Genesee Community College may not have the size and stature of a major institution such as the University of Notre Dame, but the two-year college in Western New York played an enormous role in the development of the director of student financial strategies at the South Bend, Indiana campus.
Joseph A. Russo, a Geneva native, joined the staff at Genesee in 1972 as director of financial aid after serving as the admissions counselor at LeMoyne College in Syracuse. Recognized as a pioneer in the field, his efforts were rewarded on a grand scale when he accepted the financial aid director position at Notre Dame.
Twenty-seven years later, Russo remembers the significance of his days at Genesee.
"I was pretty cocky when I worked at Genesee, I thought I knew everything," he said, speaking by telephone from his office. "I found out I didn't know anything. The school was different; there were many non-traditional students.
"It was a broadening and humbling experience. I learned how to be a better person and a better financial aid administrator. It helped me to get into the national scene."
Just as he did at LeMoyne, where he called himself "a founding father at the age of 23," Russo worked very hard to develop the financial aid program at Genesee. During his first year in Batavia, he was elected secretary-treasurer of the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association for a second term. He also was appointed to the College Scholarship Service's national council while at Genesee.
In 1977, he received the Chancellor's Award from the State University of New York for outstanding performance in administrative services. He was the first person from Genesee Community College to earn the award.
"I tried to make the program at Genesee the best in the state," said Russo, who was appointed by the federal government to train other financial aid trainers at that time. "We were able to reduce the amount of borrowing dramatically and we got people to apply (for grants and scholarships). It was a lot of grunt work."
The commitment of Russo and a few others across the state helped to elevate financial aid administration from a clerical status. Gradually, colleges increased financial aid staff and offered more student services.
Russo and his family, which included wife, Eileen, and children, Joe, Lynne and David, said goodbye to the North Spruce Street neighbors in 1978 and headed west to the Golden Dome. All three of his children went on to graduate from Notre Dame.
Joe, Jr. is a major in the Marine Corps, currently stationed in Hawaii; Lynne is a systems analyst in the Chicago area and David is a computer graphics specialist in Southern California. They have blessed mom and dad with four grandchildren.
Russo's work at Notre Dame has ranged from building the financial aid department - 31 people work in the financial aid office and help facilitate a $237 million budget -- to his current role as "elder statesman," he said. "I'm the policy guy, the PR guy, the alumni relations guy, the donor relations guy. I help set policies and strategies."
He explained that Notre Dame has "two great policies" to offset the almost $40,000 annual cost (tuition, room and board). "First, we are 'need blind' in our admissions policies. A student's ability to pay has nothing to do with whether they're admitted or not. And secondly, if you've been admitted, we can make this happen."
Russo said that the average scholarship is $18,000 to $20,000. "Families pay their fair share and there is sacrifice involved - students work and borrow - but if there's anything else available, the university will help out."
While at ND, Russo, 63, has served as a charter member of the NCAA Committee on Financial Aid and Amateurism and currently is a member of the Citibank Financial Aid Advisory Council. Since 1981, he has been the editor of his profession's national Journal of Student Financial Aid. In 1984, he received the Notre Dame Special Presidential Award for excellence in service to the university. In 2004, he was one of 50 people elected into the College Scholarship Service's Hall of Fame during the organization's 50th anniversary celebration.
He said he keeps in touch with a handful of co-workers and administrators from his days at Genesee and noted that his mother, Carmela, 94, still lives in Geneva. He is proud of the fact that his father, John, was able to visit him at Notre Dame before he passed away almost 25 years ago.
Russo also has made a connection with Genesee's current director of financial aid. Awhile back, Joe Bailey, who has been at Genesee since 1998 (and oversees a financial aid budget of about $14 million), sent an e-mail "out of the blue" to Russo. Bailey, a Newark resident, said he had heard of Russo from a mutual friend.
"Joe sent me a very kind e-mail back and stated that he has fond memories of Genesee," Bailey said.
About a month ago, Bailey and his brothers treated their father by taking him to Notre Dame to watch the Fighting Irish football team against Syracuse. On the morning of the game, Bailey said he "wandered over" to Russo's office where they reminisced about Russo's time at Genesee and talked about the transition he had made to Notre Dame.
"He was a kind and generous guy," said Bailey, who received the SUNY Chancellor's Award this year. "I am very thankful to have met him."
Russo echoed those sentiments and welcomed the opportunity to learn about the community college's progress. As far as his career, he said the fire continues to burn brightly.
"Retirement? Not in the near future," he said. "I'm healthy, the university treats me really well and I have a great staff. There's still a lot to do."
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Wall of Honors: Joseph A. Russo, former director of financial aid at Genesee Community College, is in his 27th year as a prominent member of the financial aid office at the University of Notre Dame. Some of the honors he has received hang on the wall of his office including the State University of New York Chancellor's Award, which he received while at Genesee in 1977.
Joe Meets Joe: Joseph A. Russo, (left) a member of the financial aid office at the University of Notre Dame once held the position currently held by Joseph Bailey (right), the director of Genesee's financial aid office. The two met this past month at Notre Dame and to talk about their shared interests at Genesee tales, including the fact that they both hold State University of New York Chancellor's Awards.