While the undergraduate experience is frequently lauded as being “the best four years of your life” — a patchwork of eccentrically-named classes, unforgettable dorm parties and lifelong friendships all neatly wrapped up into a bachelor’s degree — recent graduates still harbor a sense of excitement for the life that exists outside the walls of their college campuses. What new, up-and-coming city will I live in next? Where will my professional life take me? As these questions run through the post-grad’s mind, the glory days of college sit on the shelves behind them.
Then, there are the anomalies. For Kari-Elle Brown ’15, her professional career quickly reoriented her back onto a college campus and into the realm of higher education.
As an undergraduate admissions officer, a resident proctor for first-year students and a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University, Brown is once again fully entrenched in the experience of a college student.
“Maybe I just love being in college,” Brown said with a laugh.
Erika Sologuren ’13, a friend of Brown’s during their undergraduate years, would say that her love for Amherst is foundational for her passion for education. “Kari-Elle is an Amherst superfan,” Sologuren said.
A True Embodiment of the Liberal Arts Experience
Hailing from central Florida, Brown remembers that it was uncommon at her high school to leave the state for college — if one even went to college at all. It was through the QuestBridge program — which provided scholarships to first-generation, low-income students to attend elite institutions across the country — that Brown first received exposure to Amherst and its peer institutions.
She visited the college soon after through the Diversity Open House (DIVOH) program for prospective students. While the autumn scenery captivated her attention, especially as a Floridian who had hardly ever seen trees turn crimson, Brown said it was the academic experience that convinced her to attend Amherst.
The turning point for Brown was when she sat in on a first-year seminar about romance languages. “I was sitting in the class, and I was the only pre-frosh there, and the professor called on me to contribute to class discussion,” Brown said. “I was like, ‘Oh my God, she’s inviting me to speak.’ I could picture myself here in this classroom.”
The next fall, Brown enrolled as a student at Amherst, where she majored in anthropology and Asian languages and civilizations. She recalled always wanting to major in anthropology, noting that she had been drawn to the question of “why certain people have some experiences, whereas you have a different experience,” as she described it. Asian languages and civilizations, on the other hand, became a possibility after Brown took her first-year seminar, titled “Dreamlands: The Universe of Dreams in Chinese Literature,” which explored dreams in various Chinese texts.
“It was such a liberal artsy kind of thing that I think a lot of parents would be like, ‘I can’t believe we’re spending $50,000 a year so you can take Dreamland,’” she joked.
Discovering a Love for Higher Education
Apart from academics, Brown joined multiple student-faculty committees and helped with selecting the common reading for the incoming first-year class and planning new student orientation. Despite her evident love for higher education, Brown did not actively seek out the opportunity to join in on the decision-making.
Rather, it was while hanging out in the Multicultural Resource Center (MRC) the summer before her senior year that she learned about student-faculty committees.
“The MRC was this cool new thing and a great study space on campus for the summer, that was air conditioned. I started spending a lot of time there for no strong reason other than it was a really cool space at the time,” she said. “I think the staff there recognized me and knew I was working on some education-related thesis and probably mentioned one of these commmittees to me. I joined one and then got asked to join the second committee by someone who was on the first committee.”
“I just really loved it,” Brown added. “I loved working with different people across the college and it was really eye-opening to me. I was like, ‘Wow, all of higher ed is made up of committees. People get to do this professionally.’”
Despite her growing love for higher education, Brown did not immediately consider working on a college campus after graduation.
“I went through a moment of insanity when I applied for a job at Goldman Sachs and I was taking the LSAT. I quickly got over that and realized that there were other things to do. I knew I wanted to do education,” she said. “But I didn’t want to do higher ed … [I thought] maybe I should do something else first.”
In retrospect, Solugren notes that Brown’s path towards education was always obvious. “She had a lot of options when graduating from Amherst, and she ended up where she is because it’s truly what she wants to do with her life,” Solugren said. “She wants to help people… I can see how much she loves doing that work and how committed she is to it.”
This indecision ultimately led Brown to a company called Curriculum Associates, which focuses on kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) education. In her role there, Brown was a part of a rotational program in which she worked on customer implementation for one year and professional development for another. On the customer implementation team, she helped schools sign up for the digital products offered by Curriculum Associates — “glorified customer service,” she joked.
On the professional development team, Brown trained professionals who would directly visit schools and teach them best practices for integrating Curriculum Associates’ software into classroom learning.
While the rotational program was three years long, at the end of her second year, Brown knew she was ready for change.
Because the rotational program allowed her to see different sides of the company and the K-12 sphere as a whole, she realized she wanted to dive back into higher education.
“I just felt like … this isn’t really the thing I always thought I would be doing. I had seen enough by that point that I was like … it’s now or never,” Brown said. “Why keep waiting? Why not just do the thing that I really want to do?”
When she is not reading over students’ applications, serving as a proctor for first-year undergraduates or working towards a master’s degree, Brown spends her time refining her baking skills, particularly with bread. Photo courtesy of Kari-Elle Brown '15.
Return to Campus Life
After leaving Curriculum Associates, Brown had some criteria for where she wanted to be. Since Curriculum Associates was located in a mostly white suburb outside of Boston — North Billerica — Brown hoped to work in a more diverse area, particularly in a college town. She enjoyed the Boston area and hoped to stay, especially since her partner, another Amherst alum, was completing his Ph.D. at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.
Nevertheless, she looked at institutions both near and far from Boston. Brown applied for the admissions officer position at Harvard, but she also applied to work at Stanford and QuestBridge, both of which are located in Palo Alto. In the end, Harvard ultimately hired her.
“I knew the kind of school that I liked — like Amherst — and thought that I have to work at a place that espouses those same values, which was diversity, the liberal arts [and] small, tight-knit communities,” she said. “I always put Harvard at the top of my list really to work [at] because it shared the same values that I think places like Amherst also share.”
As an admissions officer, Brown assumed a plethora of responsibilities: traveling to high schools to recruit students, reading applications, serving as a resident proctor for first-year students — think resident counselors, but as trained staff rather than peers — and organizing Visitas, Harvard’s admitted students’ weekend.
In all of these roles, Brown is able to get to the heart of the work she started during her time at Amherst — focusing on students and the experiences they carry, both in and outside of the gates of a college campus. The application-reading process, though monotonous at times, is one way Brown achieves this goal.
For many, Harvard holds a powerful yet ominous reputation, with many of its intricacies remaining a secret even to those privileged enough to enter its gates. It is easy to imagine that, perhaps more than any other aspect of the institution, the admissions office is the most nebulous. And with Harvard receiving tens of thousands of undergraduate applications each year, how applications are read tends to remain mysterious. The application reading process, however, is one area that Brown is confident is less daunting than people may think, especially with admissions officers who — like applicants — are human.
“I love the reading process,” she said. “I mean, reading thousands of pages of anything can take a hold after awhile, but it’s such an honor to be on the receiving end of the story students choose to share with us … I’m a complete stranger and they have no idea who is reading [their application], and yet they’re telling me about their life, they’re telling me about their values.”
“One of the things that I love about working here is how thorough the work of my colleagues is,” Brown added. “I think people just care so much about doing right by our students and in filling the [incoming] class so that’s going to be meaningful and special for everyone who’s a part of it … I think people are surprised sometimes by how much time we spend in committee meetings, in conference rooms talking about applications. But we just have to be so thorough because [applicants] spend so much time putting their applications together. To not give them their due diligence would be a mistake.”
Her mission to offer each applicant a fair chance has not gone unnoticed. Stacey Menjivar, one of Brown’s colleagues at Harvard, described how Brown “is a wonderful advocate for her students.”
“You can tell when she’s presenting [students] to a committee that she believes in their potential, and that’s always been something that I’ve looked up to,” Menjivar said.
Reading about applicants’ experiences on paper is only one way in which Brown is able to interact with students. Before she took on the responsibility of planning Visitas, one of her first hands-on experiences with students involved being a tour guide coordinator, a full circle from when she was a tour guide at Amherst.
“I think it’s really common thing that when people ask [Harvard tour guides], ‘What is your favorite part of Harvard?,’ they will answer — and it’s my answer too — that it’s the people,” Brown said. “I think the people make it so special and our students feel that deeply and care a lot about their peers and care a lot about their professors and the things that they’re engaged in. It’s just such an engaged community, which I love … It just makes for a really vibrant community. I’ve had a lot of positive interactions with students.”
Becoming a Student Again
Brown is not simply integrated back into campus life from the standpoint of a staff member — she also recently began pursuing a master’s degree concentrating on higher education at Harvard’s Graduate School. She described her decision to go back to school as one that came naturally. Because of her partner’s graduate work at the school, coupled with her own role as an admissions officer, it only made sense to officially become a student.
“I have always been around [my partner’s] cohort of classmates, and my office is across from the education school, and I was always going to random lectures. Meeting faculty, going to lectures, I was hearing about the incredible things that the folks over at the ed school are working on,” Brown said. “It was always something I thought I’d do eventually because I kept showing up on campus. They probably already thought I go here.”
Whether through her work as an admissions officer or as a graduate student, it is clear that Brown’s love for students will transcend throughout her career. As for the future? Spending much of her time outside of Harvard baking bread. Brown often jokes that she is “tempted to drop everything and open up a bakery.” Though Brown shared this ambition with me with a laugh, Menjivar sees this fantasy as a legitimate possibility, noting that Brown’s baking is on par with the precision and eloquence shown in the television hit show, “The Great British Bake-Off.”
If her baking dreams were to fail, however, Brown hopes that she will continue the career in education that she worked so hard to start.
“I just want to be contributing to the learning of students somewhere,” Brown said. “One thing that I learned in life and at Amherst especially is that you never know where life is going to take you. I have a set of values and things that I know that I’m good at … I think I’m going to continue to follow places that align with my values and where I can have an impact that will recognize that whatever work I’m doing as something positive and that they’d like to bring to a community.”