Meet Amy Bridenstine, 2021 NISOD Excellence Award winner
Money. It’s a taboo topic in polite conversation, but it affects everyone, especially students and their families. Seward County Community College Financial Aid Director Amy Bridenstine understands that money matters are less about numbers than the end goal of taking care of people. Her ability to make that connection earned her an 2021 Excellence Award from the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development.
In the year and a half that Bridenstine has been director of financial aid, said SCCC Research Analyst Teresa Wehmeier, she has led significant changes to improve operations in the office. “Every change has two fundamental goals: improve the aid distribution process and help students,” said Wehmeier. Those changes include an office-wide shift to paperless systems: online forms for students to apply for scholarships, email aid notifications that comply with Federal regulations, and more.
During her 10 years in the SCCC Accounts Payable office, Bridenstine’s background and education 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 apply for the financial aid position, she recalled in an interview in 2019:
“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.”
Two years into her new role, Bridenstine relishes the opportunity to connect with — and make a difference in the lives of — SCCC students. The wall outside her office houses a growing collage of greetings in many languages. Every time a student who speaks a language other than English arrives on campus, that person is bound to pass through the financial aid office, where Bridenstine takes the time to acknowledge countries of origin and students’ first languages.
“It’s a small way to affirm to our international students and even our local students who came here from other places that we see them and value them as they are,” she said. “Financial aid always brings up a lot of emotions for people connected to money, household finances, and the confusion of all the forms. One of our goals is to be a place where students feel they can come for dependable, reliable help that’s friendly.” This focus on the individual and their background, strengths, and needs brings a warmth to crunching numbers and potentially stressful conversations.
“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.
The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic added a formidable layer of duties to the financial aid office. Once more, Bridenstine’s willingness to learn on the fly and her heart for students combined for a quick, kind response.
“During the distribution process for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act funds, Amy led a team of reviewers to develop an efficient process of distribution, knowing students needed the money immediately, instead of waiting for bureaucracy to catch up,” Wehmeier said. ““Amy can utilize the technologies available to her to make things happen.”
This ability to pivot and adjust echoes Bridenstine’s personal journey through higher education. As a high school graduate, her plans to attend a state university fell apart at the last minute, leaving her with one option: community college in her hometown. It wasn’t what she had envisioned, yet it turned out to be providential.
“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.” Bridenstine went on to complete a bachelor’s degree in accounting, marry a hometown sweetheart, and raise her two sons in Liberal. At SCCC, the learning continues.
Within a year of moving into the financial aid position, Bridenstine completed the first of several credentials offered through NASFA — the national organization that interprets the Department of Education instructions for institutions of higher learning. She also applied attention to management responsibilities as head of a four-person office.
“When Amy became director of financial aid, she had no prior experience in the department and had never been a director,” Wehmeier recalled. “She understood her limitations and immediately set out to learn everything she could.” One key takeaway: the need for department-wide training to comply with the ever-expanding body of federal and state regulations. Bridenstine developed a learning system for the SCCC Financial Aid Department where each person participates in learning opportunities throughout the year, often monthly.
“She’s the definition of a leader,” Wehmeier said.
For information about financial aid at SCCC, contact the office at 620-417-1110.