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When she retires, Carolina Covenant author Shirley Ort will be missed for her big heart

Shirley Ort, director of scholarships and student aid, is planning to retire this summer.

Shirley Ort, director of scholarships and student aid, is planning to retire this summer.

“I think that shows you where her heart is,” Moeser said.

But Ort’s vision for the University was always bigger than the Carolina Covenant.

“It was just one part of what I’ve always tried to do is to keep our policies and practices on the needs of students so that we could remove the financial barriers so they could soar,” she said.

After 18 years as director of scholarships and student aid — a job she loves — Ort has decided to retire this summer to see what lies outside the boundaries of a career.

There’s a trip to Rome on the horizon and a trip to Paris with her siblings in September. She also plans to organize her house, get new carpets and paint. She’ll figure it out as she goes.

“I’m going to take my time and see what it’s like not to have to get on the school bus,” she said.

Before she came to Chapel Hill to interview for her current job, Ort had never visited North Carolina. She was having breakfast at the Carolina Inn when her interviewers told her they wanted her to make the move in two weeks.

It was November, and Ort had expected the job to start in February, but she had already fallen in love with UNC’s community.

“I was sitting there thinking, ‘They’re my future. If that’s part of the deal, then I’ll make it work,’” she said.

After returning to her home on the West Coast, she sent her dog to stay with her sister, grabbed enough clothes to last until Christmas and boarded a plane with a one-way ticket to North Carolina. She spent her first Christmas in Chapel Hill with a tiny tree and a string of blue Tar Heel lights.

Ort attended Spring Arbor College and received a job offer from the school upon graduation, which introduced her to careers in the realm of higher education.

“Nobody goes to school to become a financial aid administrator,” she said.

But Ort had experienced firsthand what financial aid could do for a student. As a student, she served as a resident adviser all four years in exchange for free room and board. She also worked full-time for two years.

“I was one of those kids that always owed something on their student account at the end of the year,” she said.

She recognizes the uniqueness of her situation, noting that research shows working full-time usually indicates a student will not do well in school. “It mattered to me so much to be there,” she said.

Although she didn’t originally have student loans, she took one out after starting college and became the third person to get a student loan from a small community bank near her college. She still has the letter the bank sent her when she finished paying off the loan, and she kept all the promissory notes as well.

She beat the odds by working and still succeeding in school, but she still knows what it’s like to worry about how to pay next semester’s bills and to never have extra money. “That stays with you,” she said.

It is this awareness, coupled with a genuine care for students, that has made her a trusted friend for many students at UNC.

Ort was one of the reasons sophomore Andrea Barnes decided to stay at UNC when she considered transferring in her first year. A professor introduced her to Ort. “From then on it was kind of amazing,” Barnes said.

Barnes and Ort meet once a month for lunch. Ort assists Barnes with networking and sends along articles she thinks Barnes will be interested in. She also makes sure to ask Barnes about her life and how she is doing.

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“More than just a mentor, she’s really become a friend to me,” Barnes said.

Although Ort said the future of financial aid in higher education is less clear now than anytime she’s been in the profession, she thinks the nation will continue to have a strong federal loan program.

She is also optimistic about the future of financial aid at UNC and proud of what programs like the Covenant say about the University.

“More than just a communications device, it’s become a hallmark of what the University stands for,” she said.

“It’s not just a policy; the University owns it.”

While she is confident the financial aid department will be left in good hands, those who have worked with her speak of how much she and the passion she has for her job will be missed.

“We’re all sad. It’s hard to imagine this university without her,” Moeser said. “I think she embodies the Carolina spirit more than anyone else I know.”