Blog

Sandi’s Story – The Act of Helping Someone

At Financial Aid Services (FAS) and Genesis Software, we are known for our industry expertise with decades worth of experience. But how did our experts first begin their journey in the world of Higher Education and Financial Aid?  

This month we are hearing from Sandi O’Connell, our President here at FAS. Read below to learn more about how her story in the Financial Aid Industry first began.

__________________________________________________________ 

How did I get here?

Financial Aid has been a part of my family for over four decades. My dad, Albert Gillis, attended Bentley College (now Bentley University) and later became a well-known Financial Aid Director there. Students loved going to him for assistance, or even just to talk. My dad was equally as much a counselor helping students in his role there. He eventually transitioned into a director position at a chain of career schools. From there he used his network of friends (fellow business owners and financial aid administrators) that frequently called him for advice, as the basis for starting his own Financial Aid Consulting Business in the basement of our home in April of 1980.

I grew up helping my dad with various tasks in his financial aid consulting and servicing business. In my early teens, I actually used a pencil to fill in answers on reports to file financial aid statements for students. While in college, I pursued a double major in English Writing and Business Management and graduated with a degree in business management. My plan was to either open my own business or explore opportunities in writing and editing. However, after some unpleasant interviews with editing companies during a challenging job market in the early ’90s, I found myself temporarily assisting my dad again. This time, I worked as a receptionist and administrative assistant. His financial aid service had expanded and was now located in larger offices in Lowell, then Tewksbury, Massachusetts. 

It was both rewarding and challenging working alongside my family. My mom, sister, sister’s husband at the time, Ron, and even my cousin all worked at Financial Aid Services. My dad had exceptionally high standards and expected me to adhere to a strong work ethic. I was usually nervous when he stood over my shoulder, observing my work. However, it felt good knowing that I was helping in our busy office. 

About a year after graduation, while still working at FAS, my dad brought me into his office and presented me with a choice: continue working at FAS for the long term or seek a job outside of the company. By then, I was growing comfortable in my role and wanted to learn more about financial aid processing. The people at FAS were fun to work with, and our work had a real purpose in helping students secure funding and assisting colleges and career schools in maintaining compliance with regulations and ensuring accurate processing. Additionally, many of our clients felt like friends that I spoke with. My dad always preached treating our clients with, “Kid Gloves,” while my mom excelled in establishing personal relationships due to her caring and empathetic nature. We knew and cared about our clients’ personal lives, but they also knew about ours. Therefore, our calls with clients were more time-consuming, but always resulted in enriching conversations.  

As time passed, I learned various aspects of financial aid, including Verification of student files, processing Pell and SEOG disbursements, and reconciliation. I eventually took on the challenge of certifying student loans, beginning with the Guaranteed Student Loan Program (GSL), also known as the Federal Family Education Loan Program (FFELP), and then the Federal Student Direct Loan Program. As I learned more about financial aid, I was able to combine it with my passion for writing. I started creating forms, writing our newsletter, crafting training manuals, and later developing marketing materials and numerous emails. I also needed to help with school Program Reviews and Audits, which required large amounts of research, review, and writing. I had to overcome my anxiety and became good at public speaking during training and when travelling to visit schools, and eventually spoke in front of hundreds of people at our annual conferences 

FAS grew and changed over the years quickly, thanks to the speed of technology. We had to learn how to be a nimble software development company as much as a Financial Aid Consulting and Processing Company. My dad entrusted me and Ron Berton to take the reins in research and development of our Financial Aid Software and our Genesis School Management Software. We hired an in-house developer and later an outsourced team, spending countless hours in our conference room mapping business rules and processes to be integrated into our software. Both Ron and I had to learn and master the cycle of creating software, updating software, and rewriting software from the ground up.  We started with a DOS system, transitioned to a database desktop system, and then educated ourselves on the cloud-based systems, mobile platforms, and security measures, which is what we are currently enhancing! 

Around 2005, when we relocated FAS to Salem, NH, my dad chose to semi-retire and gave Ron and I the greatest gift: majority ownership of the company.  We became driven owners, managers, and leaders, aiming to uphold my dad’s vision for FAS’s growth. 

I made a commitment to, “pay it forward,” and educate myself on being a servant leader who provides opportunities in the form of work, experience, and empowerment at FAS. Throughout the years, we have welcomed interns from our family and employees’ families, including nieces, nephews, close friends, and relatives, and now even our own children have worked at FAS. It is a true family business fostering a culture that prioritizes individuals, a high quality of life, camaraderie, and care for our extended family of employees and clients. 

As I reflect on my journey, I often ponder, “Would I change my path? Should I have pursued writing or my love for the outdoors instead of sitting at a desk?” In my heart, I know that I would not and could not.  I have positively affected so many lives. The definition of Aid is, ‘The Act of Helping Someone.’ In Financial ‘Aid’, and at FAS, to know that I can continue to make an incredible impact on students’ lives, the lives of our FAS team and family, their families, and our clients, produces a gratifying feeling of fulfilling my purpose in this world. I will keep paying it forward with all our resources, and all that I have learned and experienced. I humbly embrace my role as a student of servant leadership and stay true to my mission of aiding and helping in any way I can. 

Thank you, Dad! I love you. 

1 Comment

  1. Al Gillis

    October 24, 2023 at 5:20 am

    I could not have made a better choice in leaving my company in better hands. You and Ron have proven to be dedicated and hard driven workers. The company has grown over the years under your supervision way beyond anyones expectation. I am very proud of you both.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Let's Talk ×

    Financial Aid Services

    Here to Streamline and Provide Support to your Institution's Financial Aid Department.

    Students and parents, contact your school’s financial aid office or click here to visit the FAFSA site

    Interested In:

    Are you currently using a 3rd Party Servicer?:

    Email Signup: