Tough, tenacious, smart as a whip. That’s how people close to Shirley Ort describe her.
Ort is UNC’s associate provost and director of scholarships and financial aid. She and her colleagues administer $220 million in student aid to 15,000 students a year. She has earned the respect of administrators at universities across the nation with the Carolina Covenant program. Nearly 100 universities have copied the path-breaking concept of enabling very low-income students to graduate debt-free.
Even before database management software evolved, Ort kept track of the three-dimensional puzzle of the maximum aid she could award over a four years without overspending; all federal and state regulations on grants and loans; and hundreds of restricted scholarships — available only to, say, left-handed biochemistry majors from Hoke County.
But there’s another side to Shirley — the side that invites students to lunch just to see how they’re doing, that makes time to work through a student’s crisis, that calls a colleague and friend, as she did Mary Flanagan on Valentine’s Day, to say stop by the office refrigerator to pick up a present (Flanagan finds a homemade meatloaf with her name on it).
“Shirley knows I love her meatloaf,” Mary said. “Who else makes you a meatloaf for Valentine’s Day?”
For Ort, the meat and potatoes of her existence is making a college education affordable to all qualified young people. As a teenager in rural Michigan, she had no expectations of going to college until the summer after her high school graduation, when her school principal rapped on her screen door, carrying one application for a small private college not far from home. He said that if Shirley were admitted, Spring Arbor College would find a way for her to stay.
She was accepted three days before classes began. She borrowed what would be the equivalent today of $36,000 while getting her bachelor’s in history with honors, and worked full time her junior and senior years to meet her obligations. Going to college changed her life.
“I learned what a lot of people have learned: Once you get a little education, you want more,” Ort said. A decade later, she obtained a master’s in medieval history at Western Michigan University and, eight years after that, earned a law degree at Seattle University School of Law.
Ort intended to stay in the Pacific Northwest, where she was dean of student development at Seattle Pacific University, then deputy director for student financial aid at the Higher Education Coordinating Board in Olympia, Washington. But she couldn’t resist the call to Carolina in 1997. That move has since changed the lives of more than 100,000 young people.
“Our mission is to remove financial barriers for students and to protect access for those who without such assistance could not afford an education and couldn’t realize their potential,” Ort said. “The success of our society depends upon whether we as a nation still know how to do that.”