"I’m Here to Help Them Find a Way"

A&M-Central Texas Assistant Director of Financial Aid Finds Inspiration in Helping Others

By Karen Clos
July 14, 2023

I’m Here to Help Them Find a Way: A&M-Central Texas Assistant Director of Financial Aid Finds Inspiration in Helping Others

Gina Marion, 56, has one of those jobs that can literally change a person’s life. And what’s more, she isn’t one of those people in a profession that is normally credited with that sort of thing; she does not wear a white coat or a stethoscope, a nurse’s scrubs, a fireman’s hat, or a military uniform. She is the assistant director of financial aid at A&M-Central Texas.

Her 10x10 foot office on the first floor of the Gen. Robert Shoemaker Founders Hall on the A&M-Central Texas campus is comfortable and embellished with the occasional framed photo of family, a bit of university swag, inspirational quotes, and two tall windows that allow her to look out on the vast 672-acre campus when she has a moment to herself.

It is nice, she admits, but she doesn’t work there for the professional accoutrements that go with her official position; the reasons she loves her job are both professional and personal, and both of those things are a source of inspiration and renewal.

Her own journey, she says, is a lot like the students and potential students she works with every day – a mixed bag, she says with an earned and knowing smile, the kind that comes from living life and thriving amidst its many ups and downs.

Marion graduated from Killeen High School more than 30 years ago, thinking that she wanted nothing more to do with school. It is, perhaps, one of those everyday decisions people make that get overturned by fate – sometimes, as in this case, with ironic results.

“I was pregnant with my oldest daughter when I graduated,” she said candidly. “And it was a real struggle to complete high school, but I did it. I remember being exhausted and stressed out and ready to quit, and my mother had words for that. She said, ‘Don’t ever give up on yourself,’ and she was right.”

Her original goal in life was simple, she said. She had married the father of her daughter and they would have three children together. At the time, she says, she wanted to stay at home, raise her children, and tend to family. Eventually, she added, she went to work on Fort Hood in the mess hall, but when troops deployed to Saudi Arabia in the 1990s, she was laid off.

“At first I was a cashier at a grocery store and became a service manager working in the front end of the store,” she said. “After five years there, I heard about a position with Sallie Mae, then a student loan service agency.”

There for 13 years, Marion began to consider a return to college for herself. She had attended Central Texas College on and off in the early years of her family and had eventually stopped. Back then, she says attending college online wasn’t an option, so she turned to a local proprietary school that promised job placement only to be disappointed and even more discouraged with the quality of their programs and the promises they had made but not fulfilled.

In 2012, she remembers, she returned to Central Texas College, and by that time, her children were older. She majored in criminal justice, eventually changing to a liberal arts track. Yes, at one time, she had doubted the need for a degree. But now, she kept finding herself working in positions that had everything to do with degree attainment.

In 2012, Marion applied for a position with A&M-Central Texas as a financial aid advisor. And she was ready.

“Here’s the thing,” she began, allowing her stoic facial expressions to gradually ease into an authentic smile as wide as the horizon. “I had been passed over at the other agencies where I was already working, so I can’t say that I went into that interview over-confident,” she confessed. “But I knew by the time I had finished that I had hit that ball out of the park.”

That, perhaps, is an understatement. Because in the years between then and now, Marion has grown into her current position, being promoted into increasingly responsible positions, all the while remaining available and closely connected to the students she serves.

And that is quite possibly an awful lot of people, since the university has produced more than 10,000 alumni. Including Marion herself.

Not only is she the university’s assistant director, she is also an alumnus, having completed her undergraduate degree in liberal studies the spring of 2021. But wait. There’s more. She plans to apply for admission to the university’s graduate program in higher education.

Not too shabby for someone who, just three decades earlier, had dismissed the idea that college was for her. And even now, Marion resists the temptation to credit herself with that change of heart. Instead, she prefers to credit her mother, Brunilda Miller, now 75, who all those years ago, had offered her daughter a few words of wisdom when she really needed them.

“My mother told me that she never wanted to see me give up on myself,” Marion said with a residual quiver of daughterly affection in her voice.

And she has taken that advice, perhaps further into the future than her mother expected. But take it she did. And what’s more, she has continuously paid it forward, sharing the same sentiment with dozens, if not hundreds, of A&M-Central Texas students. And she’s done it quietly and without pretense.

Because if it is one thing she has in common with other everyday heroes, it is that she is certain that what the financial aid office accomplishes, it does as a result of a team effort. And it is no overstatement to suggest that the team is most fulfilled when they see their work – and their encouragement – making a real difference in the lives of students.

“A lot of our students have the same kinds of things happen in their lives that I have had,” Marion concluded. “They might have at one time thought that a degree was unaffordable or that they couldn’t qualify for financial aid. But we are up to those challenges, and we do everything possible to support their degree goals.”

Speaking of degree goals, Marion had one more surprising thing to share. Her passion for financial aid and the opportunities it presents for students seems to – well – run in her blood.

Her first-born daughter, now 39, has pursued the same career as her mother. And Marion adds, her daughter, too, works for a university: Texas Southern University.

“We like to say that she graduated from Killeen High School two times: once when she was in my tummy and once when she graduated as a high school senior,” Marion laughed. “And we have a lot in common, obviously – as mothers and daughters sometimes do.

“But you know the best part? That advice my mother gave me to never give up on myself is what has propelled me to be where I am now, and that has made the way for my daughter. That’s why I do what I do and take a moment to share it with students who I think need to hear it.”

“Like I said,” she concluded. “I have one of the best jobs in the world.”

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