
“Nobody who works in financial aid has a degree in that subject, because there isn’t really a degree,” she said. “You learn it by working with it.” Nonetheless, Bridenstine’s background and education served her well: a degree in accounting taught her to apply careful attention to details, master spreadsheets and data, and remain mindful of the parameters of law.
Yet it was something more than math that led Bridenstine to the office.
“I love the numbers and keeping track of the numbers, but I always kind of felt like the Lord was telling me, ‘You’re surrounded by all these students. What are you doing to connect with them?’” she recalled. “And in accounts payable, the students had no reason to interact with me.”
In response, Bridenstine took on a side job, that of concessions manager for the Saints athletics events at the Greenhouse.
“I loved being able to walk down the hall and know students’ names,” she said. “I finally felt plugged in.”
The shift mirrored Bridenstine’s own experience as an SCCC student. When she graduated from Liberal High School, Bridenstine hoped to attend Kansas State University.
“But my financial aid fell through, I didn’t get the scholarships I expected, and I was on my own,” she said. The sensible, pragmatic choice was to attend more affordable, right-at-home Seward.
“I wasn’t happy,” she recalled. “My plan was messed up! But within the first semester at SCCC, I had found my place. I joined choir and show choir, connected with my classmates, and we became like a family.” Upon comparing notes with former high school classmates who had moved directly to a four-year university, Bridenstine realized that “my teachers were fantastic; they all knew who I was, and a lot of my friends couldn’t say that. And my homework was just as hard as theirs.”
Like many SCCC choir students of that time, Bridenstine became close to (former) vocal instructor Lori Geis, who also served as a church choir director at First Christian Church.
“She always bugged me to go to church with her, but I didn’t want to,” Bridenstine said with a chuckle. “I grew up in a Christian household, went to youth group, and now was my time to be an adult with nobody making me do this church thing.”
Several years passed before that changed. Geis had resigned her job at SCCC , moved to Marlow, Okla., to teach high school and be closer to her parents. Bridenstine had completed her bachelor’s degree at Oklahoma Panhandle State University, married, and started her own adult journey. Yet, when Geis was diagnosed with cancer, she found time for weekend trips to visit her former instructor.
“She was basically living at the hospital, and didn’t have anyone to sit with her,” Bridenstine said. “She wasn’t coherent. We couldn’t converse. I felt compelled to read the Bible to her because I knew that was what she cared about.” During the long-three-hour drive home, Bridenstine said, “I would spend the entire time praying. I didn’t know what else to do.”
The experience pushed Bridenstine to find a church of her own in Liberal, and to get involved in children’s ministry. She also began to prioritize listening for the “still, small, voice” of God that Christian believers rely upon. Ultimately, she said, that voice prompted her to step into a student-centered role at the college — with some encouragement from the college’s upper administration.
“I’m so thankful that Celeste Donovan (Vice President of Student Services) encouraged me to consider it,” she said. “I enjoy the work, getting to use a different part of my brain than I did for the last 10 years. No two days are ever the same.”
Bridenstine has approached the job with two goals: to build her knowledge of financial aid until she masters the basics, and to simplify the system for students. Bridenstine has completed the first of several credentials offered through NASFA — the national organization that interprets the Department of Education instructions for institutions of higher learning.
“Our kids come in questioning everything, and I’ve really focused on streamlining processes,” she said. “They don’t need more obstacles. There are different ways to do things once we look into the options.” One example is a new app that will allow students to complete verification and provide supporting documents through an online portal. Another is software that can match student interests, grades, and area of study with scholarship opportunities.
In the everyday flow of work, Bridenstine relishes time in the all-female office, a refreshing contrast to her home with husband Keith and sons Gage and Callen.
“It’s nice to not be the only girl around,” she said. “And the work is great. I get to know the students, and know their stories. Everyone has a story. So no two days are ever the same, but every day is meaningful.”
For information about financial aid at SCCC, contact the office at 620-417-1110.