Sandy Harris, Part of Financial Aid’s ‘Family,’ Marks 50 Years at Law School
During the time Sandy Harris has spent processing student financial aid packages at the University of Virginia School of Law, 10 U.S. presidents have come and gone, along with six university presidents, eight law school deans and six deans of admission.
Just four people have overseen financial aid operations in Harris’ 50 years there, including its current head, Jennifer Hulvey, the assistant dean for financial aid, education and planning. Harris has considered each of them part of her family, with all the loyalty that entails.
Harris is so indispensable to the office, Hulvey jokes, that she plans to beat Harris to retirement.
“See, she already gave up her game — she told me she’s going to look at retiring at 70, and I know exactly when that is,” Hulvey said, nodding toward Harris, who was sitting across from her.
“I’m giving you six months to train my replacement, because I don’t want to work without you,” Hulvey said. “Nothing would get done!”
Harris dismissed the high praise with a note of characteristic humility.
“Working is all I’ve ever known, and I’m a loyal person,” Harris said. “I started working at State Farm when I was a senior in high school, and if they’d had a position open for me in what I had been trained in, that’s where I would be.”
Instead, she joined UVA Law’s typing pool on the Monday after her high school graduation in 1972 and moved over to the financial aid office five years later. At the time, it was common for secretaries to take care of any number of personal tasks for their bosses.
When she started her career, the Law School was in Clark Hall on the Main Grounds. She would take dictation by shorthand, type up syllabi and personal correspondence on an electric typewriter, and literally cut and paste — with scissors and rubber cement — corrections to classroom materials.
Five years later, Harris joined the admissions and financial aid team. She still tears up whenever she talks about her first boss in financial aid, Jerry Stokes.
“He and I just had a wonderful, close relationship — I trusted him, he trusted me,” Harris said. “I’m probably 15 years younger than he was, but it was almost like a father-daughter relationship.”
Stokes’ trust in Sandy extended outside of the office. When he was weakened by a serious illness, she helped him buy groceries and his family’s Christmas presents. When he was on recruiting trips, she would also run the office in his absence, continuing to match up students with available loans and scholarships, answering all correspondence and even providing the office’s annual report to the Law School Foundation.
“There are other people who would’ve come into a situation like that and been like, ‘Well, the boss is out,’ and stuff would’ve stacked up,” Hulvey said. “Sandy doesn’t let anything stack up. One of her points of pride is that when she leaves here in the evenings — even if we’ve been drinking from a firehose all day — the financial aid inbox is completely empty.”
Harris has continued to be the force keeping the wheels turning all year long, first by showing Hulvey how things are done, and now by being a quiet taskmaster who keeps the office’s work cycle and deadlines in her head.
If anything, the office’s familial nature has only increased over the years, thanks in part to Harris’ anchoring presence.
“We are a family, we take care of each other,” said her colleague, Helen Dugger. “When one person is in pain, we are all in pain, just as when one has something to celebrate, we all celebrate.”
The evidence is right there on Harris’ walls. Her neatly ordered office features pictures of her two families: Photos and Christmas cards of her Financial Aid teammates are displayed alongside photos of her parents, her son and his family. (She also hung her 2013 Distinguished Service Award from the UVA Alumni Association, when she was recognized for more than 40 years of service.)
While her parents were alive, Harris had a standing Saturday breakfast date with them at TipTop Restaurant or Hardees, and she would get her shopping fix with her mom at Fashion Square Mall while her dad waited in the car.
Dugger now makes a point of eating out and shopping with Harris, whose best friend (Harris’ ex-husband) died of COVID-19 in November. “We’ll spend an hour and a half looking at nail polish, if that’s what she wants to do,” Dugger said. “It’s not my thing, but that’s what families do.”
Hulvey’s own father, Floyd, passed away last month. As she has done for 45 years before this, Harris made sure financial aid applicants wouldn’t feel a disruption in Hulvey’s absence.
When Harris takes a lunch break, she’s either out shopping at Barracks Road or sitting on a bench along Massie Road, “watching the students come and go,” she said.
Over 50 years, she’s watched more than 15,000 students pass by her on that bench or through her office. Some have gone on to become well-known judges and politicians, and others, famous authors. (There have been too many high-profile speakers and legal clients to remember, but she recalls bumping into Muhammad Ali, who spoke at the Law School in 1988, long before his body was hobbled by Parkinson’s.)
Harris worked closely with Trujillo when he became head of admissions. She’s watched his kids grow up and, in 2009, Trujillo asked Harris to recommend the next dean of financial aid.
She chose Hulvey.
“I started in October, and I was like, ‘Sandy, it’s October, what am I supposed to be doing in October?’” Hulvey said. “That first year I was here, we couldn’t have stayed on our feet if Sandy wasn’t quietly in the background doing all these things while she was training her new director on how to do her job. That’s the value that Sandy brings to this office today and brought for Jerry Stokes 45 years ago.”
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.