Michigan State University has dedicated support staff at all levels of the institution in order to run successfully. But it’s not every day you meet someone who began their career doing a work-study job in the same office they now direct.
Keith Williams, executive director of the Office of Financial Aid, is the exception.
Williams first became familiarized with the Office of Financial Aid when he attended the university. “As an undergraduate student at Michigan State University, I often relied on grants, student loans, and work-study to help finance my education. I come from a single-parent first-generation household. Without support from the various financial aid programs, it would have been very difficult for me to persist and graduate from this great university.”
Williams quickly came to realize that finance could be a lucrative career path for himself and started working at the Office of Financial Aid as a work-study student. Looking back, he remembers enjoying his job and helping students achieve an education. “As a student employee, I had many conversations with full-time employees within the Office of Financial Aid. The common theme is they all loved helping students finance their education. I knew that changing lives by helping students finance an education at MSU was something that I would love to do for the long run,” he says.
He also credits MSU for preparing him for his career in financial aid, as he was able to interact with others who shared similar interests in the profession. “As a finance major, I quickly became very comfortable working with numbers. I also had the opportunity to meet and interact with many people from many different backgrounds. Being able to work with numbers and understand the unique needs of individuals are critical in the financial aid profession. Also, one of my undergraduate academic advisors told me to pick a career path that you can enjoy for a very long time. I truly love being able to help students achieve their educational goals.”
Williams enjoyed his time at MSU so much that he dubs himself a “Spartan for life,” returning to work in the Office of Financial Aid after graduating with his degree in finance. “I have always loved MSU. This was the only college in which I applied for admission. My four years as an undergraduate student was a fantastic experience. I learned so much about so many things, picked up some very valuable life skills, and made some life-long friends. The thought of turning my work-study job into a long-term career at MSU was one that I was very excited about.”
Passionate about helping others through his work, Williams knew he wanted to stay with the university, despite some downsides to the job. “MSU was one of three jobs offered after I received my degree in finance. The other two offers actually had a higher starting salary. To me, the choice was still easy. Being in a position to help reduce or eliminate financial barriers for students is something that I have passion for,” he says.
After a long, successful career in the finance field, Williams eventually worked his way up to his current position, executive director of Financial Aid. Remaining confident in his abilities was key to his securing this position. “The role of executive director of Financial Aid at MSU is huge. There is a lot of on-the-job training. As the lead person on a team in charge of managing an operation that disburses over $700M in total financial aid, you have to stay humble and take advantage of all professional development opportunities. You also have to be a good communicator and listener,” he states.
Even after over 20 years in this position, Williams still feels the same sense of pride he did when he started his work-study as an undergraduate. “My favorite part of the job is on the very back end of the student’s educational experience. I often meet brand new incoming first-year students completely stressed about finances. Being able to help them navigate the financial aid process and find additional resources to assist in the financing of their education is extremely satisfying. Seeing the students who did not think they could afford an education at MSU graduate is the ultimate for me. I get invited to graduations every year from prior financial aid recipients. I try to attend each and every one of them.”
In terms of advice he has for students who may follow a career path similar to his own, Williams would tell them to seize every opportunity that comes their way. “If you have an opportunity to join the financial aid team as a student employee, be sure to take advantage of it. I would say that being a financial aid administrator is an absolutely great career. You have an opportunity to impact so many lives in a very positive way. You will develop many life-long friendships by being a member of the financial aid profession. I have met colleagues and become friends with people all across the country by attending various financial aid training conferences,” he says of his career thus far.
Reflecting on his journey, Williams says, “I would simply say it is an honor and a privilege to lead the financial aid department at Michigan State University. I want to thank all the mentors and peers who have shown so much support over the past many years. Last but certainly not least, I want to say thank you to the entire staff in the Office of Financial Aid. Having a strong team has made the transition easier and much better.”