Griswold reflects on life working in student financial aid

Sean Yoder
March 12, 2018

Anna Griswold has been witness to the evolution of student financial aid for more than four decades, from the early days of government assistance to students, to the proliferation of student loans in higher education, as well as the blossoming of fundraising campaigns at public universities.

Griswold will take with her 48 years of experience working in financial aid offices in higher education when she retires from Penn State this month. She’ll be stepping down as the assistant vice president for Undergraduate Education and executive director for Student Aid.

Her work in student aid has taken her to positions at Siena College, University of Memphis, Northern Virginia Community College, Washington State, and finally Penn State starting in 1991.

Like many who go on to careers in higher education, her interest was first stirred during her own college experience as a hopeful and achieving high school student from a small town in Arkansas. Her parents were supportive, she said, but she knew coming from a large family that paying for college on her own would be a struggle. It was through financial assistance that she was able to make it work.

Griswold earned her undergraduate degree in sociology at Siena College in Memphis, Tennessee, where she was also a work-study student serving in the financial aid office.

“The experience of going to college was transformative for me,” she said. “I think it exposed me to a broader world view, and my world had been pretty narrow up to that point.”

It was during her undergraduate studies and work-study in the financial aid office that Griswold said she became interested in looking at people across socioeconomic strata and trying to understand what motivates students to attend college. She also began tutoring inner-city high school students to prepare for and apply to colleges.

“That was a beginning for me in terms of thinking about the meaning and the role of federal and state governments in helping to extend the opportunity of education to students.”

After she finished her own schooling, she began working full time in Siena’s financial aid office. Griswold then went across town to Memphis State, now University of Memphis, to work in financial aid and earn her master’s degree.

From there, Griswold went on to work at Northern Virginia Community College outside of Alexandria, Virginia, and Washington D.C. It happened to be a major resettlement area for Vietnamese refugees in the wake of the Vietnam War, and many of them became interested in attending an affordable college like NVCC. Griswold’s first task was to hire several work-study students from Vietnam who had become fluent in English and could assist in helping those students less fluent. She said because the Vietnamese families came to the U.S. with very little, it was primarily through aid they were able to receive their education.

Griswold then jumped across the map to Washington State University, similar to Penn State in that it was a land-grant university in a small rural town.

In 1991, Griswold took the reins of the Penn State Student Aid office, both from a desire for a bigger challenge and to be east of the Mississippi and closer to family.

The 1990s brought about massive logistical changes in the Student Aid office as computers, digital records and email communication became more and more the norm. No longer were entire rooms taken up by filing cabinets. Nor was an IBM mainframe spitting out rolls of reports.

Much has changed since Griswold first started helping students in 1970 at Siena. The use of education loans skyrocketed as higher education became more expensive and federal and state appropriations and grants funding leveled off. But the 1980s also brought about the federally underwritten loans that allowed middle- and higher-income families that fell outside the parameters of grants to  make use of loans.

Public institutions like Penn State and Washington State also started to turn to fundraising campaigns as a source of scholarships, following suit with private institutions.

Physically, much has changed as well. Griswold’s office sits at the eastern corner of the Shields Building, where from her window she witnessed the construction of the Bryce Jordan Center and more recently, the Pegula Ice Arena.

As the campus grew, so too did the challenge of keeping Penn State accessible to those looking to rise past their life circumstances through the time-tested avenue of an education.

“I do think the University has worked as hard as it can — certainly under Dr. (Eric) Barron — to embrace access and affordability in a more visible way. We are starting to see programs and efforts that really point to making sure that we don’t become inaccessible to low-income students.”

She said the Student Aid office excels at adaptation and improvement in the changing landscapes.

“My role has been to champion and encourage good ideas our staff has come up with,” she said.

Rob Pangborn, vice president and dean for Undergraduate Education, agreed. 

“Anna has been a passionate advocate and innovator for student aid throughout her career,” he said. “Her work has been a key component in allowing Penn State to fulfill its land grant mission.”

Stepping into her shoes will be Melissa Kunes, senior director in the Office of Student Aid for the past 10 years. Griswold said Kunes’ deep knowledge of the office will continue the efficient day-to-day running and management of $1.2 billion in student financial aid which has been under Kunes’ leadership.

Like Griswold has for the last 27 years, Kunes will also be an outward-facing voice for Student Aid across the University, as well as with state and federal legislators, and act as an advocate for Penn State. For a time, Griswold helped to advise the federal Department of Education as it modernized its systems, and has lobbied for the most favorable regulations and appropriations to higher education and Penn State.

“I just think that how we do our work, and how we take complex regulations and systems that are used to deliver financial aid, and work really hard to make sure that those processes are not barriers to students, is something that we have worked really hard at in this office and something that I'm really proud of. This is only possible with our commitment to teamwork and the dedicated and caring staff we have,” Griswold said.

Griswold said she’s looking forward to having more time to travel, visit family and friends and spend time outdoors in her retirement.

Last Updated March 12, 2018