Taya Hightower is a student accounts representative in the business office of RSI. Taya has been part of the RSI family for three years.
Thanks for your time, Taya. What were you doing before you joined RSI in 2015?
I was a bartender during the day, and I volunteered at New Leaf Foundation, helping low-income families with budgeting, trying to get them out of debt. I was also going to school at night. I’d started an associate’s degree, getting the basics out of the way. At the time, I thought I wanted to do something in psychology, but I didn’t realize just how much schooling went into that!
I realized I wanted something more stable in my life than bartending and volunteering. I wanted to be more career driven. The volunteering showed me what I didn’t want to have happen in my life. I didn’t want to see myself in a financial bind at an older age or when I have a family. Helping these people really helped me realize that I needed to get an education and a stable career.
What brought you to RSI?
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I really wanted to do anything where I was helping people. Assisting them, helping them or just even sharing my story. As I got into this job more, I saw my own capabilities and that there was no limit to what I was capable of achieving here, so I really stepped up. I just finished my general associate’s degree that I started a few years ago, and in August I’ll transfer those credits to ASU and start my bachelor’s degree. I’m not sure what in exactly yet, something along the lines of leadership and management. I’ll do night classes so I can still work during the day. That helps me relate to our students as well, as I’m going through what they’re going through, facing similar obstacles in working and going to school.
What’s your role as a student accounts representative?
I’m a department of one. I manage the whole business office. In this role, I basically manage and maintain all the students’ accounts. There are a lot of moving parts here, to keep the money flowing to and from the students. I’m also the person students come to see if they need extra help. I hand out bus passes and gas cards, and I help with carpooling. I’m also in charge of the food pantry. Instructors, staff and companies we work with donate gift cards; we then buy food and personal hygiene items to stock our pantry. They’re just items that some of our students may need if they are low on money.
Do you work with every student at RSI?
It depends on your funding. If you go through financial aid* and need to make monthly in-school payments, you will see me. If you have tribal funding, you’ll see me. I hand out stipend checks to students who have an excess amount of money in their loan account. Maybe they took out a loan for more than they needed for tuition so they could cover living expenses while at school. Maybe their parents took out a Parent PLUS Loan to help them with rent, meals and travel. If they’re a 100% VA student, they may take out a PELL grant, which is money they don’t have to pay back to cover living expenses.
So these in-school payments you mentioned, are they for tuition?
Yes. If a student doesn’t qualify for as much financial aid as they need to cover the cost of the program, these payments cover the difference. It’s the amount not covered by any grants or loans they receive. Students in that situation are set up with $60 of in-school monthly payments, which are interest-free. They’ll have out-of-school payments once they’re done with school, which is when interest is added. The $60 is the minimum monthly payment. If they’re in a position to pay more each month, we encourage them to do that, as they are paying down the loan interest-free while they are in school.
Does every student have in-school payments?
No, not all students have in-school payment. If they get enough financial aid to cover the whole cost of their program, they won’t have payments to make while at school. It all depends on their situation with regard to financial aid and how they’re set up.
When does a student first meet you?
I introduce myself in orientation. I let them know that if they have payments and can’t reach me, they have options. They have the RSI portal and the Tuition Options website; I have the payment options listed on the outside of my cubicle.
What kind of access do students have to you?
I really try to work mid-shifts as often as I can, so I can hit morning, afternoon and night class students. If I’m not here, there are team members who can take payments and help students.
What are some typical questions that students ask of you?
“Do we get charged if we pay in advance?” – No, you won’t!
“Am I going to leave here and not know if I have a balance?” – You’ll always know where you stand.
“Is there interest on in-school payments?” – No, not while you’re in school.
“How do I get a stipend check?” – We’ll examine your options and see if there’s a way.
How can students help you help them?
Communication. That is huge. Don’t wait until you get into a problem and then ask for help. Ask for help first. That way, I have more options if I need to assist you. I’ll always try to help in any way I can, especially when it comes to finances. I have a lot of students who wait until the last minute, but if they need me to problem solve—to think of things that they can’t think of—we can sometimes lose options that we might otherwise have had if they hadn’t stalled.
What’s your favorite part of your job? What makes you happy?
Just pulling my students from the deep end—they’re stressed out about being behind on a payment, or thinking they’re going to get dismissed from school because they’re three months behind. I like being able to talk them through it, relating to them as a normal person, not just as an accounts representative, a person who is also in school and understands their situation. To see them manage the problems, come back to school the next day, the next week, the next month and graduate—that’s what makes me happy.
What advice do you have for someone considering coming to RSI?
Go for it. There’s a huge difference between having a job and a career. The trades on offer at this school are all in great fields and can lead to great careers, and you can be done in less than a year! That’s awesome, huge! We’re also a very hands-on school. I think that’s phenomenal. It’s not just bookwork! I’m a hands-on learner myself. Our schedule works for people in all walks of life. If you have a family or if you’re working, we’ve got three different shifts—morning, afternoon and night—that suit different peoples’ lives. And I like the fact that RSI is not this big, huge school. The classes are small enough that you get that intimate feeling. You’re not just some number in a big classroom.
*Financial aid is available to those who qualify.
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