- Wimer Alberto, Assistant Vice President for Client Services at GradGuard
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Welcome back to Roompact, Res Ed chat podcast. I’m your host, Dustin Ramsdell. This podcast series, if you are new features, a variety of topics and of interest to higher ed professionals who work in and with college and university housing. So we are definitely talking more about working with universities and residential life departments and everything for this episode, but also getting a little dose of the transitions that folks make from campus-based roles to outside and just the different perspectives and journeys that folks are on because we’ve had a variety of folks talking about their career journeys on here. So we’ll have a little bit of a combined topic in a sense for this just because I know I’m personally curious, but also, yeah, just a lot of good stuff to talk about with our guest. Alberto, if you want to introduce yourself and go in a little bit of your professional background, which I know we’ll dive in a little bit deeper with throughout the episode, but just let folks get to know you a little bit.
Yeah, sure. Hi, everyone. My name is Wimer Alberto. I’m the assistant Vice President for client services at GradGuard. Well, a little bit about me. I grew up in New York City, two blocks or three blocks from Yankee Stadium. So grew up around there and then went to school at Binghamton University and I was first generation college student. And after I went to school, just fell in love with higher ed, really. Was a mid-year RA, met the person who would become my wife on my second day as an RA. She was an RA in another building and then from there the trajectory of everything just changed. So became an RA, was an orientation leader, an EOP summer counselor. Went right into the field before doing my master’s. So I was an RD at Utica College, which is now Utica University actually. And then spent another four years in Res Life at my alma mater.
Had a chance to do my master’s in student affairs, and then my wife and I got tired of the cold and literally picked the hottest place in the country. So I moved to Arizona to Phoenix in the middle of, I think it was June or July. I remember landing, and it was 113 degrees outside at 11:00 PM, and just transitioned to living in the desert and it’s been great. Since then, had an opportunity to work in housing operations at Arizona State University. Was the assistant director of guest and conference services over there. And then right at 2017 met the GradGuard team and had a really great conversation and that materialized into a role working with our current partners, and that has materialized in a couple of different roles here. So I started off managing the day-to-day relationships with the schools, then supervising the team for the renter’s product that does that. And now I oversee the portfolio here across all the products. So I’m very excited to bring that perspective and just share a little bit about what I’ve learned so far.
Yeah, you’ve had quite the journey. I’ve been following along on social media things for several years now, so it’s cool to see you moving up and around and very different climates and institutions and organizations and everything. But before we get too far with anything else that we’re going to discuss too, I want to make sure to just, the elevator pitch or just the quick summary of what GradGuard does, just so folks make sure that they have that context and understanding.
Yeah, that may be helpful because that informs a lot of the work and what I do and how I approach it. So the best way that I can describe it is a GradGuard protects students and families from these unexpected events that can derail their education. So think of the student that is throwing a football in the hallway and hits a sprinkler head. Never happens, but when it does, the student can be liable for those expenses. And so it puts the university in the difficult situation and trying to determine, “Do we absorb the costs? Legally, the students are responsible for this. Do we send that cost over to them? Can they even afford it or would they be able to come back?” That’s one of the areas that we work in with housing specifically. But we also have another product called tuition insurance where students can actually protect their entire tuition investment, including housing.
So what happens to the student that has to withdraw due to a medical issue, to anxiety or depression or even COVID-19 or something like that. A lot of times the further into the semester you get, the less the school is willing to pay and reimburse that student. And for a lot of students, they can’t afford an extra semester of school. And so that’s where the business started and it’s been the bread and butter of how we’ve gotten to where we are. Now we’re at 500, we have 500 for partnerships.
I think where we’re going now is a little bit different in the sense that we are really evolving into this platform that can allow institutions to make informed decisions about how to manage third party risk. So everything from cybersecurity, to how does the school track the thousands of different vendors that have access to their data? And we have a little bit of experience in that. And so we’ve really evolved into this platform where we’re consulting with institutions on how to manage all kinds of risks. That makes it exciting to be able to have those relationships and guide them in that kind of way.
Yeah, that’s really interesting. And I mean just super unique but also important work. So glad we have folks like you and the folks on your team doing that. And I guess it is super unique and maybe you can share anecdotally how you found out about this opportunity and this kind of work or what drew you to it. But I know you mentioned working in housing operations and things at ASU and another one of the institutions out there doing amazing work, running more akin to a business or having some of those philosophies and using different tools and things. So I guess maybe if it was working in that environment that was maybe clueing you in, that you enjoyed that sort of environment more or just talk about the decision-making around your transition out of a campus-based position in higher ed, to then working for a company that works with institutions.
Yeah. So I think a lot of it was informed by the experiences that I had on the campus side. So when I worked at ASU, we were moving software, and so I had an opportunity to be a part of the team that was moving from one software provided to another. And through that I had my first glimpse on this adjacent world that’s helping institutions trying to get to a shared objective and things. And our project manager did a great job. ASU is a very large and complex institution, but I think he managed it really, really well. And that piqued my interest and so I was in operations at the time, so already I was going through a series of multiple transitions in my career from Res Life to operations to guest and conference services, which the best way that I can describe it is you’re running your own little business within housing.
Everything from, I think the first year we had established the ACUHO-I internship program again, to how do you manage your expenses, marketing, all that. That was all just me and the team that were doing it. And so for me, and I talk to people about this all the time, it felt like I was a professional that happened to be working in higher ed, and I never really looked at my identity as higher ed specific. I looked at it more as, “How can I use the current skills and the fact that people are willing to give me a shot to amass skills, competencies and other kinds of things that could be helpful?” And so when those two things converged, when the opportunity and some of the previous experiences converged into an opportunity to move to an adjacent role, it felt really natural. In fact, it felt like my conference role, because I had a hundred schools that all had different things and needed different things from us, and that felt very similar to what I was doing when I was working in housing.
Yeah. And I feel like even just that mindset shift, I guess the idea of I’m a professional who’s working in higher education, I think the identity and the titles and everything and the work as an educator is so powerful for people, but at least also seeing that you can get similar fulfillment or do similar kinds of work or different in a variety of environments. I think it’s just more so now than maybe years past, people are warming, I think, to that idea. It is great, I guess just having that coming to ASU and that helping in that process, because I don’t know how much if you had mentors or other people that were informing that as well. Maybe it was the folks that you were working with that you were mentioning, but I mean just any quick advice for folks looking to make that kind of transition. Because I think that it has just continually been something I feel like has just had much more of a critical mass of people who are in higher education that would make transitions to maybe ed tech companies or companies like yours.
Yeah. I think mentors played a big role. So I think of people like Rob Hudak at ASU that’s now one of the senior directors there for finance at the institution. NHTI was a big factor in that, so I was part of one of the NHTI classes, and one of the things they were talking about was just how do you look at your career from the perspective of competency building? So Jared Kowalski and a couple of other folks at the University of Georgia and the faculty were just great. But I was taking all of those things and just trying to figure out, “All right, how do I build that regardless of where I sit?” For me, I had envisioned eventually transitioning, but I thought that I would do it after perhaps being a dean of students or vice president of student affairs. And because there were certain things that I felt like I wanted to achieve within higher ed.
And then after a while, I think my needs changed a little bit in terms of what I was looking for in my role and advancement and things like that. But also I found a company that really understood the ecosystem of higher ed, and that was a really big factor, the fact that we have values that align with those of higher ed institutions. Our co-founder and CEO used to work at a school. He was an associate director of alumni affairs before he went to Harvard. And so that understanding, that discernment, that mission-driven environment felt like home to me even though I was a little intimidated by the whole insurance piece. And so what motivated me wasn’t the actual insurance components, it was more so, “How do I help students at a national level through using the skills that I’ve learned in higher ed?”
Yeah, that’s really interesting, I think. Yeah, just good. Anytime I think, folks share stories your own for that transition is just helpful to just normalize the process and how you’ve thought about it or navigated it and the things that have helped you to be successful and everything. But switching gears back, GradGuard and the whole suite of tools and things that you’re working on there, you’ve been working for several years off campus working with higher institutions, just any reflections being on the outside looking in or just trendlines anything that comes to mind. Because I feel like it’s such a unique thing. Obviously you have the privilege of being in these people’s shoes at one point in time, and maybe that’s empathy and understanding that other folks wouldn’t have. But I don’t know, it’s been obviously an interesting several years. I’m sure that you’ve been just working with these institutions as they’ve navigated stuff like the pandemic and everything. But yeah, just any reflections, any thoughts, anything that comes to mind?
Yeah, I think. So one of the things that I found interesting when I had made the transition, this was probably the second year or so, was that I had found that a lot of the challenges that we were going through within higher ed, I thought that all of those challenges were specific to my institution or specific to the experiences that I was having at X institution or Y institution and things like that. And then when I had transitioned over, I realized that a lot of institutions are facing a lot of the same kinds of things. From enrollment issues, especially in the Northeast and in the West coast and things like that, to how they navigate social challenges, how they support students through difficult situations and mental health issues and things like that. And that I found to be really interesting when I had moved over to this role.
And I think it became even more evident during the pandemic, but I think it became more evident to the industry that they were all going through the same thing. For us in the adjacent world, we were like, “Yeah, we get it.” But I think within the higher ed ecosystem, I think there was more of a willingness to share the challenges, the opportunities to be transparent about that in a way that felt authentic and that I found to be really great. In terms of just high level, just other observations too, there’s a lot of people out there that are doing really great work that want to feel valued, that they want to feel that their work is making an impact. And I think one of the things that holds them up from considering the higher ed adjacent piece, is that whole, “Maybe the students might not know my name and my work. And maybe I don’t have the same impact and things like that.”
And to that, I guess I would challenge them, there’s multiple ways that you could positively impact the student experience regardless of whether or not the student directly knows who you are. And so I think regardless of whatever role you wind up being, I think it’s really important to determine what are the pieces that energize you in your role? What are the pieces that when you wake up and you get really excited about… Are those pieces that at the end of the day you look at them and you say, “Man, I’ve won the day because I’ve done X, Y, and Z.” Sometimes those pieces are not going to be built into your role, and that’s okay. But if you can find those opportunities to do that, even if you have to build it outside of your role, then I think you could wind up living a really fulfilling experience, while also learning something that’s completely different to you as well.
Yeah, and I mean that definitely applies just even to, what we were talking about before. You might be able to much more clearly identify what type of work you might want to do elsewhere because it’s just agnostic of wherever you’re working. It doesn’t have to be in higher education if you just know, these are the things I’m interested in, this is what help me feel fulfilled, this is what I’m good at, and all that kind of stuff. But in the meantime, until you get a job that feels like it’s just right for all of that, it’s just like, “Okay, let me try to see if I can work on things a little outside of the typical bounds of the day-to-day and stuff.” So something that you were saying, I guess this is a follow-up on just your dispatches from working with higher ed institutions, like you’re saying, of folks going through all the same problems.
It’s like, yeah, higher ed is an ecosystem. You’re certainly going to have the Ivy Leagues and different brand name institutions that are going to be able to pretty well endure a lot of different headwinds and everything. You’ve seen a lot more college closures, just institutions who are a lot more strapped, and then just most of the institutions and the big state schools and different things that are the middle of the road. And it’s like, “Yeah, Ivy League places might be doing some innovative cool things to solidify their position.” The ones more on the brink, maybe doing these Hail Mary innovative things to try to really distinguish themselves and rescue their standing and everything. So I’m just curious how that has shaken out in terms of the institutions that you’re working with, their appetite for the things that you’re offering where it’s like, yeah, these can be really great, I’m sure marketing opportunities if you’re making a big commitment to say, “Hey, if things don’t work out, we’ve got this tuition insurance and those sort of things.”
And I could just imagine that being very reassuring, especially as a lot of adult learners, first gen students just continue to interact and figure out the ways that they want to build their skills and everything. So I’m just curious how you’ve seen the appetite of different institutional leaders. Like you said, because so many people are earnestly just trying to do the best work that they can with the tools that they have and everything. But you could imagine that, again, just on that spectrum, depending on the institution that they’re working with are more or less or like, “Hey, we’re NYU, we don’t have to do this.” Or they could be like, “Hey, yeah, we want to do everything we can to keep maintaining our high brand,” or we’re like, “Yeah, we got to do anything we can to try to uplift ourselves or something.” That’s where my brain is going just because again, working with hundreds of institutions, if you feel like that’s something that’s more similar or more different from one place to another.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s interesting you mentioned NYU because we were just having a conversation with them. So they actually do partner with us and they actually before [inaudible 00:18:41] so with regards to the appetite piece, so I think there’s two things that are happening. I think that the pandemic in and of itself served as a sober reminder that sometimes things don’t happen the way you think. And so for a lot of students and parents, they were looking for that reassurance that the financial investments that they were making, which are often the second largest expense that a family may have, aside from purchasing a home, that if the family’s going to make that kind of a financial investment, that they can have some sense of reassurance that things are going to turn out well if something unexpected happens. And so I think the pandemic helped families and institutions realize that.
I think the institutions that are most innovative or the institutions that are most intentional about how they can allow their students to be successful there, are thinking about it from not just their perspective of us, but from their perspective of, how do we bring in outside resources to supplement knowledge in areas that perhaps we could use some of that expertise. And so I look at it and say something like, GradGuard is a tool in the toolkit for institutions that value transparency, value promoting financial literacy. But it’s not the only tool and it’s not for everyone.
I’ve literally been in meetings where an institution wants to move forward with a partnership and I don’t think it’s the best fit for them, and I’ve told them why, and that’s okay. So I look at it as, I get excited when institutions are looking at different innovations to figure out how can we enhance the offerings that we have of institutions, so that it can free up some space for us to focus on the things that matter to us. Which is engaging with the students, making them feel connected to the institution so that they can graduate and hopefully become alumni that are really proud to go to the institution. Hopefully they can give back when they get to that point as well.
Yeah. Yeah, I mean, I think broadly to that, it makes me think of all this to be said, there’s never going to be the one best, only required way for every institution to show that level of care, build that connection and support their students. It’s like, “Well, yeah, you want to have as many tools in your tool belt that feel relevant and useful and just they fit in with just how you run your institution and everything.” But as I was just very curious, I guess just seeing how the mindset, because I feel like it’s such an interesting moment where institutions know so much more maybe what this moment is requiring of them.
But then the dollars and cents of it all or just there’s all these other impeding factors. So it’s like everybody being super receptive wouldn’t have surprised me, or if it was like, “Ah, there’s still some skepticism or I don’t know.” But it’s almost like you can almost impart that on them and being like, “This may not be what’s right for you right now or whatever.” You’re almost even not wanting to drive something that’s not going to be useful for them.
I think the other thing too, and one of the things I’ve encouraged people on our company to really think through is, to think about things from the perspective of a school. From all aspects of what we do, from everything from when institutions says that they want to move forward to what the deployment process looks like and all of that stuff. And I think the best higher ed adjacent organizations that work with institutions are thinking through what’s going to be important to the associate director of housing operations? What’s going to be important to the institution, to the students, to the families? And when you start to look at things from that perspective, then it drives everything that you do, from how do we make this process easy for the school? How do we make it easy for them to access us? How do we give them analytics so that they can have a full transparency into what’s going on on their campus? How do we make it affordable and accessible and equitable for students to get access to X, Y, and Z?
And so for me, I think the more institutions see that from the partners that they work with, I think the more open they are to trying some of those more innovative strategies. Because I’ve been on the other side of it. I remember, Dan’s going to hate me for this. I remember being on the other side of this when I worked at ASU and Dan was working with me on some of the Roompact stuff and just feeling like, “This is so great, but I don’t have the capacity to move this forward.” And so I remember being on the other side of that and what that felt like.
And so I think institutions that are sensitive to that, sensitive to the fact that organizations have competing priorities, that are sensitive to the fact that maybe an organization wants to move forward with something that’s really innovative. But guess what? Today there’s four or five different escalations, there’s a student that is in crisis, there is a pipe that bursts, there is room selection and something went wrong. That’s not an indication on the company itself. It’s more of, we need to adjust to them and adjust to the ecosystem of higher ed. And the more that we do that, I think the more interested an institution would be in trying something completely different.
Not bulldozing through or it’s just like, “I’m just trying to close the sale or do whatever.” Maybe just not this week, maybe next week, or not this semester, but next. Yeah, I mean, it’s like how I was saying dollars and cents sometimes being these impeding factors where, “Yeah, we love your tool, we love working with you, you great people and all that, but just not there right now.” It’s like that’s also not the only thing. Yeah, it’s that capacity, it’s the headspace and knowing that there may be that heavy lift on the front end to implement and those sort of things. So it’s like, one, just being mindful of, can we make implementation as easy as possible as an ed tech tool or something? And really having an understanding of what that requires so we can make it very clear. So they might know, yeah, maybe we will try to just kick this down the road so we can work on it when we have more time. Because yeah, this is just a busy period of time trying to do something like that.
I was also going to say, I think in the same way that I often encourage the higher ed adjacent companies to think about things from the perspective of the institution. For those people that are interested, and going back to some of the previous things that we were talking about, for those people that are interested in making that adjustment to a higher ed adjacent role. Those opportunities like going to the exhibit hall during a conference and just having organic conversations with folks, doing some of that independent research, asking yourself, “How would I like to be treated if I was the customer, or if I was on the other end of this and I was working in this company?” All of those are really excellent exercises to help you determine if a higher ed adjacent role is something that may be a good fit for you.
And so I think there’s very specific questions that I encourage people to think about if they are deciding to make that change. And those can include something like, we talked a little bit about values. What are the values of the company? How does the company use those values in its execution of its plan this year, for example. There are certain questions around philosophy. So if you’re thinking about going into a customer success role, working with current institutions or current partners or whatever you call them, what’s the philosophy around how we engage with our partners and is our goal to make them feel comfortable with the services that we’re providing? What level of… How can I make this my own in terms of the approach that I have with the work that I do and things like that? I think there’s probably a series of different questions that I would be asking if I was thinking of making that adjustment. And I don’t know if you keep any show notes or anything, but maybe I can send you a couple of them that could be a useful tool for people that are considering that.
Yeah, absolutely. Love some good resources and things. And so yeah, whatever is helpful folks can find in the blog post adjoining for this episode and certainly ways to connect with you and your team there. Yeah, I mean, this is really great stuff because it’s just helpful for all parties involved to better understand how best to work with each other from all fronts. And for people wanting to make those transitions, to really be mindful of all those details and how to really be thoughtful about that process and how to build yourself up to be the most competitive candidate, but also be applying for things that are exactly right on with what you’re looking for so that you’re also happy and successful in the long run. So really great stuff and great to catch up with you and talk shop here about all this good stuff. And again, yeah, just have ways for folks to connect with you and hopefully keep the conversation going. So just really appreciate you hanging out.
Thank you. Really appreciate the invite.
Off-Campus Transition Questions from Alberto:
- How do your company values propel the mission of this (higher adjacent) company?
- Aside from any technical competitive advantages, what motives institutions of higher ed to continue working with you?
- Could you share a time where a client or prospect gave you difficult feedback as an organization? How did the company respond to that feedback?
- When partner institutions are speaking about your product or service behind closed door, what are some things you wish they would say about the company?
- How would you like the company to be remembered by the higher education industry?
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