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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Student Financial Services with a smile

Published: January 22, 2010
Section: Features

With a smile: Silva Bedrossian hard at work in the Office of Student Financial Services.<br /><I>PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot</i>

With a smile: Silva Bedrossian hard at work in the Office of Student Financial Services.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Silva Bedrossian is sitting sidesaddle in a conference room, a cappuccino–one of her vices, she quickly admits–in front of her. She’s wearing a red scarf–meticulously placed around her neck–and a black sweater over a button down shirt and slacks.

From her outfit you can tell Bedrossian is all at once a put together professional, yet simultaneously personable and colorful–the pop of red color in her scarf provides you the proof.

As she talks in her noticeable accent, Bedrossian regularly smiles and laughs, often using her hands to animatedly express a point. Bedrossian has shoulder length strawberry blonde hair and a contagious signature laugh that rings at the very least a few times each day.

Bedrossian can often be heard engaging in playful banter with her co-workers, but today it’s her turn to get ribbed for the after effects of her current 15 minutes of fame. Bedrossian, who has worked at Brandeis for 17 years, was recently recognized for her work when she was awarded the Louis and Helen Zirkel Award, presented annually to the staff member who “demonstrate[s] loyalty and dedication to the university and to its mission.”

Although deeply touched by this honor, Bedrossian says that initially, it came as quite the surprise.

“I was happy but embarrassed too…I felt like I’m [just] doing my job,” she says. “It’s good to know that people recognize what you’re doing. Somehow it’s nice, but it’s embarrassing to be in front of everybody [at the awards luncheon],” she says then laughs.

Somewhat uncomfortable with the attention she’s getting for winning this particular award, Bedrossian bursts into a fit of laughter as a co-worker and close friend of hers enters the closed room and playfully teases her about her newfound fame.

Ever the good sport, Bedrossian takes it in stride and laughs along. You could consider her the peace maker and adapter of her office – the person who gets along with just about everybody – hardly a far cry from the way Bedrossian has lived her whole life. When she was a child, Bedrossian explains, her mother told her she used to adopt classmates’ personalities, taking on their character traits so as to get along with them better.

She is in many ways an ever-adapting individual who assesses a situation and does her best to settle in to her surroundings. Case in point: She adjusted her lifestyle when she moved from her native Lebanon to the United States 27 years ago; she quickly settled in to the various jobs she’s held at Brandeis; and she adapts which languages she speaks to the diverse students she serves in her position as student financial services representative in the Office of Student Financial Services.

Bedrossian started at Brandeis 17 years ago in a temporary position in purchasing that spanned a year. At the time, she had a young son to take care of, so the time off during the summer that her job provided her was convenient. At the end of that first year, Bedrossian moved on to a permanent position in the development office and later become a university cashier after a year and a half in development.

She has spent the past 12 years working in student accounts, a section of the Office of Student Financial Services. Here, she handles the Tuition Management Services monthly tuition payment plan, which allows students and parents to pay tuition costs over a 10-month period. Bedrossian helps students and parents understand how the oftentimes confusing system operates, graciously answering questions over the phone and in person.

In an anonymous letter nominating Bedrossian for the Louis and Helen Zirkel Award, a fellow co-worker described Bedrossian’s consistently exceptional customer service: “It is difficult to cite one or two examples of Silva treating students, parents and colleagues with respect because she always, always does. I have never heard her deal with anyone–in person or on the phone– any other way.”

Bedrossian’s sensitivity to customers’ problems is appropriate since dealing with money can certainly be a delicate issue, especially when many parents end up miscalculating their budgets. But Bedrossian sympathizes with parents’ well-intentioned dreams of providing their children with a good education.

“Parents want to send their kids to get [a] good education even if they cannot afford it,” she says. Bedrossian’s accommodating nature and understanding demeanor come in handy when assisting international students who have language barriers and who might live in different time zones, thus complicating what should be a simple phone call to Brandeis during business hours.

“With international students, it’s hard for them to understand [the tuition payment plan]. And once they trust you, once they believe in you, it doesn’t matter if [they’re on the list of students you’re assigned to help.] They keep coming to you with every basic question, [even] personal questions,” she says and laughs. “I don’t mind; I understand. Me having an [international] background, I understand how hard [it is] for the parents.”

Bedrossian often applies her international experience to her work in the Office of Student Financial Services. Her extensive linguistic ability–she speaks Turkish, Arabic, Armenian, English and a little bit of French, for a grand total of five languages–has enriched Bedrossian’s work in student accounts. Although most students who call her probably converse with Bedrossian in English–a language she knew not even a word of before moving to the United States–she is able to accommodate those who cannot converse freely in the language that has become so familiar to her these past 27 years.

Bedrossian is easy-mannered and a relaxed conversationalist, the type of employee that certain Brandeis students like to adopt as a confidante. In fact, many international students do just that.

“Sometimes they just come in to talk to me,” she says.

Plus, after their initial meeting with Bedrossian–where she most often establishes their payment plan and mails their first payment for them–many students come to rely on her help, returning each month to give Bedrossian their payment to mail, even though they’re technically responsible for doing so themselves. It’s easy to understand why people are drawn to Bedrossian. She is as warm as the cappuccino she’s nursing, and exhibits a gentleness which seems to emanate from genuine kindheartedness rather than showy benevolence. Plus, she has a free-spirited, fun-loving nature that rubs off on you pretty quickly.

Since she exudes such positivity, it’s understandable why one international student, having seen a happy and smiling Bedrossian during each of their interactions, once asked Bedrossian if her life was perfect. Bedrossian chuckles as she recalls this situation.

“I said: ‘No one’s life is like that, believe me,’” she says. “When I come into work I make sure I’m here, happy [and] smiling [for] the students. I mean, everybody has their own problems, actually. But you’re here to help them. And I love the atmosphere, and I like helping with the students, and working with them.”

Although she seems to have it altogether, there’s more to Bedrossian than her pleasant personality. And like most people, Bedrossian’s life–filled with seasonal periods of happiness and struggle–has been far from perfect.

Born in Lebanon, Bedrossian didn’t move to the United States until 27 years ago, when the war in Lebanon was intensifying. When she emigrated from Lebanon, Bedrossian left autonomy in the workforce–her husband had owned a business and she used to do his bookkeeping; she left the comfort of fluency in a country’s language and surroundings; and she left the culture and customs she was used to her whole life.

“We used to have everything in [Lebanon]. You know, we used to have our own business, and we used to know the language,” she says. “The lifestyle is totally different; that’s why I really [relate to] international students.”

Bedrossian had to adapt to a new culture that seemed to demand more out of its residents, one that fostered more stress and more bills to pay. It wasn’t always easy during those first years, but helping her adjust was the rest of Bedrossian’s family–including her brothers, sisters and parents–who also moved to the United States around this time.

“I’m so happy that I have them. I would have not made it without them,” she says.

Despite the culture shock she experienced upon arrival in the United States, though, Bedrossian has thrived both professionally and personally, helping those around her and all the while maintaining her heritage and Armenian roots. Keeping those roots alive in her two grown sons and 2 ½ year old granddaughter is essential for Bedrossian. She speaks Armenian–her first language–at home with her family, and is active in the Armenian community in her hometown of Waltham, volunteering for various groups.

“There is still a need for the Armenian community to be together. They need the young generation to…learn about Armenian,” she says. “[So] I like to be involved as much as I can.”

Given her love for helping others through volunteer work, it comes as no surprise that Bedrossian’s favorite part of her job is helping students.

“When a student comes in…and when you help them, when they’re happy, when you connect to them…I feel good that I’m doing something good [for them,” she says.

Even though she’s a favorite among many students, Bedrossian doesn’t always get such good feedback. Working in a job where money issues abound can sometimes create tense situations. Since Bedrossian serves as the go- between for an outside tuition company and for Brandeis parents, she sometimes becomes the bearer of bad news and often takes involuntary responsibility for problems that arise. And of course, there’s always that angry parent who calls and yells at Bedrossian. Instead of getting angry, though, she lets them do just that.

Exhibiting her even-mannered, adaptable personality, Bedrossian says, “You let them get frustrated and yell as much as they want [and then explain the situation to them].”

In the same nomination letter, one of Bedrossian’s co-workers applauded her patience in the face of sometimes angry parents: “Like all of us in student accounts, Silva has received many phone calls from angry parents. She always calmly, respectfully deals with the parents and never passes the call off to her supervisor. She has a pleasant manner that immediately calms the parents. I often hear her refer to angry callers as ‘Sir’–which does wonders in changing their attitudes.”

Bedrossian explains that assisting parents is the most important aspect of such situations, and that even though she doesn’t make the rules, she’s responsible for making the payment process easier for parents.

“Sometimes it’s out of your control and sometimes you have to make sure that the parents feel comfortable…and give them some kind of relief,” she says.

On closer look, this attitude is part and parcel of Bedrossian’s ability to step outside of herself in order to understand how other people’s life situations. So it comes as no surprise that traveling –another way of drinking in other people’s life experiences, along with the world’s diverse scenery – is one of her favorite pastimes.

“I love traveling. It’s like seeing outside of the world; it’s really different when you see how people live,” she says. “Like when I went back home to Lebanon [and saw all the poor people]…you come in and really appreciate [what you have]. I want our new generation, our kids, to get to see how it is outside of [their] world to appreciate what they have now, which they don’t appreciate,” she says then laughs.

Upon discussing traveling, it becomes even clearer that Bedrossian is thankful for what she has. Traveling and witnessing other’s different condition of life, she says, teaches you that material riches are only one form of fulfillment.

Says Bedrossian, “[The formation of] happiness has nothing to do with money; that’s personality.”