The Practice of Human-kindness

Tuesday, April 24, 2018


Bonnie Joerschke retires as Student Financial Aid Director

From the window of her third-floor office in the Holmes-Hunter Academic Building, Bonnie Joerschke has the perfect view of University of Georgia students playing Frisbee on the north campus lawn. It is quite likely that she has helped those students, either directly or indirectly, with financial assistance for college. For the last 10 years, Joerschke has taken her role as director of the Office of Student Financial Aid beyond her job requirements. She’s made her personal mission to help students who need extra support to attend UGA.

Since her arrival from Purdue University in 2008, Joerschke has worked in partnership with the offices of Undergraduate Admissions, Development and Alumni Relations, and Division of Academic Enhancement to provide access to college for more than 270,000 undergraduate and graduate students seeking financial aid, which totals more than $4.02 billion in federal, state institutional, and private scholarships, grants and loans over the last 10 years.

Around 81 percent of UGA students have the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships, but many students can’t afford to pay the gap in expenses not covered by the scholarships, like books, supplies, housing and food. Joerschke’s passion—and her unquestionable compassion—for those who fall in the $100 million financial aid gap each year has motivated Joerschke throughout her 40-year career in student financial aid, rooted in her own experience as a first-generation student from a single parent household.

“For me, the absolutely most rewarding part is being able to help students who wouldn’t be here—or anywhere else—without financial aid. This is what provides them access to college, to overcome barriers to an education.”

To many students, she’s more than just a financial aid director. She’s the compassionate beacon of hope for those who struggle with personal and family situations that affect their ability to finance their education. She helps them work through residence hall issues, homelessness and food insecurity, and proactively connects them with campus resources like academic counselors and tutors, the career center, health center and food pantry. Students trust her and know they can count on her for assistance that helps them stay at UGA and complete their degrees. Her efforts have made a significant contribution to UGA graduation and retention rates, which are among the highest in the nation for a public university.

“In the beginning of my sophomore year, I was having some trouble with making a schedule, and I had felt that I was behind my fellow classmates in earning my degree,” said Nicholas Gentile, a fourth-year Annexstad Family Foundation Scholar. “When I told her about this, she connected me with the head of advising, and I found that I wasn't actually behind. Bonnie has such a kind heart for the people and students around her.”

This year alone, Joerschke has mentored 42 OSFA student scholars who are at-risk for not completing their degrees. She works throughout the year to develop good relationships with them, so they know they have someone to count on.

“Bonnie has been a second mother to me. She has been someone that I have been able to go to and talk with. She has truly cared for me and the other students on campus. She constantly expresses gratitude, love, and passion for us,” Gentile said.

Third-year student Ali Elyaman, who is actively involved in the Campus Kitchen at UGA, agrees with Gentile’s sentiments. “Bonnie understands many of the struggles low income students face, and she cares about us like we are her own children. She is always making sure that I’m up to par with my performance in school and just in life. She’s always there to listen to our problems, and if she can’t directly remedy them, she gives us advice and connects us to resources that can.”

Over the last 40 years, Joerschke has built a national reputation as a leader in student financial aid. She’s served as member and chair on numerous professional committees for Student Financial Aid Administrators at the state, regional and national levels, including the College Board, a non-profit organization that connects students to college success and opportunity. Because of her knowledge and expertise in Pell Grants and higher education financial aid regulations, she has testified twice before the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance in Washington, D.C. In 2017, she received the Eleanor S. Morris Service Award for Financial Aid from the College Board recognizing her high standards, commitment and service significantly contributing to the financial aid profession.

Joerschke never intended to go into the field of student financial aid. However, her two degrees in anthropology—the study of humankind—prepared her for a career that started with a student position in the financial aid office at a small community college in Colorado in 1975 and blossomed into something that she’s become very passionate about. Now, at the end of her career, her greatest success has been the contribution of human-kindness to a field dictated by hardline numbers.

Joerschke has worked since she was 16 years old to help support her family, so when she retires on June 30, she’s looking forward to finding out what it’s like not to work.

“Volunteerism is definitely in my future,” she said. “And my husband and I want to travel and work in the garden. But I will continue helping people in some way. That’s just who I am.”