The Man Behind the Blue Door

 Photo courtesy of Nick Salinas

Photo courtesy of Nick Salinas

At a time when many Sarah Lawrence students of color feel that the college does not care about them, Nick Salinas, the director of financial aid, is central to the conversation. In March, students used the Bates free speech board to accuse the administration of “using” people of color and of being racially insensitive in general. The message clearly had a fiscal connotation, which led many students to believe the message was directed at the office of financial aid.

Salinas and his staff work tirelessly but are also aware that they will not always be able to satisfy all of the students at one of the top-ten most expensive schools in the country. When I encounter Salinas in his Westlands office, the first thing I notice is that he, like many men in their early forties, is going bald. He seems to have embraced this reality and has shaved the rest of his head. He is a solidly-built, slim man who rises from his desk to give me a handshake that is, like his voice, firm but not overwhelming.

The darker color in his blue-and-white checked shirt noticeably matches the robins-egg hue painted on both the stone and wood walls in his fairly spacious office.  The color is cheerful and homey against the dark brown desks and chairs and the clean white trim on the large windows overlooking the North Lawn and Old Dorms. Sitting on the windowsill is a framed picture of three young children. “Niko is the oldest. He’s seven. Angelina is five and Gia is two; she’ll be three in July,” he says proudly. We sit on opposite ends of an empty round table a few short feet from his crowded rectangular desk. Salinas’s profile is sharpened by the afternoon sunlight at his back.

“So let me guess. You’re Italian.” I grin at Salinas, and he laughs amiably. He is, in fact, half-Italian and half-Peruvian. His mother was born and bred in Yonkers while his father immigrated to the U.S. from Peru as a teenager. Salinas and his older brother grew up in nearby White Plains, a fact that doesn’t surprise me once I notice the huge framed puzzle depicting a large bridge and the words “New York” in large printed letters. The puzzle dominates the wall across from his blue door, which he calls “my escape route” though he does not seem to mind being in his character-filled office.

To the right of the puzzle, Salinas keeps a printed flip-calendar featuring the New York Yankees; on the other side of the room a trio of toy figurines play an unmoving game of soccer, and above them nine international soccer jerseys hang proudly. Salinas’s whole family loved sports. He inherited his love of baseball and basketball from his mother and his passion for soccer from his father. “My brother was a big baseball player, had tryouts with some professional teams and all that later in life, so I learned from him. I played basketball just for fun, but organized soccer was the only thing I played. I started when I was five and played through college competitively.”

White Plains always felt like a melting pot to him. “You have every kind of nationality, religion, anything that you can think of is there,” he tells me. “A lot of the kids I played soccer with, their parents were immigrants from other countries too, so it was interesting. I never felt out of place in that way, so I was kind of lucky to be surrounded by so many different people.”

It wasn’t until Salinas was in middle school that he started to recognize what he calls “the stigma of Westchester.” Salinas speaks on the topic in his steady, even voice. “You know, when you live in the more affluent areas of the county… You’re already well aware of that. But you grow up in let’s say Yonkers, or White Plains, or Elmsford, which are very, very diverse socio-economically and everything…” He pauses to choose his next words. “Growing up you don’t really think about that kind of thing, and it is what it is, and it’s just you are who you are.”

Playing soccer helped Salinas avoid the divisions of Westchester. “The teams that I played for were very competitive, so even though it was in our view, we put it aside when it was time to play and it was all about winning at that point.”

“Do you think that you ever felt more inclined to win because you wanted to… prove yourself a little bit?” I ask.

“Yeah. Absolutely. You always get more competitive when something like that exists. I’m not saying that’s right or wrong but it’s human nature I think.”

Salinas’s competitive drive and talent helped him get recruited to St. John’s University in Queens during his senior year of high school, but the car he was supposed to commute with was totaled over the summer in an accident. “I decided, alright, I’ll take a year off. After that I was still playing soccer at the club level where we would travel to different tournaments, so I was still getting seen by college coaches.” During the year off Salinas knew that he wouldn’t be allowed to just goof off. “When I was growing up and getting out of high school, my dad basically said, ‘You’re gonna learn a trade, you’re gonna go to college, or you’re gonna join the Marines. Choose.’ And I was probably this close to going to the Marines. I went into the office and everything, sat through a listening session and all that.”

Instead, Salinas was recruited by a coach from Oneonta University in upstate New York, but a bad case of mono and party-going eventually lost him his first spring semester of college. At that point he needed to fix his grades before transferring to any other colleges, so Salinas attended Westchester Community College before being recruited one final time by Manhattanville College in Purchase where he stayed for the next three years.

“At times I feel terrible for not doing as well as I should have when they sent me to Oneonta and I partied too much,” Salinas says ruefully. “You feel bad in retrospect… I kind of wasted some of their money. And my money, too, because I was charged and I had to repay some of that.” Mostly, though, Salinas is grateful to his parents for the sacrifices they made to support both him and his brother. His father has worked full-time as a cook at the White Plains Presbyterian Hospital for more than forty years and often took side jobs as an electrician, while his mother has worked in retail.

Salinas’s parents instilled an intense work ethic, pride in self-sufficiency, and a sense of responsibility in their son, which came in handy when applying for colleges. Not only was the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form more complicated in the 1990s than it is today, but it had to be completed by hand in suitably legible penmanship, a painstaking horror that Salinas recalls that makes me feel grateful for the online FAFSA families now complete. Salinas filled out the form at least six times with no guidance during his college years, and had to explain the whole process to his parents, neither of whom have college degrees. Salinas took this challenge in stride.

“Even through high school, my parents never asked to see a report card or anything like that. They knew if I went to school that I was going to do the work. They counted on me to be responsible for my future.”

Salinas thinks about the future a lot now that he has kids of his own. He sounds hopeful and a little wistful when he tells me that his son, Niko, loves to come home and tell him everything he learned at school. He is glad that both of his older children are engaged by their lessons, and he seems excited to see how their interests develop as they get older and ascend through the grades of their public school. Even though it’s far away, he’s definitely thought about his own children in relation to college.

“I don’t think I’ll be able to afford it,” he laughs ironically. Though he is lighthearted at first, Salinas is dead serious when he brings up the topic of his family’s impending college debts. “I know it’s an expense, but it’s also an investment. You’re investing in the future, you’re investing in the future of their families… It’s an investment that statistics have proven to benefit the student and family.”

Graduating from Manhattanville with a degree in business management in 2001, Salinas may have thought that his days of college finance forms were behind him. After a year working in his hometown following up on contacts made at school, he landed a job on Wall Street running the trades for bonds. Mere weeks later, the unthinkable happened.

“That morning I got off the subway, because I was living in White Plains still. I got off the subway... I was on the phone with somebody and the first plane hit the first tower. Right above my head.” Salinas’s voice is even when he speaks, but his tone changes perceptibly when he recalls this shattering day.

He recalls the events almost mechanically. “I get to my building and I’m with my crew, my friends. We have a clear view of the towers, and next thing you know, you see the second plane hit the second tower. We were obviously in shock. After the second plane hit the tower we knew something was not right, it wasn’t an accident. At that point we’re all looking at the towers, and you can see people throwing themselves out the windows, and then my boss is like ‘we gotta get out of here, everybody get out of here.’”

In the face of one of America’s most shocking experiences of violence, what Salinas calls the “defining moment” of that day was an encounter with a fireman. “While we’re walking towards the subway, a car just screeches up on the road and the back door opens and all you can see is somebody kicking all this fire equipment out. Tank. Coat. It was a firefighter, and he couldn’t get any further because the crowd was walking in the streets. He was taking all his gear and running towards the scene, and I always think to myself: did he ever make it out, did he ever make it there, did he make it out if he made it in? I just remember saying ‘Good luck, be careful’ to him.”

The experience touched Salinas so deeply that he could not bear to stay on Wall Street. “When I was back down to work, it was hard. Everything was covered in dust, everything smelled terribly. The experience itself was life changing. I knew at that point I wanted to get out of there and I didn’t want to stay down there any longer.” Luckily, another contact came through with a surprising position as a financial aid counselor at Fordham University in the Bronx. Salinas’s experience with the FAFSA form and his innate desire to help people told him that college counseling could be a good fit for him; Fordham thought so too, and offered him the job on the spot.

Salinas’s personal experience with FAFSA was not enough to prepare him for a career in financial aid counseling. He attended a three-day “novice training” with hundreds of other individuals new to the industry that was part math-class, part legal-training, part social networking. “You go through that and then you come back with the knowledge that you learn and you start counseling students and families,” Salinas said. “The financial aid industry changes every day, so its fast-growing and very dynamic. If you don’t learn something new every day, you’re not doing your job.”

Much of his early learning came from his experience with his mentor and supervisor at Fordham, Brian Ghanoo. Ghanoo sat in the cubicle next to Salinas and would coach him after counseling sessions. “Afterwards and he would say, ‘O.K., here’s what was great; work on this a little bit.’ It’s crafting a skill in how to talk to people, how to make them feel comfortable and let them talk to you... let them tell you what they need to tell you, [to] really understand and listen to what they’re saying.”

These tips were invaluable for Salinas in a job that initially made him nervous. “You don’t know these people, but they’re trusting you enough to tell you very personal things or to guide them through the financing of an education. It’s a lot of responsibility.”

For three years Salinas continued working at Fordham, learning from Ghanoo how best to counsel families and students, when he caught wind of an opening at Sarah Lawrence College. He already knew the then-director of the department, Heather McDonnell, from conferences and trainings, but he still researched the school and knew that “it was a different kind of place.” When he went to McDonnell's office twelve years ago for his initial interview, dressed in a suit and tie, “she closes the door and says, ‘the next time you wear a suit here, you better be going to a funeral or a wedding.’ So I said ‘I need to work here.’” Salinas got the job-- for the next ten years he would act as Assistant Director, Student Employment Coordinator, and was later promoted to Associate Director in the office until McDonnell retired in 2016 when he replaced her as head of the department.

McDonnell had a profound effect on Salinas as a mentor, and he credits her with teaching him everything he knows about the industry. “Besides financial aid and all that, she taught me that it’s just a job,” Salinas remembers. “She was always one to say family first, you have to do something just let me know and take care of it. Five o’clock she would always go around the office shutting the lights. ‘You have other things to do, [the work is] going to be there tomorrow.’” Salinas also points out how, like Ghanoo, McDonnell shaped his tactical approach to his job. “She taught me to humanize the process, to be comfortable with the people you’re talking with and make them comfortable. I think she taught me to be a better person as a whole.”

Though he may not have come to the industry by chance, Salinas takes his job incredibly seriously. He’s at his desk in Westlands by 8:30 or 9:00 every morning and doesn’t leave until 6:00 or 7:00 each night, unless he has to pick up his kids from school. His weeks are spent number-crunching and navigating a stream of meetings: with his staff, his boss, Kevin McKenna, the IT department, the president— anyone and everyone who might affect the running of his office.

He even comes in on weekends just to get a jumpstart on the week, or to catch up from the week before. Most of his time is spent emailing— “I’m pretty much on 24/7” he admits. “If I get an email that needs a quick response— whether its a student, a parent, my boss, somebody in administration— I’ll do it from my phone. But I’m at home on my computer doing that too.”

“We try to pride ourselves on getting responses back to our families and students as quickly as we possibly can, between 24 and 48 hours, so that they get the customer service that they deserve.” Salinas is very serious when he describes his team’s efficiency. This idea of customer service is not one that I would have considered before Salinas invoked it. As a student I always think of myself as such, and separate from the status of “customer” or “consumer;” it is clear that in Salinas’s eyes, I am both.

Salinas conducts financial aid nights at high schools in the local New York area and sits on the Sarah Lawrence Diversity Committee. Salinas is frank about the effect of the free speech boards on the committee, which is comprised of key staff, faculty and Student Senate representatives. “With the campus climate and everything, there’s a lot to do in respect to diversity on campus. There’s always a lot, but obviously it’s heightened now. It’s challenging, but it’s good work we’re trying to do.”

Every issue the Diversity Committee deals with is nuanced, and changing campus for the better takes skillful and patient management of many moving parts. One of the committee’s most recent priorities has been implementing chosen name on school documents. Salinas points to the option extended by the registrar to include a student’s chosen name on their diploma as a step in the right direction, and adds, “you want to make sure the process works throughout campus where it needs to-- class rosters, MySLC, things like that. So we want to make we’re not just plugging a hole and saying ‘O.K., we did it for this year.’ That’s not a good way to operate.”

Salinas’s had complicated feelings when he first heard about the message on the free speech board. “I felt sad. Angry. And confused. It kind of ran the gamut of those three.” He sounds tired when he later adds, “I think we’re moving in the right direction, but things have to get done. We have to do things, not just say we’re gonna do them.”

In terms of what his office can do specifically in terms of diversity, Salinas is clear. “When we want diversity in the class the population itself, we’re not just talking about gender, race, or anything like that. We're running the gambit of diversity.” In order to achieve that kind of diversity, Salinas says, the school spends approximately thirty-one million dollars a year on financial aid for its students. Still, he is frustrated since he knows that many prospective students and families are intimidated out of applying to the school when they see the full cost of attendance. “That hurts us because you don’t look a little further and say, ‘wow, they offer 38, 39 thousand dollars: that’s an average. Maybe I can get more,’” Salinas explains.

Salinas wants to start bridging that gap, but he knows better than anyone that change is a slow process. In the meantime, he can become disheartened when students assume bad things of his office. “A lot of the times it’s not due to malice and it’s not someone spreading a rumor— sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s hearing what you want to hear and then relaying that information to someone else. And it’s like the game of telephone.” Salinas also wishes students felt comfortable coming straight to the source for facts and clarifications about financial aid.

Salinas pauses, deliberating silently over the right words. “I want you to make the best decision for your family. So there’s an ethical and a moral issue. You want to make sure that the family is aware that you’re not here to just say, ‘you can do it, don’t worry about it, it’ll be fine,’ and then put them in jeopardy down the road.”

If anyone understands the fear of this burden, it would be Salinas. The first college graduate in his family with three young children to one day put through college, he extends the same respect to his clients as he would hope for his children one day.

Salinas sees his respectful, realistic interactions with students not just as a matter of morals and ethics, but as an extension of their education. “If they don’t pay their bill on time with student accounts, they get a late fee, and then they’re angry at us. Ok, let’s put it in perspective. If you have a cell phone bill and you don’t pay it, you’re going to get a late fee. If you don’t pay your bill and the late fee, they’re probably going to turn your service off. There are teaching moments everywhere. I find myself thinking more and more of that because we’re all educators; we work in the education industry, so learning and teaching should not just happen in the classroom. Especially if our goal is to make you world citizens; then we want to celebrate your successes and to help you understand that there are consequences to certain actions and inactions.”

Salinas’s own children are recipients of their father’s holistic take on education, though their learning is driven by youthful curiosity. As Niko and Gia have grown up, they’ve started to pay attention to their father’s conversations when they visit him at work. Recently Niko asked Salinas what he does.

“In a nutshell, to a seven and a five year old, I tell them that Daddy helps students and families find resources to attend college and make it affordable to them,” Salinas explains. Then he does his best impression of his son’s wide, uncomprehending eyes and tells me that Niko simply responded, “what?” Giving up, Salinas just told his son that he helped students get a college degree. Understanding that, Niko asked if students have to pay to go to college. Salinas was unequivocal in his answer to that question. “I try to teach them nothing is free in life.”

Salinas is usually very cautious when he speaks about his job, but he brightens up when he speaks about the students whose lives he wants to shape positively. Salinas loves the close-knit community on campus, especially after working at Fordham, a college with almost twenty-thousand undergraduates. “I know a lot of students on campus and they’ll sometimes just come in and say hi, ask how my day is going, or any of us. They build a bond with us because we’re already talking about sensitive information, finances, family structure, that sort of thing. So once you already feel comfortable enough to talk about that, they feel comfortable enough to think of you as someone you can come and talk to.”

What Salinas misses most about his old position is the constant contact he had with students and families, which he emphatically describes as his favorite part of the job. Last year, as part of his campaign to strengthen the connection between the office of financial aid and the student body as a whole, Salinas did what any good New Yorker would do to get people’s attention: he threw a pizza party.

“We opened these doors,” he points to the internal door the office, “and those doors,” he nods to the the blue external door, “and we sent out through social media, MySLC, ‘come pick up a flyer and learn about filing financial aid for the next year…’ It got a lot of attention. We got a lot of visitors in the office, made a lot of people aware at least, and then met students that we may not have had a chance to meet.”

For Salinas, commencement is the best day on campus. “It’s very exciting and I feel a sense of pride because I may have played a small role in [students] reaching their goal.” He doesn’t sit in the audience or up on the stage, though. “You’ll probably laugh at me, but I will be working,” he admits.

He sits in his office until the commencement speaker begins their speech, when he walks to the shade of the Reunion Terrace patio on the West side of Westlands and watches the speaker quietly. He then returns to his office before going back to his hidden spot to watch the names being called. “Then I’ll hang out back here usually cause they always have everybody out there as far as the toast goes, then I’ll go say hi to any students I know.”

Ceylan Swenson '21

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The Phoenix is a non-profit, student-run publication representing the voices and opinions of Sarah Lawrence College community members. Our print edition publishes bi-weekly on Tuesdays, and our online edition is updated multiple times per week. Anyone may attend our open meetings at 9:00 PM on Wednesday nights in the North Room of the Pub.