Feeling helpless at the helpline: UMass student operators faced ‘barriers’ assisting others with financial aid

  • University of Massachusetts students Elena Valenzuela-Stookey, left, and Nora Cameron in front of Machmer Hall, Wednesday, where both worked as “university helpline operators” over the summer and found themselves fielding calls regarding financial aid, student loans and other complex issues. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • University of Massachusetts students Elena Valenzuela-Stookey, left, and Nora Cameron in front of Machmer Hall, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2018 where both worked as "university helpline operators" over the summer and found themselves fielding calls regarding financial aid, student loans and other complex issues. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer
Monday, October 22, 2018

AMHERST — When University of Massachusetts Amherst senior Elena Valenzuela-Stookey took a minimum wage job on campus this past summer, she assumed that as a “university helpline operator” at the dean of students office she would be taking low-stress phone calls.

So it was a surprise when Valenzuela-Stookey found herself training to work at a university-based call center, where she would soon be having complex and emotionally charged conversations with students and their families looking for answers as they navigated the complicated​ world of financial aid and student loans. She read off overdue charges to students, and told families they had to pay thousands of dollars by the next day or their child would not be enrolled in the fall.

“I had parents talking to me… as if I had some sort of authority, or that I had some sort of power,” Valenzuela-Stookey said recently.

People who didn’t know she was a student worker would start pouring out their entire financial stories as soon as operators would pick up their phones, and Valenzuela-Stookey said she didn’t feel adequately trained to handle those calls. She said she wished she could have started conversations with the truth. She imagined a conversation more along the lines of, “Hi, this is Elena. I’m a student who was trained two weeks ago and don’t actually have any power. I’m not even sitting in the office you think I am.”

Valenzuela-Stookey said she listened to many callers cry, and on a few occasions she shed tears in the bathroom herself after difficult calls. She said her manager kept operators working at a whirlwind pace to handle as many phone calls as possible.

The 12-operator call center was a summer effort meant to handle the overflow of calls coming into various university offices, including Financial Aid Services and the Office of the Bursar. During important summer months when families are scrambling to pay for school before the start of fall semester, Valenzuela-Stookey said helpline operators were given little training, and then little actual phone time to walk students and families through the obscure, stressful and often expensive world of student financial aid.

Nora Cameron, a senior and fellow operator over the summer, said their supervisor told the call center’s student workers, when discussing the desired tone they should use on the phone, “The university is a business, treat the student like a customer we need to keep.”

“I already knew, of course, that this institution treats us like customers, like all universities in the United States do,” Cameron said. “But it was just so jarring to hear them telling us that.”

Cameron and Valenzuela-Stookey said the bulk of the calls they took came from the financial aid or bursar’s offices. At a time of ballooning student debt nationwide, they said their experience provided a small peek behind the curtain at a financial aid process that is often made most difficult for those most in need.

University response  

In a written statement to questions from the Gazette, university spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said the summer student helpline provides an essential information access point, as well as customer service, for new students and families making a wide variety of calls.

Dettloff said the primary purpose of the helpline is to give immediate, personal contact to callers, adding that operators also proactively reach out to first-generation students to answer questions.

“They are trained to refer difficult or complex calls to professional staff in the bursar’s and financial aid offices either by transferring the call or taking the person’s contact details so a professional staff member can return their call to provide assistance,” Dettloff said. “While they are expected to multi-task, they are not expected to handle complex financial questions.”

Cameron and Valenzuela-Stookey, however, said that isn’t the complete story.

They said that while they did have an undergraduate student “specialist” in the office, many answers still came out of a full binder of information and scripts workers were given to discuss issues with callers.

If those specialists didn’t have an answer, the call was passed up the chain to “professionals,” but it was difficult to get answers from those professionals. Often, the operators were picking up calls from people who had waited weeks to hear back from those professionals in the Whitmore Administration Building, Valenzuela-Stookey said of their experience.

“The university ‘professionals’ could help with calls that didn’t neatly fit into the categories of that binder, but there were many calls that were complicated that still fit those categories/cheat sheets,” Valenzuela-Stookey wrote in a follow-up email. “The issue is that they took something as complicated as students paying bills, taking out loans, verifying tax transcripts, coping with debt and simplified it into a huge stack of cheat sheets that we could read off of.”

Cameron and Valenzuela-Stookey said the type of calls that workers took did vary widely, but mostly came from the financial aid and bursar’s offices — everything from explaining what tax forms to file if your federal aid application was randomly selected for verification to breaking down tuition bills for those with sticker shock.

‘Crazy standards’

In addition to the intricate details the operators were expected to help with, Valenzuela-Stookey and Cameron said that their supervisor expected them to quickly log phone calls before moving onto the next one. In their 11 weeks of working the phones, the team of operators had taken 11,807 incoming calls, according to Valenzuela-Stookey.

“There were just crazy standards,” Cameron said, adding that her manager even timed her bathroom breaks. “I just felt like I could never be that productive.”

“This kind of scientific management of us really constricted how we could really even help students,” Valenzuela-Stookey said. Management would force student operators to take another call even if they were sending a follow-up email to a student, she said.

Dettloff, the university spokeswoman, said that the helpline has been managed by a graduate student each of the several summers it has existed, many of whom were previously student workers in the dean of students office and were familiar with the dean and professional staff there.

“Neither the dean nor any of the associate deans were made aware of any concerns or perceived problems by the helpline workers this summer,” Dettloff said, adding that at the end of the summer helpline workers suggested more training in three areas: graduate student services, the health insurance waiver and international programs. “They also felt that continued training with financial aid staff throughout the summer would be beneficial.”

Valenzuela-Stookey said it felt to her like the laborious bureaucratic hoops someone had to jump through to receive aid from the state and federal governments — getting on the phone during the work day, tracking down forms, confirming that the paperwork they sent was received — often seemed set up to disadvantage the people who most needed the help.

“When it comes down to it, it’s really hard for students to actually take advantage of that funding,” she said. “The process of a student actually verifying that they deserve it is incredibly difficult, and there are so many barriers in that itself.”

One example of those bureaucratic hurdles was the random verification process that affects about a third of applicants who fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Students selected for verification are required to prove that information on their applications is accurate — a time-consuming process.

Valenzuela-Stookey said she wasn’t allowed to recommend private loans to students, but part of their script sent students to a document that listed possible private loan suggestions, including borrowing limits and interest rates.

One student, she said, took out loans to make fall payments while waiting for financial aid to clear. Cameron added that some students selected for FAFSA verification would have to travel to UMass Amherst just to show their passports to verify their citizenship.

“So if they can’t come here to show their passport, they can’t get financial aid, they can’t get to pay their bills and they’re at risk of being withdrawn,” Cameron said.

Valenzuela-Stookey said training amounted to one week of five-hour sessions, though she and some others did 10 hours of “pre-training” the week prior. Her online certification on federal privacy law lasted 15 minutes, and if she got a question wrong it would tell her the right answer. She was allowed to retake the quiz.

Dettloff said students are trained for “several days” on how to handle a wide range of calls, ranging from parking to financial aid.

Cameron and Valenzuela-Stookey said that toward the end of the summer, they had gained enough experience to do a better job guiding students and their families.

“In reality, we did end up answering pretty complicated calls because by the end of the summer we did actually know enough to help them,” Cameron said.

However, the two said that in addition to the high-stress work environment and the dishonesty they felt the helpline represented, their experience at the helpline also gave them a look at the reality of how expensive and inaccessible higher education can often be for families.

“It seemed like the university, all and all, had cut some corners to kind of put us as this buffer to absorb these human experiences and simplify them into these call logs,” Valenzuela-Stookey said.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.