Laughter is often found in an unexpected place at the UCR School of Medicine: the Office of Financial Aid. Kathleen Buckner, the director of financial aid, and Theresa Luther, the assistant director, converse in undertones and long glances before suddenly breaking into giggles.
Both women started at the UCR central campus financial aid office before joining the School of Medicine. “It was 100 years ago,” joked Buckner. As a college student in Ohio, Buckner worked in her school’s financial aid office before starting a financial aid job at California Baptist University in Riverside. In 2000, she joined the financial aid team at UCR, where she could assist a broader range of students.
“My story’s not as fabulous as that,” said Luther, as Buckner gave her shoulder a playful shove. After graduating from UCR in 1998, Luther applied to jobs with little idea of her future goals. Like Buckner, she ended up in financial aid. “I wouldn't change it for the world,” she said, lightly hitting Buckner’s arm in return.
The two got to know each other sitting in nearby cubicles, and said they shared life experiences like having children within a year of each other. Buckner left the central campus office to join the SOM when it was first opening in December 2012, but recalled feeling lonely. “I couldn’t do it without Theresa,” she said with a smile. As soon as a position became available a few years later, Luther applied, and the two have been working together ever since.
Student-focused financial aid
Buckner and Luther meet individually with every medical student, sharing financial advice and insights.
"Being a medical student is very demanding, so we do what we can to create a low-stress culture of care,” Buckner said. Our offices are a safe space where we can provide financial tools and resources that can prevent or reduce financial stressors. We want every student to be able to make academic success their priority.”
Sometimes the topics of their conversations with students aren't limited to financial aid. In addition to interest rates and state taxes, the students discuss their hopes and dreams, talk about their tattoos and their wedding plans, and share their struggles and fears.
Financial aid can be stressful—"usually people dread talking to financial aid,” Luther noted—but both women agreed that it’s less so at the SOM.
“We're very fortunate to have an incredible development team,” said Buckner, adding that the SOM financial aid team frequently redistributes money to students through emergency scholarship funds and other programs. And since they’re working individually with each student instead of handling a caseload of thousands, Buckner said the financial aid process is more customized. Compared to undergraduates, she said, “I think medical students have a different experience than the general population.”
Skylar Rains, SOM class of 2023, didn’t have high expectations for the financial aid office in medical school based on her undergraduate experience, where she recalled feeling like a number rather than a student. She said she was surprised when Buckner and Luther personally introduced themselves during her first week of medical school.
“Ever since then, they have always played a very hands-on role where they go out of their way to make sure each student feels valued and taken care of,” Rains said, such as sending newsletters with money-saving tips during the pandemic and encouraging students to apply for scholarships.
Rains particularly remembered the personalized Powerpoint presentation that the SOM financial aid team created for her when she was graduating. “[They] included my first white coat photo and my much more recent residency application photo to help illustrate how far I’ve come,” Rains said. “[They] shared with me that it is something they do for every student—going above and beyond in paying attention to the little details like this that shows us students that the department of financial aid values us each uniquely and individually as they genuinely celebrate our successes right along with us.”
“They are some of our strongest advocates, and are two members of the UCR SOM family that truly care about each and every student,” Rains added. “We are incredibly fortunate to have them, and I hope they are able to continue contributing to the legacy of UCR SOM for many more years to come.”
Buckner and Luther genuinely enjoy celebrating all students’ successes. Buckner recalled two students who met in medical school and recently had their second child together. When one was struggling financially during school, they invited him to speak at the annual campus Spring Scholarship Banquet, where he ended up receiving a Mission Award scholarship to cover his last two years of medical school. “He was deserving, and really struggling to get through this process,” said Buckner. “That's a fond memory.”
The financial aid office’s interactions with students don’t end at graduation. Buckner and Luther remain in touch with students annually about paying for their school aid, as well as track where SOM alumni go for their residencies. They also help refer alumni to job openings and connect them with current medical students seeking mentors.
“You can remember them sitting at your desk, wondering how they're going to get through this process, and to see them on the other side—it's rewarding,” said Buckner. “It's a gift that we have the privilege to be able to experience year after year."
Supporting students and the SOM’s mission
It’s not only the close friendship between Buckner and Luther that makes them great partners. Both women share a goal of offering students as much support as possible, and work together to make it happen. “Actually sitting together and collaborating, really figuring out how we’re going to help the students and what we can do within regulations, has been the best,” said Luther.
“Because we're both really seasoned, between the two of us, it's very rare that we can't come up with something that can help them,” Buckner added. “Since [Luther] came over here [to the SOM], we've been able to do some really, really good things for our kids.”
They also draw on their ties to the main campus office to find solutions for students. “We know who to call, and because we've been here 105 years, we all know each other,” said Buckner. “We can all call on each other for assistance and that's been a game changer as well,” she added, giving an example of working with the central campus financial aid office to offer financial planning services to SOM students.
Jose A. Aguilar, the executive director of the UCR Financial Aid Office, worked with both women for over 10 years. “Jose Aguilar has been amazing to us,” said Buckner. “The best mentor to ever have.”
“I am proud to say that both Kathy and Theresa are products of the central financial aid office,” Aguilar said, calling them “superstars” and praising their focus on students. “SOM students are fortunate to have two high-caliber professionals to manage their financial aid and to see them succeed in obtaining that highly desirable degree and title.”
Like many SOM staff members, Buckner and Luther share the school's mission of increasing healthcare access in the Inland Empire. Living in the area, they’ve personally experienced the regional shortage of doctors, and take pride in helping students directly fulfill the school’s mission. “You see students when they first get here, and just how they grow and mature,” said Buckner. “You have first-generation students, and now they're doctors, and that is life changing, not only for our community but for their families. It's a privilege.”
They are also proud of the school’s progress over the past 10 years. “It's actually been wonderful to see students that believe in our mission like we do,” said Buckner. “And now we have more funding opportunities for our students and have awarded 177 Mission Awards, but our first year we only awarded three. We've come a long way.”
Recognizing the financial aid office
The pair recently received the 2023 Outstanding Staff for Students Affairs award for their work. After Buckner showed Luther the award email, they confirmed with Kate Dorff, manager of external relations and protocol, that it was real.
“That stuff doesn't happen to financial aid,” Buckner explained. “To be financial aid and be seen is unprecedented, so it was really nice.”
“It was very nice to be recognized for doing something that we love and are passionate about, and to know that they see us,” seconded Luther.
Now that the awards ceremony is over, though, they said they look forward to returning to working quietly in the background. “We'd like to go back to just being ignored,” said Buckner, laughing alongside Luther.
“Our goal is to quietly help students get through this process,” Buckner explained. “We are behind the scenes, we silently cheer them on in the background. That's our world.”
“There’s no one that I would want to do this with other than her,” added Buckner. “Me either,” Luther agreed.