After a distinguished 23-year tenure at Brookdale Community College, Stephanie Fitzsimmons, the esteemed Director of Financial Aid, bids a heartfelt farewell to an institution she has passionately served.
During her retirement party, co-hosted by Mary Beth Boylan, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology, and Yesenia Madas, Ed.D., Associate Vice President of Student Affairs, a touching tribute unfolded for a woman eloquently described by Boylan as “Our dear friend, our spouse, our parent, our loved one, our auntie, our dearest Stephanie.”
Stephanie’s journey began in a different field, graduating with a degree in teaching and psychology in 1974. Uncertain about her career path, she embraced a unique opportunity as a mother’s helper in California, exploring new horizons. Returning, she worked in a New York City Clock Hour School, marking the commencement of her financial aid career.
“They had a Federal Work Study Program, and I managed to navigate both the finances and the program efficiently, keeping meticulous records,” she proudly exclaimed. “I established a comprehensive manual system for all of that.” Her precise and diligent work garnered the attention of financial aid consultants, who recognized her strict adherence to federal rules and regulations. This recognition ultimately facilitated her transition into financial assistance.
Stephanie’s life took a turn when she met her husband, and by 1981, they welcomed their first son. Balancing her desire to work with the responsibilities of motherhood, Stephanie continued consulting for over 20 years. This experience laid the foundation for her future role as a financial aid professional.
Stephanie’s journey led her to Brookdale Community College, where she joined as the Associate Director of Financial Aid in 2000. Over the next 23 years, she climbed the ranks, becoming the Director of Financial Aid.
“My door was always open because if there was somebody here that needed help, I was going to help them,” she said. “If my staff was busy, I would grab the family and personally work one-on-one with them.”
“In the ever-evolving landscape of financial aid, staying abreast of federal and state regulations is crucial,” Stephanie said, emphasizing the importance of continuous education, attending workshops and conferences, and leveraging resources provided by the U.S. Department of Education and the state of New Jersey.
She shared instances where her understanding of regulations significantly impacted the college, highlighting successful federal program reviews and annual audits with minimal findings—Stephanie’s commitment to compliance earned her colleagues’ respect and instilled trust in the broader college community.
“In financial aid, we provide the opportunity for students to achieve their higher education dreams by helping them finance it,” Stephanie said.
Dr. Madas introduced Michael J. Bennett, former Director of Financial Aid at Brookdale and current Associate Vice President of Financial Assistance Services at Saint Petersburg College, FL. Joining the party via Zoom, Bennett praised Stephanie’s influence, “Steph made me want to be a better financial aid administrator and a better man. And because of Steph, I am more student-centered because of her example, heart, and faith. The many leadership roles I have enjoyed are because of Stephanie’s support. I live with three gamblers, and Stephanie is the ultimate professional and has the kindest and best poker face. Few universities could match Brookdale’s dream to be innovative, to take risks, to respect and work closely with each other, to not be afraid and passionately defend access excellence. People like Steph and her staff embodied those values who made that dream possible.”
Stephanie shared a poignant success story during the COVID-19 pandemic, where she distributed $17 million to students, ensuring every student, regardless of financial need, received a share of the funds. This human-centric approach showcased Stephanie’s dedication to equal educational opportunities.
“It was not about financial aid students anymore,” she said. “It wasn’t about the neediest population anymore. It was about everybody suffering as a result of this pandemic in some way, and everybody can use the money in some way.”
President David M. Stout, Ph.D., deeply appreciated Stephanie’s invaluable contributions during their close collaboration. Recounting instances of high-stakes situations, he highlighted Stephanie’s reassuring demeanor in handling critical matters, such as reconciling government-mandated finances and facing audits.
“I’ve had the great pleasure of working very closely with Stephanie, especially when I was vice president of student success, and, on multiple occasions, I got to know Stephanie’s very calming force,” he said. She would say, ‘This happens every year.’ or ‘No problem, it’s okay, I got this.'”
Dr. Stout emphasized Stephanie’s pivotal role in facilitating access to higher education: “I’m not going to even try to calculate how much money you have helped to give for our students to be able to access higher education who wouldn’t otherwise have the ability because they can’t afford it. Beyond the financial aspect, he acknowledged her immeasurable impact on students’ lives through comprehensive financial aid packages.
He expressed a heartfelt gratitude, saying, “Thank you, Stephanie, on behalf of the entire institution and every student who has walked these halls.” He then read a proclamation the Board of Trustees presented at their December meeting.
Many of Stephanie’s long-time friends came to her retirement party. Charlie Katz, along with his wife Andrea, described their longstanding connection with the honoree; all of them got together for Covid Sunday Zoom meetings, and during those meetings is when Charlie said he recognized and appreciated the honoree’s commitment to fairness and values, saying, “It was a wonderful thing to observe the way someone with that amount of responsibility worked so hard at being fair to everyone.”
Marcia Finn, Confidential Coordinator, Office of the President and Board, describes a short but impactful friendship: “A measure of knowing someone is amazing, is when you don’t know them for a very long time, and they make such an impact in your life. She carved out a spot in there, and she took hold real hard. And she is in there now for forever.”
Jennifer Jordan, Associate Director of Financial Aid Technology (who started singing at 12 at the Teen Arts Festival here at Brookdale), said, “Stephanie is my boss lady, my second mom, who taught me so much and is such a wonder friend. When someone like that is in your life and asks you to sing a certain song, it means a lot, so this one is for you, and I love you and thank you.” Along with Billy J. Brown, they sang their rendition of “Imagine” by John Lennon.
Karyn Arnold, Associate Director of Financial Aid, met Stephanie the day before she left on maternity leave to have her twins. She said, “I knew then I was going to like this lady.” She shared a letter from their fearless leader, Mary Beth Riley, Executive Director of Enrollment Services, the new comic in residence, who wrote a little job description of what the financial director really is and some fun facts. Some of the highlights are, “Being a financial aid director, it’s as easy as riding a bike, except the bike is on fire, you are on fire, and everything is on fire; The financial aid director will always say at the start of the meeting to save time, let’s start the meeting knowing that I’m always wrong. Right? As the financial aid director, she will always admit I don’t know what I don’t know, but I do know my demons; As the financial director she would give advice by saying careful what you wish for and you don’t know what you don’t know; The financial aid director admits, despite what you may think, I am not, in fact, a magician. But as her colleagues will attest, she can be brilliant but not always brief. She is a financial aid director. What is your superpower? She is the financial aid director because freaking awesome is not a title.”
“Stephanie always pays attention,” said Dr. Boylan. “So, her compassion and her humility make her a sought-after mentor and listener, providing counsel with an uncommon get, straightforward wisdom. She is wise. How fortunate we are at Brookdale that Stephanie made Brookdale her professional home for this stage of her career. I want to share a Mary Oliver quote that reminds me of Stephanie. ‘Ten times a day something happens to me like this – some strengthening throb of amazement – some good sweet empathic ping and swell. This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.'”
Lloyd Fitzsimmons, Stephanie’s husband, humorously recalls their romantic history, saying, “The day I met her, I said I got to find this woman again.” Lloyd expresses deep love and appreciation for his wife of 46 years, sharing a humorous story of their early encounters.
Reflecting on his long association with the honoree, concludes, “Everything that she said that has been said about her this evening has been absolutely true.”