ScholarMatch Virtual Volunteer of 2019: Karen Grace-Baker
At ScholarMatch, we make college dreams possible.
Through our Destination College program, we connect students from all over the country with the resources and mentors they need to reach their higher education dreams. Students in our program work with ScholarMatch College Coaches through every facet of the college application process: from building a college list, to polishing personal statements, to even completing financial aid paperwork.
To celebrate this program and the incredible volunteers who help make college possible, we’re excited to highlight Karen Grace-Baker as our 2019 Virtual Volunteer of The Year! This past year, Karen coached two students, Jewel and Sachi, through the college application process. Jose, our incredible summer intern, had the chance to chat with Karen, Jewel, and Sachi about their experience in our program and advice they’d share with other first-generation, college-bound students.
Hello! Could you introduce yourselves to our readers?
Karen: My name is Karen Grace-Baker, aka KGB. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts. My alma mater is Boston College. For fun, I like to read, spend time with family, go for long walks, and travel.
Jewel: My name is Jewel and I grew up in Connecticut, but I was born in Jamaica. I’m currently in my first semester at Macalester College in Minnesota. Outside of the typical teenager stuff, like watching Netflix and hanging out with my friends, I also enjoy playing ukulele and learning American Sign Language.
Sachi: My name is Sachi, and I was born and raised in Rochester, New York. I’m currently in my first semester at Yale University, and for fun I like to paint and read.
Karen, how did you learn about ScholarMatch and what interested you in the opportunity to coach students through the college application process?
K: I saw an announcement in the NACAC Exchange listserve and was attracted to the opportunity because it offered me the opportunity to work with my favorite student population: first-generation, low income students. As a first generation student who had limited resources when I was applying to colleges, I wanted to help other students like myself.
Jewel and Sachi, do you remember your first impression of ScholarMatch? What did you hope to gain out of this experience working with Karen?
J: I wasn’t sure about ScholarMatch at first because I’d never heard about it before. But after finding out more about the program and meeting Karen, I realized it could give me a clearer sense of financial aid packages from different schools, as well as broaden my college scope. I wanted to look at schools I never thought of that could be perfect for me as well as understand the different kinds of aid I could be getting.
S: ScholarMatch seemed very practical, and since I knew absolutely nothing about applying to college, I decided to go for it. I signed up because I knew that I should take all the help I could get, and it was free — a wonderful price.
Jewel and Sachi, can you tell us about a memorable experience you had being mentored by Karen?
J: The week after Karen suggested Macalester as an option for me, I instantly shut it down because I thought it was way too far (and cold). Karen told me about the experience of one of her daughters who moved from California to Connecticut and went through a serious weather shock as a girl who had never seen snow or four seasons — and she survived it all. I’m not sure if she was doing it on purpose, but that conversation about how well her daughter adapted to the change showed me that I could do the same moving to Minnesota. This ultimately raised Macalester on my college list and here we are today: enrolled.
S: The conversation with KGB I remember the most was when we first talked, and she asked me which colleges I knew I wanted to apply to. At the moment, I had no real idea where I wanted to apply, but I thought of the few schools I had looked into, including Harvard. Once I shared I was interested in Harvard, she asked me if I was applying just to apply or if I believed I could get in and actually wanted to go there. I did a deep self-reflection and decided that I was going to go all out in the college application process. If I had to spend copious amounts of time on applying, I would go for any college I liked that seemed even the tiniest bit in my reach. To her, that was likely a very standard question to make sure that I wouldn’t waste her time by applying to a school for the wrong reasons. For me, that was when I decided to go for what I wanted, despite the odds.
Karen, Jewel, and Sachi: If you had to offer one piece of advice to a high school senior just beginning the application process, what would you say?
K: I would say to think about what you want out of your college experience — what size school you want, student population, geographic location and size. This will be your home for four years, so do your research and look for the right college for you.
J: Keep your options open! Those super prestigious universities are great, but what’s more important is how well you fit into the community there, whether it be financially, intellectually, politically. Visit your top schools, see how comfortable you are in that environment, and see what opportunities or support systems would be available to you. If your preconceived top schools don’t fit those requirements, broaden your horizons. If you’re determined, you’ll succeed no matter where you go.
S: To anyone who is just starting the college process, I would encourage you to figure out what your definition of success and happiness is, and do what it takes to get you to that point. Whether you end up at the top school in the country, directly in the workforce, or at your local university, there’s always room for you to grow and better fulfill your definition of happiness or success. But also remember that your definition will be different from others around you and while you may find great joy in solving differential equations, your best friend could find that same joy in fixing cars or vice versa. Try your best to be aware that your way is not the only valid way, but also don’t let other people undermine your own path to happiness.
In November 2019 during ScholarMatch’s Community Awards celebration, we were overjoyed to honor Karen as the 2019 ScholarMatch Virtual Volunteer of the Year. In addition to her amazing work with students like Jewel and Sachi, just a few of Karen’s additional contributions include:
- Leading a session at our 2019 Volunteer Convening on supporting first-generation students
- Serving as a tireless resource for fellow, less experienced volunteers, answering with great insight, patience, and knowledge when they crowdsource questions on community platforms
- Referring over a dozen current active volunteers to us — many of them students from her UCLA courses, where she teaches as a faculty member on the UCLA College Counseling Certificate Program — and many other admissions experts she has networked with
To Karen and the hundreds of other volunteers who pour their heart and soul into our shared work: Thank you for your dedication to advancing education equity! You inspire us to continue fighting to level the playing field for first-generation, low-income students.