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Living a Dream Deferred

Lenore Karo began higher education at age 51. She shows no signs of stopping.
Lenore Karo began higher education at age 51. She shows no signs of stopping.

Everyone in education talks about it, but for Lenore Karo, “lifelong learning” is truly a way of life.

Thirteen years ago, Karo, then 51, enrolled at Sarah Lawrence College and designed her own five-year program culminating in a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in Women’s History. Now she is receiving her TC master’s degree in Higher and Post-Secondary Education and may yet pursue a doctorate.

“People are often afraid to go back to school, but it’s so rewarding and empowering,” says Karo, who also serves as Executive Administrative Associate in TC’s Office of The Vice President for Diversity and Community Affairs. “You’re exposed to so much material, and the more you learn, the more you realize you need to know.”

The daughter of blue collar workers, Karo got married out of high school and raised two children while working managing a law firm.

“I always wanted to go to college,” she says, “But I just kept saying ‘someday.’”

While parenting, Karo pursued an interest in civic engagement, joining the Junior Women’s Club and ultimately serving as President. Later she became a legal administrator in a law firm and served as President of the Association of Legal Administrators.

Finally, with her kids grown, she took action after reading a magazine piece about older students at Sarah Lawrence College. After a year of juggling her job and school, she went to work as a weekend nanny for the Bronfman family (founders of the Seagram Company) in Westchester, and took classes full time. She wrote her thesis on the racist legacy of Charlotte Perkins Gilman, the feminist and author, whom she had encountered through her Junior Women’s Club involvement. “She was a great woman, but she also typified a time when white women were leaders of everything in their world and wanted to keep it that way.”

Karo enjoyed her younger fellow students as much as her classes. “They were interested in my opinion because I had lived through times that were history for them. Also, I just got a kick out of walking through the college pathways and seeing someone coming along with spiky green hair.”

After graduating from Sarah Lawrence, Karo faced a challenge of an entirely different order. Her son, Tim, was dying of AIDS. To be near him on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, she took a job at TC as Director of Finance and Administration for what was then TC’s continuing education division.

“Tim was adamant that he didn’t want me to put my life on hold because he was sick,” she recalls. “My boss wanted us all to be lifelong learners, so I started taking courses.”

Karo particularly enjoyed her courses with faculty members Kevin Dougherty, Anna Neumann and Monica Christensen, but adds, “there’s not a class or a seminar I’ve gone to where I didn’t feel that it was worthwhile, whether because of the professor, the material or the students.” 

Karo has yet to decide on a focus for her doctoral work.  The logical choice would be to continue in higher education, but lately she’s been thinking about coming at things from the other end of the spectrum.

“My daughter just had twins,” she says, smiling. “So, early childhood development is looking pretty interesting.”

Published Thursday, May. 19, 2011