Sandy Harris started working at the University of Virginia School of Law the Monday after she graduated from high school. Now the longest-serving employee at the school and the senior financial aid assistant, Harris was honored Friday at a luncheon where she received the U.Va. Alumni Association’s Distinguished Service Award.
The award is given annually to a U.Va. employee who works directly with students, has 25 or more years of service and renders his or her duties with distinction. The award consists of a certificate of recognition and $5,000.
Law School Dean Paul G. Mahoney said the award was well-earned and praised Harris’ work in guiding students through the financial aid process.
“Sandy’s ability to identify and understand students’ needs, then to develop and present effective options based on those needs, is extraordinary,” Mahoney said. “Alumni returning to the Law School for visits frequently stop by her office to thank her for her assistance during their time as students.”
When Harris got the call from the Alumni Association that she would receive the award, she thought it was a prank.
“I was totally shocked, I was in complete disbelief and I went blank,” she said. “After a few seconds I finally got myself together and I said, ‘Are you serious?’
“I am so honored and just very humbled and truly appreciative of this award. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, and it’s just great,” she added. “I’m still kind of on cloud nine and slowly coming back down to earth.”
Harris still remembers the day she began her career at the Law School – June 12, 1972 – when she joined the typing pool of “clerk stenographers” who would take dictation for faculty, prepare classroom materials and type exams, among other duties. She joined the world of financial aid in 1977, and over the years has worked under seven law school deans and four financial aid directors.
In that time the Law School has moved away from paper applications and typewriters and toward email, electronic applications and digital records.
“It’s nice to get away from all that paper trail,” she said.
But one thing has remained the same – Harris is renowned for being an invaluable resource to students.
Director of Admissions Jason Dugas said Harris’ attention to detail and empathetic nature are widely praised by entering students.
“Each admissions cycle, I receive numerous emails and calls from students and parents conveying their appreciation for the warm and considerate way Sandy guided them,” he said.
Director of Admissions Cordel Faulk, a 2001 Law School graduate who knew Harris when he was a student, said Harris has been reliable and thoughtful – both when he was a student and alumnus and now, as a colleague.
“I never had any problems with my financial aid because I would just one, check in with Sandy, then two, do exactly what she told me, exactly when she told me to do it,” Faulk said. “Using that tactic never failed me as a student, and it doesn’t to this very day.”
Harris’ supervisor, Director of Financial Aid Jennifer Hulvey, said Harris was a lifeline in everything from editing her work to anticipating what she will need that day.
“I honestly do not know how I would manage our office without her assistance and support,” Hulvey said. “She always goes that extra step, looking up that additional bit of information that she thinks might be helpful, or taking the time to print out that screen so that the student can have it for reference later. Her faithfulness and enthusiasm in executing her duties over so many years has been a real inspiration to me and to other staff members.”
For her part, Harris said she was happy to work in a job in which she can relieve students’ anxiety and stress about financial aid.
“It’s wonderful to be able to help make a difference in their lives by providing them with various options that they can look into in order to be able to finance their education,” Harris said. “It actually makes their dream not a dream, but a reality.”
Harris said one of the reasons she’s been able to work at the Law School so long is the sense of family that permeates relationships among faculty, staff and students.
“We genuinely care about each other, and that shows,” she said. “You don’t find that in a lot of places of employment, where you enjoy your work, you enjoy the people and the people care for you.”
Jason W. Trujillo, another alumnus who now works with the Law School Foundation, supervised Harris when he served as senior assistant dean for admissions and financial aid. He recalled that when he made his final law school loan payment, he was excited to tell Harris because she always conveyed to students that paying off loans was important.
“I walked into her office and said, ‘Sandy, guess what I just did? I paid off my law school loans early,’” he said. “She looked up at me, and calmly and warmly said, ‘I’m very proud of you.’”
Now that U.Va. is rewarding Harris for her own investment in the school, a similar lesson stands out.
“You know, hard work pays off,” Harris said.