In January 2006, a letter from Washington University arrived at Raina Hall’s home in Memphis, Tenn.
Hall, a high-school senior, had been accepted early-decision to her first-choice college. Hall was ecstatic. Hall’s mother, Eileen Mason, was worried.
Mason had no doubts about her daughter’s ability to fit into WUSTL academically or socially, but the family had recently gone through a divorce, and Mason didn’t see how they could afford to take on the University’s tuition in addition to their current expenses.
“I didn’t want to tell her,” Mason says.
Another letter from WUSTL arrived shortly after, explaining the financial aid process and providing Hall and Mason with a contact at the University to answer any questions. Hall’s contact was Bill Witbrodt, director of Student Financial Services (SFS).
The idea of discussing the family’s personal finances with a stranger was intimidating to Mason.
“I was worried; I knew I’d have to tell him everything, the good and bad,” Mason says. “But Bill was very understanding. He said, ‘We’ll figure out some way to make it work. Just file your forms on time, and do your part.'”
Witbrodt saw his promise through. Hall — now a junior psychology major in Arts & Sciences — arrived at WUSTL in August 2006.
“I had thought it was impossible,” Mason says, “but Bill made my daughter’s dream come true.”
‘A great listener’
Talk to students or parents of students, and you’ll hear similar tales about how Witbrodt and his staff at SFS make the extra effort to keep a WUSTL education within reach for a diverse group of students.
“Our goal here is to make it financially possible for students we admit to enroll, and for students we enroll to graduate,” says Witbrodt, who has overseen the financial aid operations for both undergraduate and graduate students since 1996.
Equally important to Witbrodt is helping both students and parents understand and feel comfortable discussing financial aid with him and those in his office.
“The financial aid process can be intimidating in many people’s minds,” Witbrodt says. “We do whatever we can to make ourselves as accessible and approachable as possible.”
One way SFS does that is by assigning each incoming student a personal financial aid counselor. The counselor works with that student and family throughout their time at WUSTL. Establishing an in-depth, one-on-one relationship helps the counselor better understand each family’s financial situation. It also gives each student and family a familiar person to turn to with questions or to discuss changes in their financial situation.
In addition to overseeing SFS, Witbrodt also serves as a counselor. John Berg, associate vice chancellor for admissions, says Witbrodt’s ability to connect with students and their families helps the University attract and retain the brightest and most talented students.
“Bill is a great listener,” Berg says. “Students and parents who need his help know that he will understand their situation and do all that he can to assist them in meeting the cost of attending Washington University. He has instilled the same approach throughout his colleagues in Student Financial Services. They all care, and they do their best to help each and every student and family.”
SFS’s role at WUSTL is even more important with the recent economic downturn. Despite the financial crunch many Americans are facing, Witbrodt hasn’t seen an upturn in students seeking aid — something he attributes to the University’s proactive initiative last year to increase aid to vulnerable students and families. But he knows that could change as the semester continues and the economic recovery timetable remains uncertain.
“Bill Witbrodt has been an outstanding leader of SFS,” Chancellor Mark S. Wrighton says. “During these challenging economic times, the work of Bill and the team he has assembled will be critical to ensuring that Washington University remains affordable to our many talented undergraduate students.”
Architect to accountant
Witbrodt helps students and families lay the financial groundwork for WUSTL educations, but as a child, he pictured himself creating things with more concrete, tangible foundations.
“I wanted to be an architect,” Witbrodt says. “I’ve always been interested in design. When I was young, my favorite things to do were to draw houses and floor plans and create cities with blocks.”
Witbrodt, who grew up in St. Louis, also spent a lot of time outdoors, camping with the Boy Scouts and playing golf and fishing with his father, Bill Sr., who worked in the bottling plant at the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
After graduating from Cleveland High School, Witbrodt enrolled at WUSTL, intending to major in architecture. But a family tragedy intervened. In 1961, Witbrodt’s father was killed by a hit-and-run driver.
“I had to leave school after the death of my father to help my mother — both financially and emotionally,” Witbrodt says. “My father was killed the day before Christmas, and it devastated my mother.”
This experience, he says, motivates him to help ensure WUSTL students don’t have to leave school for financial reasons due to a family crisis.
After leaving WUSTL, Witbrodt got an accounting job at a mortgage company and took classes at University College. He later was hired as executive director of the National Hairdressers Association, a membership service and lobbying organization, and relocated to Washington, D.C. He enrolled at American University in D.C. as an accounting major.
“I was in Washington the same time Ronald Reagan came to the White House,” Witbrodt says. “He had planned a reduction in the workforce and started releasing employees from the government, so there were lots of people in the job market. I figured I’d better learn to do something more practical.”
Witbrodt earned a bachelor’s degree, passed the CPA exam and moved back to St. Louis in 1985 to work at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Missouri. In 1988, he was named director of financial services at Jewish Hospital of St. Louis, and, in 1990, he earned an MBA in finance from Webster University.
He joined WUSTL in 1992 as assistant controller, managing accounts payable, payroll and the general ledger, among other services. He was named director of SFS in 1996 — a job that he says is challenging but personally fulfilling.
“The best part of my job is being able to make a difference in people’s lives,” Witbrodt says. “Our department helps make it financially possible for bright, deserving students to get a WUSTL education.”
Home: The Central West End
Pet: Sam, a miniature schnauzer
Interests: Traveling, bowling, watching CNN, playing the piano and going for walks with Sam. Witbrodt also is fascinated by architecture, and his office walls are covered with photographs and blueprints of buildings.
Currently reading: “Shantaram” by Gregory David Roberts. “It’s a novel that takes place in India, Witbrodt says. “It really gives you an insight into what it’s like to live in Mumbai, with all the intrigue and complexity of that city.”
While Witbrodt was working as assistant controller, WUSTL instituted the Service for Success program, and Witbrodt led University-wide workshops that discussed the importance of providing excellent service to students.
Witbrodt has applied his knowledge of “customer”-friendly service to SFS. The office is bright and cheerful, and staff members strive to welcome students and make them their No. 1 priority.
“The office is very friendly,” says Regis Murayi, a junior from Aberdeen, Md., and a student worker in SFS. “When I go in, every person says hello and asks how my day is going, even if they don’t really know me. And it’s not just because I work there.
“My friends here tell me that if there’s something they need taken care of at SFS, they’ll call the number and just go,” says Murayi, a mathematics and economics major in Arts & Sciences. “My friends at other schools say their financial aid offices aren’t as open or as welcoming as ours. They have to fight to get help.”
A popular Web site among college students, Facebook.com, demonstrates Witbrodt’s popularity among students. There are two Facebook groups proclaiming Witbrodt’s greatness. A Facebook page was created for Witbrodt so people could add him as a “friend” on the social networking site.
“Bill is very professional, yet easy to talk to,” says Hall, who visits Witbrodt regularly to ask about how certain choices — such as becoming an R.A. — might affect her financial aid.
“I feel comfortable discussing any issues I have with him,” Hall says. “We have gotten to know each other over the past few years. He knows my situation and is very understanding. I’m so appreciative of everything he has done.”
When not working, Witbrodt loves to travel. He recently visited India and Nepal and saw the Taj Mahal, the Ganges River and the Himalayas. But what impressed Witbrodt most during his trip was the people.
“I love to meet people of diverse cultures,” Witbrodt says. “Too often, we judge people by how we live here in the U.S. instead of trying to gain an understanding of what others value.
“When you’re able to spend some time traveling, you gain such a perspective,” Witbrodt says.
“For me, it helps me put myself in another person’s place, imagining how a student must feel as he or she contemplates how to finance a Washington University education,” he says.