Talking shop with Debbie Below, director of admissions at SEMO

Tuesday, July 5, 2011
Debbie Below is the assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions at Southeast Missouri State University. (Kristin Eberts)

Debbie Below got some good advice as a teen, the kind that changed her life.

The Washington, Mo., native took her first trip to Cape Girardeau her senior year in high school after a Southeast Missouri State University student recommended she tour the campus.

"As a first-generation college student, I was thankful for the advice," Below said. "Looking back I realize that I knew very little about preparing for college. My mother and I toured the campus together. I vividly remember that experience and just how important that visit was to me.

Below basically came to stay. She earned her bachelor of science degree in mass communication and a master of science in public administration from Southeast. She began her professional career at the university, where she has served a total of 15 years in admissions. Today, Below's is the university's assistant vice president for enrollment management and director of admissions, helping students who are a lot like she was when she first stepped on campus.

Question: You've spent most of your professional life in admissions and enrollment services. What drew you to the field?

Answer: I think recent college graduates will relate to this. When graduation is just around the corner, you are keeping your options open. You just want someone to give you a chance at that first professional job. I wasn't initially drawn to admissions. At the time, I was searching for anything related to public relations. I was fortunate to have wonderful mentors in college, many of whom suggested applying for the opening in admissions. The university was expanding its recruiting presence, and I was one of five new counselors hired that summer. I am thankful every day for the advice I received and for the opportunity this created.

Q: Describe your role as Southeast's assistant vice president for enrollment management. How has the department changed over the years?

A: My responsibilities include serving as the director of admissions and supervising career linkages, new students programs, recreation services, the office of the registrar and residence life. Our area also supervises the university's dining, vending and campus health clinic contracts.

I rejoined the Southeast admissions staff 10 years ago. Since that time, we have centralized all admissions operations into one office. This has streamlined the admissions process for many students including those attending a Southeast regional campus, returning to Southeast, applying as an international student or attending the Cape Girardeau Partnership for Higher Education. This summer, we are integrating graduate admissions into the department.

Q: What's the most challenging part of the job? What's the most rewarding?

A. The admissions program coordinates campus visits for nearly 4,000 prospective students every year. The most challenging part of the job is helping every student feel as if the day was planned especially for them. Choosing a college is the most significant decision most 18-year-olds will have faced. We strive to meet the expectations of every visitor because we know the day is very important to the family.

The most rewarding part of the job for me is the time I spend in high schools promoting financial aid awareness. It is gratifying to help a family through this process. It's a pleasure to help them put the final pieces together to realize their dreams.

Q: With some popular federal grant programs scrapped, Pell grants on the chopping block and Access Missouri facing significant reductions next year, will low-to-moderate income families be priced out of higher education in the coming years?

A: This is happening already. Since 2006, the number of first-time, full-time students attending a two-year college in Missouri grew by 23 percent, while four-year public universities grew by 10 percent. The spending power of grants has not kept pace with the cost of education. Two federal grant programs, the Academic Competitiveness Grant and the SMART Grant, were eliminated this year. Last year, more than 1,000 Southeast students received these grants. The elimination of these programs means these students will likely face much larger bills this year. During this same time period, Southeast has outpaced other four-year public schools by growing first-year enrollment 18 percent. If less grant opportunities are available in the future, lower-income students may opt to attend schools closer to home, take less courses, or defer their education altogether. It is disappointing to see an academically talented student defer their education because of cost.

Q: What's one thing about Debbie Below that would surprise even your closest family and friends?

A: I worked as a sports reporter for the Washington Missourian newspaper during my last two years of high school. At the time, I was planning for a career in journalism. This opportunity taught me the importance of meeting deadlines and taking pride in your work. On a personal note, between our two families, my husband and I have more than 90 cousins, nieces or nephews. That's a lot of weddings, birthdays and family reunions.

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