A college degree is viewed as one way to gain access to a decent standard of living. To pay for it, most students and families will turn to student loans and the financial aid office at the college they attend. A field that few aspire to but many find rewarding, the director of financial aid plays a crucial institutional role. But who are the people that do this work? Where do they come from? WYSO Community Voices Producer Seth Gordon has one person’s story.
I first met Larry Brickman as a student leader thirteen years ago when he interviewed for the Financial Aid Director position at Antioch College. He wore cowboy boots to the interview and I liked him right away.
The world of financial aid is one filled with formulas and acronyms. Spend an hour with someone in the field and it’s difficult to see what would draw someone in. Larry has always enjoyed the minutia associated with his field. That was the other thing I remember about his interview was that he liked to read federal regulations, something that seemed unfathomable to me at the time. Who likes to read regulations?
As college has increased in price so has the pressure on the director of financial aid who sits at the nexus of three equally demanding entities - the fed, the college, and the student. The director has to balance the needs of all three equally.
But Larry’s professional life did not begin with financial aid. It began with dance.
“I loved the applause,” Larry says, “I loved the feeling of getting the applause; getting the attention of an audience. And that was just...I was enthralled by it. I really like dancing. It’s really high energy. And just makes me feel really, really free.”
It was the early eighties and Larry’s passion had turned into a serious career path. He began teaching and finding small parts on stage and in local shows in Los Angeles and in another new medium.
“Video was just coming into play. It was either a chorus line or auditioning for Thriller. So we auditioned and went through three four different callbacks. I was very, very lucky. My professional training was only three or four years straight,” he says.
“There were 20 of us. There were ten guys and ten girls. We rehearsed and danced for three or four weeks. Day and night. Got paid $500 for the entire shoot. And that was a lot.”
Larry is featured prominently in the Thriller video. Right behind Michael Jackson.
“The good thing about being short was being short. I always lucked out... whenever I did a show I was always in front because of my height.”
“[In] Thriller, the costumes were fabulous. They were fitted to the “T”. It was hot, but it was so much fun. Michael’s rehearsing with you the whole time. He worked with us the whole time. He worked with his dancers. He ate with us. He was just an incredible human being. He was so nice and so sweet and so down to earth. And cares... cares about the people he works with.”
“Would you say that was the climax of your dance career?” I ask him.
“Yeah I would. It turned into three videos: the Thriller video, White Wedding and All Night Long.”
After a decade as a dancer, changes in the industry and Larry’s health contributed to his need to find a new way to support himself.
“I came into the [financial aid] business as a receptionist at a school,” he says, “And I was a temp through a temp agency and they wanted to hire me full time, and I said ‘not as a receptionist.’ So they said we have a financial aid counselor position open, and I said ‘what’s that?’”
Thirty days later, the director quit and Larry was offered the job. His new school invested in training him and he grew professionally, moving from college to college always as the director of financial aid. Still - from Thriller to Financial Aid? I had to know what the connection was.
“I can tell you that very easily,” Larry says, “Retention. When I would learn dance numbers. Dance songs. Learn lines for the little bits I had in shows. I have to remember a lot of regulations. And a lot of changes that go on in financial aid on a daily or annual basis. When I was younger I could read regulations and retain them very easily. Just like I did dance. With financial aid, you go to it and “wham” you’re in it. And you better know it and better learn it quickly because as fast as you learn it, it changes.”
“I love the attention. I love when everybody is on me. It’s all about me. And I get that high. It’s a natural high for me. And when I’m good at what I do I like to show that and I like to share that. I’ve met alot of people with a lot of different creative backgrounds. Some are artists. Some are singers; musicians; actors; painters. it’s very interesting. I’m not unusual in that aspect.”
“I find that a lot of people that have artist histories seem to be the best financial aid people. Because they are compassionate. They’re considerate. They’re warm. They have a good sense of humor. And you have to be a little crazy to like financial aid.
“My appreciation is what I get back from dance when people are applauding and laughing and saying, ‘I just thoroughly enjoyed you. You made me cry.’ In financial aid it’s like - you made a difference in my life. You were there; you listened. And it’s the same thing in dance and acting. You have to listen. You have to hear. You have to hear the music. You have to hear the steps. You have to see the steps. But you have to hear the steps. So with every beat of the drum every beat of the violin or whatever the case may be you have to picture that step in your mind. And then you have to think ahead of yourself. And its the same thing in financial aid - you have to think what’s the future.”
“I have to believe in what I’m doing. I have to believe in the school. I think a lot financial aid people in this business believe in what they do for students.”
Larry is currently making a difference working as the in-house financial aid expert for a new start up software company. He is working to assist financial aid offices with growing federal reporting requirements.