#HigherEdHero — Meet Karen Backes

While they might not scale tall buildings or catch villains, there are super heroes walking among us. These heroes use their powers to support and guide students and families through their high school and college years. They are creative, energetic, resilient, organized, empathetic, hard-working professionals who make a difference in the lives of those around them.

As an author and speaker, it has been an absolute joy to work alongside these heroes of higher education, providing guidance and reducing anxiety for students and families as you navigate the high school-to-college transition.

This is why I’d like to share their stories (and superpowers!) with you.

Each month, I feature a #HigherEdHero on my blog and social media platforms. My goal is that by sharing their experiences and advice, we can provide information that will reduce anxiety and build confidence–and help set students and families up for success through the college launch and beyond.

Today, you get to meet Karen Backes, Dean of Admission for the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University.

Karen graduated from Saint Ben’s in 1987 with a degree in communication and minor in psychology. She has worked in the Admission Office there for the past 33 years. She’s a member of several higher education organizations, including NACAC (National Association of College Admission Counseling) and MACAC (Minnesota Association of College Admission Counseling). She serves on the advisory boards for MPCC (Minnesota Private College Council) and the NCCAA (National Catholic Colleges Admission Association).

Karen is also mom to a recent college graduate and a current college student. Daughter Emma graduated from Saint Ben’s in 2019 and is a registered Dietitian. Son Chris is a senior at Saint John’s and studying economics. She understands what you parents are experiencing!

KR: What are some of the biggest challenges college students are facing today? How are they overcoming these challenges?

KB: Affording College is certainly one of the biggest challenges students and families are facing today. Another challenge is mental illness. The stress of selecting a college that is the best fit for the student academically, socially, and financially and being successful once they are in college takes a major toll on a student’s well-being. COVID has certainly added to these challenges. Many students are overcoming these challenges by advocating for themselves, having the willingness to admit they need help, and recognizing the need for balance in their life.

KR: What is a typical day like in your career as the Dean of Admissions?

KB: As the Dean of Admission, I spend much of my day in strategic planning meetings, meeting with supervisees, and managing the decisions of the application pool. However, what has kept me in the Admission world all these years is the direct work with students and families. I have always maintained a small recruitment territory, I request to meet with families during their visits and enjoy when I connect a faculty member, coach or other staff with a prospective student and family. Building and maintaining relationships with students and families and colleagues is what brings me the most joy in my career.

KR: As a higher ed professional, what is your philosophy on parent involvement in the college experience?

KB: I believe parents should be part of the college search process in a supportive, staying informed sort of way. For example, I think it is healthy for a student to know of any family financial realities or other issues that may help guide the student as they search for schools. I do not believe parents should “live through their child” and push them to a school of “their dreams”, complete applications for the child and/or any other forms that should be completed by the student. Parents should encourage their children to reach for their dreams. Once their child is in college, continue to show love and support but do not “do the work” for them. Help them become an advocate for themselves, support them when they fail, celebrate with them when they succeed. The more their children learn to problem solve, collaborate with others, adapt to change, and gain confidence in their own abilities, the more success they will be.

KR: I completely agree! This is the time to encourage self-advocacy and enable students to learn the life skills they will need moving forward. Karen, what’s one tip you could give regarding the college admissions process?

KB: Finding a college that is the best fit far outweighs attending the most prestigious school, the least expensive school, or the school “all their friends” are attending. Find a school that supports your goals inside and outside the classroom. Find a school that will challenge and inspire you. Find a school that you can call home both during your college years and for life.

KR: One of the questions I hear students ask—especially now with COVID-19 and many campuses placing them in single rooms—is “How will I make friends?” In your opinion, what are the best ways for students to connect with one another?

KB: Certainly COVID has elevated this question, but it has always been a question for students entering college. That question, along with “Will I fit in?” To this I say, it WILL happen. Yes, it may take some time to navigate through the new waters. Be authentic. Be a risk taker. Don’t wait for someone to knock on your door—go knock on theirs. Invite someone to lunch, to watch a movie, to go for a walk. Join a club. (Even one that you don’t know anything about but sounds interesting). Be active—attend events, study in the library, take a coffee break, workout. Again, I realize with COVID some of these suggestions have been harder to do, but campuses have made adjustments to still provide opportunities for students to engage.

KR: How can parents/guardians help their students become college-ready?

KB: A parent can help their students become ready by “not doing everything for them.” Help them learn the habits of decision-making (good or bad ones) and advocating. Let them make mistakes and support them in the learning that takes place from those mistakes. Love them, let them know you are their biggest fan. Enjoy your time with them. Build a strong relationship with them now so that you can give them wings later. When they call you from college the first time and don’t know what to do about something, listen but encourage them seek support and answers on their own—do not make the calls for them. It’s hard to do but you are helping them grow and become more confident and independent when you let go.

KR: What words of wisdom would you give to a current high school senior as they prepare for their college years?

KB: Trust your “gut.” Attend the school YOU want to attend. Be patient with the transition. Take risks and stretch yourself. Study something you love. Call your parents once in awhile—they really are your biggest cheerleaders.

KR: What is a favorite memory from work in the last six months?

KB: Oh my gosh, it’s hard to pick just one! Overall, when students enroll at Saint Ben’s and Saint John’s and you see the excitement in their eyes or written word, it is truly the best feeling ever. You just know you’ve played a part in helping that student make a decision that will transform their life. And another cool thing for me is that I have been here long enough that I recruited some of the parents who are now sending their children here. It is so awesome to see the legacy continue. And finally, I have to say that I am so proud each time I see a graduate fulfill their dream of a certain job, professional or graduate school and/or spending time serving our world. The students we bring in through the Admission Office become amazing alums who are out changing and powerfully impacting our world.

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