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Aiding the Next Generation

For more than 18 years, Shirleyne McDonald has shepherded thousands of Eagles through the financial aid process.

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McDonald enjoys stealing quiet moments at the koi pond near Roper Hall. Photo by Jeff Watts.

As a first-generation college graduate, Shirleyne McDonald knows what it’s like to brave the overwhelming waters of financial aid for the first time. But as the director of financial aid communication and service in AU’s Office of Enrollment—where she’s worked for 18 years—she has since carved a career out of “[helping] students avoid the pitfalls [she] experienced” when applying to college.

At 17, McDonald found her Haitian parents enthusiastic about her college pursuits but unfamiliar with the process of applying for aid. So, she sought out answers on her own. McDonald credits the assistant director of financial aid at George Washington University with steering her into smart financial territory. Now, she’s the mentor offering up empathy and care, helping her office serve 7,000 Eagles—and their families—each year as paperwork and deadlines stack up. “I do this work as a way of paying it forward,” she said.

Through direct counseling and her famous PowerPoint presentations, McDonald promotes financial literacy so students “can focus on thriving” instead of stressing about how to fund their education. She has three guiding principles: Honor deadlines. (“You miss one, you could be out of tens of thousands of dollars.”) Understand the form before you fill it out. And know the relevant terms—and how to apply them—so you can make informed decisions.

McDonald sees herself as a translator in more ways than one. She is trilingual (English is her third language, after French and Haitian Creole) and often interpreted for her parents growing up in Massachusetts, so she never assumes someone’s native tongue. The Office of Enrollment offers all resources in Spanish and provides translators when necessary.

But language barrier or not, most people need help unscrambling what McDonald calls “financial-aid alphabet soup.” (From COA to FAFSA, there is “an acronym for everything,” she said.) Part of McDonald’s job is cutting through the jargon so families can more clearly see their bottom lines.

Andrea Felder, vice provost for undergraduate enrollment, described McDonald as “passionate about ensuring student success” and gifted at “explaining the intricacies of financial aid” so the application process feels less daunting.

“Shirleyne is [also] a strong advocate for the cause of equipping students with the financial literacy skills necessary for their post-baccalaureate success,” Felder said. “Guided by her own lived experience and background, she has a passion for ensuring that students have found the right financial fit at AU.”

Empowering young people financially is a never-ending endeavor—and one that takes a village. After nearly two decades at the university, McDonald has found hers among the dedicated staff and impact-driven leaders. The AU community is something McDonald delights in sharing with her daughter, too—now a first-year Eagle.

“Why AU? Hands down, it’s the people,” McDonald said.

That includes the young people McDonald works with every day. “They remind you of the joyfulness,” she said, “the infinite possibilities.”