Someone Was Watching
SUNY Brockport alumna and current staff member Dr. Karen Schuhle-Williams ’84 shares her journey from her intended career to Higher Education Administration, her passion for supporting adult learners, and how the students she works with inspired her to establish a scholarship.
Q: Tell us about yourself and your connection to SUNY Brockport.
My connection to Brockport is a little serendipitous. I graduated from SUNY Cortland with a Physical Education degree in a soft market and did not get a job. So, what do you do when you can’t get a job after undergrad? You go on to grad school. I came [to SUNY Brockport] to earn a master’s degree, for permanent teacher certification and funded it by getting a graduate assistantship in Recreation and Intramurals, which turned out to be the pivot point for my accidental career.
I always call Higher Education Administration an accidental career, because most people don’t graduate from high school and say, ‘I’m going to become an administrator in higher education,’ unless they personally know someone who is. Once I started doing administrative work I said, ‘Oh, I like this.’ You can plan programs, run them, assess them, and change them. I really, really found my stride and my niche in administration through that grad assistantship.
When I was almost finished with my degree, at the very last minute before the semester started, a prior supervisor contacted me to see if I was still job-hunting, as somebody had left Athletics with short notice. I didn’t know anything about Athletics. Of course, I didn’t know anything about Rec and Intramurals either, but that didn’t stop me from taking the assistantship. Within a day of that phone call, I became an Operations Manager, and the NCAA Eligibility Coordinator, which launched my professional administrative career, and I never looked back towards K-12 teaching.
I left Brockport in the ’80s and was hired in 1996 to open the new MetroCenter in downtown Rochester, as well as work in the Adult & Continuing Education (ACE) office. And since then, I have considered myself a continuing educator and adult student advocate.
Q: How has it felt to see the Brockport campus grow and morph and change throughout the years?
When you are a graduate student, you have a very different experience compared to an undergrad in terms of the campus. After I interviewed in Tuttle South for a graduate assistantship, I remember looking at the campus from the parking lot and I thought, ‘This is one ugly place.’ It was the classic, low-bid, SUNY look of the 80s. It was there, it was functioning. What I notice the most are the physical improvements on the campus. It is now an attractive campus, and I hear a lot of visitors say the same thing. The master planning and the landscaping that has occurred over the past 20 years is such an improvement.
Q: Do you recall your very first gift to SUNY Brockport?
I know it’s been 20 years. My recollection of it is in the context of encouraging the MetroCenter staff to also give, as Advancement’s focus was on the percentage of faculty/staff who gave. I said, ‘Even if you give a dollar, that is what counts the most.’ I know I really tried to get that word out, to get the message out that it’s about participation, not necessarily the amount you can give, and I think people responded.
And the other thing we did that was kind of fun —we used to buy student artwork from the annual award exhibition, but then the funding was cut, so I created the MetroCenter Art Award to offset that loss. And I know there were other MetroCenter faculty/staff who gave as well, and that was kind of fun to share in giving to a commonly shared value.
Q: Tell us what inspired your decision to create the Karen Schuhle-Williams Exemplary Adult Student Scholarship.
As continuing educators, much of the focus of our work is on supporting adult students, some of whom may have stopped out of college, need to upgrade their skills, or who may not have been stellar undergraduate students but are ready to learn and thrive as adults. They are highly marginalized and are not the focus of the campus culture, which is often very focused on undergraduate, on-campus, traditional students. My focus has been on supporting the often forgotten, often exemplary, and often learning-under-very-difficult-circumstances-and-hardships students who do well, get through, and need some support.
One example is a prior CSTEP/McNair student from Chad, who went to Georgia Tech after Brockport, who I nominated for an Outstanding Adult Student Award. He won the state-wide award and when accepting it, he said, ‘I’d like to thank everybody, I didn’t think anybody was watching, but someone was.’ That was really poignant, because that’s the crux of adult students. For the most part, nobody is watching to see all that they accomplish under difficult circumstances and that they also need support. And just a little support can bring them a lot of relief.
Q: So you’ve told us a little bit about the fund. What impact has it had on others, or what impact do you hope that it will have on others?
To allow them to complete their degree. For busy, working adults, it is little things that can derail them. ‘My car broke down,’ ‘I have to stay home with my child.’ They have so much on their plate with the rest of life, that any little relief I can provide is a mental and physical relief that supports and validates people, and affirms somebody was watching and somebody noticed. And I think that is really important for adults, in particular part-time students, because they are so marginalized and they’re very often not at all connected with the campus other than to drive here, go to class, and go home to what the rest of their life is. Often, they’re just getting by under the radar.
Q: What are you most passionate about in regard to SUNY Brockport?
What is important to me about Brockport is that I am part of “the solution” that provides access to public higher education, which changes individuals’ and their families’ and their communities’ lives. It’s being part of something that has tremendous value for individuals, as well as our democracy, our regional area, and beyond.
Q: You’ve already touched on this a bit, but why does giving back to your place of work, and your alma mater, matter to you?
I think you should put your money where your mouth is. It is like investing in your home. You don’t buy a house and let it fall apart. You keep building it up. Giving back to Brockport is my contribution to its maintenance program. Also, I’m one of the few people on campus who really focuses on undergraduate adults because we don’t have a Continuing Education unit. Thus, it’s not on most people’s psyche or radar. My giving ensures positive impact and support for adult students long after I am gone. College loans are such a burden in this day and age and if my giving can help reduce that burden for an adult student, that is an additional benefit.