Things We Said Today

As a northern New Jersey native, I am pretty familiar with a geographical version of Yiddish slang.   Of course, as with any slang, there are groups of people who immediately understand you, and others who have no idea what you’re saying.  This particular slang isn’t really known in the Mid-Atlantic region, where I currently live.  (I had a particularly uncomfortable interaction when I had to explain to a colleague that the word “mensch” didn’t mean what this person thought it meant.)

A very good friend of mine grew up in an Italian American household in a different region of the country.  Her household had a slang all its own that is completely unfamiliar to me.  But over the years, through her stories about her family, I have learned some of that slang, and even incorporated it into my own vocabulary.

One of my favorites is “scustumad.”  This word is broadly defined as someone who is greedy.  In my friend’s house, a scustumad is a very specific type of person – it is a person who refuses to wait his or her turn, or who takes more than his or her fair share.  Essentially, anyone who is greedy and exhibits bad manners, especially when those manners relate to social niceties or group  activities, can be labeled a scustumad.  If you have guests for dinner but serve yourself first, you are a scustumad.  Conversely, if you are a guest and don’t wait for your host to invite you to start eating, you are a scustumad.

Why am I telling you this?  Two reasons:  First, because in some way I feel like a scustumad writing this post before my virtual host Brian Lemma, the current chair of the Technology and Communications Committee, has had an opportunity to share his own thoughts on this blog in his capacity as chair.  Second, and actually my point, is because I think a lot about language.  I see a parallel between the way slang functions, and the jargon-heavy industry in which we work.  Ours is a language that is not immediately understood by those outside the culture aid administrators, and this can create problems and confusion.  One woman’s scustamad is another woman’s misunderstanding.

As aid administrators, the language we speak is externally dictated; terms like FAFSA, COA, EFC, DRT, and PPY are foist upon us.  It all makes sense to us, because it is a language we are necessarily immersed in as a function of our jobs.  But, it’s a language that is largely a mystery to our students and their families – at least initially.  When my friend and I first met, if she were to say to me, “Don’t be a scustumad,” I would have been clueless about what she meant.  I understand that admonishment now, even if I can’t quite pronounce the word correctly.  (I am not alone in this example of “I know what you mean, but I can’t pronounce it”.  How many times have you heard a student or parent mispronounce FAFSA?  Or call a Stafford loan a Stanford loan?)  The same goes for my communication with students.  If I employ the language of an aid administrator without explanation or context, they are not going to understand me. I can’t say, “When you fill out the FAFSA, make sure to use the DRT” without at the very least defining my terms.

Aid offices are sometimes seen as a hindrance to higher education.  Miscommunication and misunderstanding are at the center of many conflicts; it’s easy to lose track of the fact that others don’t speak the same language we do.  All we have to do is read the comment section of any financial aid related social media post or news article to know there is often a high barrier between our processes and people’s experiences with and understanding of our processes.  The question is, how do we best remove these barriers?  How do we best explain ourselves without relying so heavily on the terminology – the slang – that our profession necessitates?

I know this is the part where I am supposed to offer an answer, but after years of careful thought, I don’t really have one.  If anyone reading this could offer me a solution, I would appreciate it.  Be a mensch, and help us out.

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Doryann Barnhardt

About Doryann Barnhardt

I am currently the Director of Student Financial Aid at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. Prior to coming to WAC, I held various positions in the aid offices at Delaware State University and Wesley College, both in Dover, DE. I am an accidental aid administrator; I stumbled into the profession over a decade ago, taking a job in a small college in New York City without even so much as having glanced at a FAFSA application before in my life. (How hard could it be, right?) I quickly learned it was hard work but that I was just the right kind of weird to do it. I am a graduate of the County College of Morris in New Jersey, Wesley College, and earned my Masters in Literary Studies from Washington College. I am an avid knitter, weaver, and home brewer . I am married to a college professor named Jack and we live in Delaware with our two cats, Dexter and Winston. You can reach me at dbarnhardt2@washcoll.edu.

4 thoughts on “Things We Said Today

  1. Well, at least you’re not a stoonad, Doryann. Or a chooch.

    A few days ago, an article was making the financial aid Twitter rounds, the link was to a NASFAA Journal of Student FA article written by a Dean of some sort. Topic was things financial aid administrators could do on campus to be more successful, more part of the team. I found some of it somewhat mean-spirited, but this Dean’s first point was that we use too much jargon. And, by the way, this article was from 1981, demonstrating that this is not a new problem.

    The question then becomes, how have we allowed this to happen, if we know it’s a problem? Do we see ourselves as members of the financial aid community first and foremost and is being part of a team providing services to students on our campus secondary? Is this a misdirected attempt to make ourselves seem smart and irreplaceable? I suggest getting testers outside financial aid…colleagues in other offices, your spouse, your kids…give them some of your office communications and see if they have any clue as to what you’re trying to say. They might not.

    • Chooch? Stoonad? Thems fighting words for sure! (Glad you think well enough of me to believe that I am neither.)

      I think this language barrier is not something that we have intentionally allowed to happen, so much as something that has crept up on us; like you said, an article written in 1981 talks about very much the same thing.

      We’re working within a system that’s language is prescriptive – a focus on the way a language should be used. The shopping sheet is a good example of this prescriptive language, as are the talks about creating standard financial aid award letters, or the college score card, or the consumer information we are required to share. All or some of those things are (at least intended to be) good measures, because they aim to disseminate information to students and their families in an agreed upon, uniform way so they can compare apples to apples. (Although, in some cases I think they are really comparing apples to unicorns, but I digress….)

      I think it is fundamentally difficult to remove ourselves from the prescriptive language that binds us to this profession, because we are obligated to use it in ways both big and small. There are times when we simply cannot sacrifice compliance for clarity’s sake.

      But I think that mostly it’s because we become so comfortable with this language, that we can easily forget that others don’t speak it. I think you’re absolutely right – one huge way to combat that is to get outsider feedback and to ask – Does this makes sense to you? What’s missing? What are your assumptions? (And, having people on your team that are able to clearly articulate complex ideas is always a bonus! I know that’s not always my strong suit.)

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