Last April, Karen Richardson ’93 was announced as the University’s new Dean of Admission. As a first-generation college student herself, Richardson expressed her commitment not just to admitting a diverse student body but also to ensuring that all students have the resources they need to succeed in competitive college campuses such as Princeton.
Richardson remarked that when she was an undergraduate, acclimatizing to the University was “not always easy.” Though Richardson grew up half an hour away from campus and her older sibling graduated from the University in 1988, she says that the University often felt like it was a “whole world away.” She remembering having been supported by the freshman summer orientation program, through which she arrived on campus a few weeks early and made a core group of friends.
“Many of the people who were in that freshman summer orientation program are some of my closest friends 25 years later,” Richardson said.
Richardson, who majored in Politics, said she wanted her thesis to be related to education and specifically to the concept of how, in her words, “sometimes you have to treat people differently in order to treat them fairly.” Her thesis advisor was former McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence Walter Murphy.
“It was definitely an experience to work with Professor Murphy,” Richardson said. “To me, it was one of the highlights of my Princeton career.”
While her advisor wanted her to look into gifted and talented programs, Richardson was more interested in bilingual programs. She wrote her thesis, entitled “Bilingual Education in the United States: The Importance of Socialization in the Instruction of Linguistic Minorities,” on the legislative history of bilingual education programs.
Richardson also served as a residential college advisor at Forbes. She recalled, “One of my favorite things was that I was an RCA my senior year.”
Richardson’s interest in education was further fostered during her undergraduate years. Over the summers, she worked at the Princeton Blairstown Center, which works with at-risk youth in the tri-state area and pursues outdoor education and social-emotional learning. Richardson said that a program offered at the center gave students who might have dropped out of school the resources they needed to be self-reliant. According to Richardson, this experience prompted her to pursue a Masters in Education.
While working with families in public schools, Richardson said she realized, “When you’re recruiting a student, you’re not just recruiting the individual, you’re recruiting an entire family.” Tying this insight back to her work with admissions, she views part of her role as talking to families and assuring them that their children will have the resources and support they need to succeed in college.
By shaping the values and ideals that ground the University’s approach to admissions, the Dean of Admission plays an essential role in building a diverse student body and a supportive community. Former Dean of Admission Janet Rapelye, who preceded Richardson, held the position for over fifteen years. After she left the U. for the Consortium on Financing Higher Education, University President Christopher Eisgruber ’83 appointed a search committee to find her successor. This committee, chaired by Dean of the College and then-Acting Dean of Admission Jill Dolan, consisted of a cross-section of University members, including students, faculty members, and campus administrators.
Dolan described the search process as “fairly standard for a high-level position of its sort.” The committee crafted a position description, which was circulated broadly. An external firm helped create the first list of candidates.
Devin Kilpatrick ’19, who served as a student on the search committee, noted that discussions centered around “choosing a candidate who was a perfect fit between experience and openness to change,” adding that the committee looked for someone who was an experienced voice or advocate on their campus.
Prior to joining the University, Richardson worked in the admissions team at Tufts University. At Tufts, Richardson worked with both the undergraduate and graduate offices of admission for eleven years. With over fifteen years of experience working in the field of education, Richardson has dedicated her career to increasing educational access and inclusion.
Richardson helped Tufts to recruit and sustain a student body diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and geography. Under her leadership, the number of first-generation students applying to Tufts rose steadily. Dolan said that the search committee was impressed by Richardson’s “sensitivity to the range of issues that attend to [this role].”
Kilpatrick noted that he found Richardson’s career impressive.
“Personally, I was impressed by how seriously she took the questions posed by the committee and students on the committee,” Kilpatrick said. “No question was beneath her, and she provided nuanced answers.”
Kilpatrick also noted that while he believes the University has improved in recruiting low-income students, he would “like to see an increased effort on rural students in terms of getting them to campus and getting them to apply.”
Richardson said that “the ability to talk to students, families and college counselors about opportunities” motivates her, and that part of job consists of “putting opportunities in front of students that they don’t think they have.”
She noted that it is an important time to be in this space, as controversy and debate over college admissions practices has intensified.
Additionally, Richardson contended that the “job of places like Princeton [is] to encourage students to be themselves in this whole process.”
“Our role is to dial back some of this anxiety and encourage students to think about where they see themselves for four years,” Richardson said.
Three years after graduating from the University, Richardson pursued a Masters degree from Harvard University.
After receiving her masters, she worked for Boston Public Schools’ Office of Family and Community Engagement. Richardson, who attended public schools before Princeton, said that public schooling has always been important to her.
Additionally, she noted that working for the public school system gave her an important perspective and the ability to contextualize students’ applications. She is able to bring these experiences to her team and to the University, understanding some of the challenges that face students from large public schools.
When asked about being back at the University, Richardson said she is excited to rediscover the campus — and that she looks forward to the traditions and alumni energy of Commencement and Reunions.