EL CAJON When he’s away from his job running the financial aid office at Cuyamaca College, South Bay resident Ray Reyes is typically with his wife, Deanna, in a venue a far departure from the halls of academia.
What started on a whim his wife’s fun idea to learn hula has led to the pair performing with the Polynesian dance troupe, Makani Kai, at weddings, parties and county fairs.
“I used to just go watch her at practice, but after a year of that, the director insisted that I start drumming, which then led to dancing,”said Reyes, 40, who grew up in Spring Valley, and currently lives in what he calls his “dream home” in the Chula Vista community of Otay Ranch.
Much the way he stumbled into Polynesian dance, Reyes’ entrée into financial aid for college students was more happenstance than by design. A business administration graduate from San Diego State University in the early ‘90s, he had no inkling what the job entailed when he responded to a financial-aid job posting at UCSD.
“Once I started, I never really wanted to do anything else,” said the Southwestern College alum who transferred to SDSU for his bachelor’s degree.
He is currently the assistant financial aid officer at Cuyamaca College, where he came in 1997, playing an integral role in a department that last year helped students obtain more than $4.2 million, mostly in grants, scholarships, and vouchers.
“Financial aid is the key to giving many students access to higher education,” said Reyes, who last week was presented an employee-recognition award from Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District Chancellor Omero Suarez and the Classified Senate. The quarterly joint award, recently revamped to include a $250 gift certificate and engraved trophy, recognizes excellence among the non-instructional staff at both colleges and the district office.
“Ray Reyes is a wonderful example of our truly outstanding classified employees and their commitment to exemplary service,” said Suarez, who presented the award during Tuesday night’s governing board meeting.
Reyes is the first recipient of the award since its retooling earlier this year to increase its profile and employee participation.
“Recognition is key to employee growth and leadership,” Suarez said. “A great deal of time and careful consideration goes into this particular award because of its significance.”
Pat Murray, past president of the classified senate, said it’s important to recognize the behind-the-scenes contributions of classified employees.
“It is my hope that my colleagues will all feel more aware of the impact they can have in the lives of the students,” she said.
Reyes said he keeps in contact with many he’s helped, including one grateful financial aid recipient, who came to the college in turmoil after a marital breakup left her destitute. Now an Oregon entrepreneur with a business degree from SDSU, she was looking to start her life anew as a 29-year-old single parent of two with no job training or experience.
“She told me that she was going to college for the first time and that she was frightened,” Reyes said, recounting the woman’s desperation.
With Reyes’ guidance, she was able to obtain full financial aid, which covered her fees, books and supplies, and helped with living expenses. At Reyes’ urging, she also applied for local and national scholarships, receiving more than $1,500 in stipends during her three years at Cuyamaca.
“Once in a while, she’ll send me an e-mail letting me know how she’s doing and her e-mails always end with her thanking me for helping her succeed in education and in her life,” Reyes said, adding that the woman now helps single parents apply for college and financial aid..
As for the award, he said he was “truly honored and privileged” to receive the recognition, and shared the credit with others in the financial aid office.
“We have a great staff and we love giving access to our students,” he said.
Reyes’ boss, Gene Morones, interim associate dean of special-funded programs, compared the award recipient to an “anchor in a storm,” noting how he always keeps the financial aid office on an even keel, no matter the pressing demands and ever-increasing caseloads.
Kari Crawford, financial aid adviser, said Reyes’ first priority is to the students and that his imprint on the department ensures that it remains so among other staffers.
“Ray cares about the students we serve,” she said. “He is always working to improve our financial aid system, always makes the time for questions from staff and/or students, and our office always meets the deadlines so that students are always paid on time.”
With the fall semester set to begin Aug. 21, the financial aid offices of both Cuyamaca and Grossmont colleges are humming with activity. After applying for admission and registering for classes -- easily done online through the college Web sites, www.cuyamaca.edu and www.grossmont.edu --students can apply for financial aid at www.fafsa.ed.gov. For more aid information, go to www.cuyamaca.edu/finaid or www.grossmont.edu/fa .
Cuyamaca College is at 900 Rancho San Diego Parkway in Rancho San Diego; Grossmont College is at 8800 Grossmont College Drive in El Cajon.