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Financial Aid Director Sally Donahue Leaves Legacy, Looks Ahead

Sally C. Donahue
Sally C. Donahue has been the director of financial aid at the College and a senior admissions officer for over 18 years.
Sally C. Donahue, the College’s financial aid director, will retire in August. Throughout the 18 years she’s held the position, and three decades working at Harvard, she’s earned admiration from colleagues at the University and across the country.

In her tenure as Director of Financial Aid, Donahue oversaw the office as it launched the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative in 2004. Under her leadership, the office’s budget has approximately doubled—an improvement which financial aid office staff say now ensures a Harvard education is affordable for all families.

Donahue’s achievements with the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative extend beyond Harvard, her colleagues say. Introduced in 2004, the initiative stipulates that families earning less than $65,000 a year pay nothing toward their child’s cost of attendance. Twenty percent of students get their tuition covered entirely, and more than half of College students receive some financial aid.

“These changes not only revolutionized Harvard, but really have revolutionized and made much more open and accessible private higher education throughout the United States,” Dean of Admissions William R. Fitzsimmons ’67 said.

A Far-Reaching Legacy

Outside of Harvard, Donahue has been involved with a variety of financial aid initiatives, earning her national recognition.

Donahue has served as chair of the College Board’s Financial Aid Standards and Services Committee, and as a committee member of its Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century and its College Scholarship Council.

“Not only do I think she's the nation's best and most respected financial aid officer, she has been active in all of the national financial aid organizations,” Fitzsimmons said.

“She really is a towering figure in the national financial aid scene, and even internationally,” he added.

Anne Sturtevant, executive director of higher education initiatives at the College Board, has worked closely with Donahue and described her as “a big thinker,” “a collaborator,” and “one of those quiet leaders.”

She added that Donahue’s perspective is particularly valuable due to her adept sensitivity to how resources vary among academic institutions.

“She really tries to make sure that whatever she’s trying to communicate [is] as relatable as possible to a broad swath of institutions and campuses,” Sturtevant said.

‘Five of the Nicest People, All in one Person’

In his email to admissions and financial aid office employees announcing Donahue’s retirement, Fitzsimmons lauded her contributions to the University and noted how she has earned a reputation for being exceptionally kind.

“We know when Sally is free at any time of day, and she has her door open so that we can go in and talk to her,” Charlene S. Kim, an assistant director of financial aid and a senior admissions officer, said. “Having worked in a lot of places, that’s very rare.”

Sturtevant said students and colleagues alike find Donahue relatable and approachable.

“I think people enjoy her personally because she's very approachable, she's warm, she has a very unpretentious presence,” Sturtevant said.

In a field that requires much interpersonal interaction, Fitzsimmons said Donahue’s personability motivates those she works with.

“She is five of the nicest people, all in one person, that you'd ever want to meet,” Fitzsimmons said. “That permeates the entire financial aid staff. She's a great role model to people.”

Embracing Change

Donahue said she loves her job, in part, because it challenges her in new ways every day. Her daily routine is filled with meetings and phone calls scheduled one after another. Any time in between she uses to connect with colleagues.

“I love change,” she said of her fast-paced schedule. “This has been a fundamental piece of my experience here: having to know what my priorities are and having to keep in mind that students come first.”

Donahue said another perk of being at Harvard is all the people she’s encountered over the years. She said getting to know students, especially by reading their applications, is among the highlights of the job.

“I actually learn, always, from reading admissions files,” Donahue said. “Students come in with knowledge that I have not been exposed to before. So I’m constantly looking things up, trying to figure out, ‘What does that word mean? What is this discipline, this field of study?’ It’s really interesting.”

Though she’s made the difficult decision to step down from her position as director, Donahue said she has no intention of leaving 86 Brattle St. anytime soon. She has plans to continue reading admissions files and fundraising. Nor is she cutting short her goals for the future of Harvard’s financial aid program.

“I’d love to see the program endowed fully,” Donahue said. “It would be my ‘blue sky’ issue.”

Donahue said she hopes to use her experience at Harvard to work more closely with high school students in New England. She is considering volunteering her time to connect with high school students or to advise administrators. A shortened commute might be an added benefit, she said.

“There are so many different ways I feel I could continue to contribute in a way that’s unencumbered by a full workday here and a ride on the Southeast Expressway north and south,” Donahue said.

A lighter administrative workload will also give Donahue the flexibility to spend time with her grandchildren on a regular basis.

Still, she says stepping down will be bittersweet.

“I feel incredibly honored to have had this position. It’s really like no other financial aid director position in the country,” she said.

—Staff writer Samuel W. Zwickel can be reached at samuel.zwickel@thecrimson.com

—Staff writer Delano R. Franklin can be reached at delano.franklin@thecrimson.com

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