Karen Fisher Creating a Culture of Service

Karen Fisher was brought up in a culture of service and that background is one that serves her well in her position of Director of Enrollment and Financial Aid at Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, as well as an AISAP board member. 

By Sally Benford 

Like some in her profession, Karen Fisher says that her career in admission and enrollment was initially due to her exposure to Parker School when her children attended. She volunteered as a parent, identifying service projects for her children’s classrooms. And although she began at Parker as a part-time admission coordinator, Fisher had already established herself as a successful trial lawyer who also spent time volunteering for nonprofit social service organizations that were near and dear to her heart.

As an attorney, Fisher enjoyed her pro-bono work with Chicago Volunteer Legal Services, a group that provided free legal services for those who had didn’t have the financial means to hire a lawyer. Whether she worked on small claims, family issues or immigration, she says she felt very fulfilled as she worked with clients—something that she says served her well in her current role as a director on the organization’s board.

Through volunteer service, you can pursue a role of director in an organization that you believe in,” she says.

Fisher’s family background was a culture of service. Her father was a lawyer and her mother was a psychologist and were always involved in their community and their church. Both of her parents served on nonprofit boards, including the local school board, so you might say it’s in her blood.

One of her first forays into board membership was with Casa Central in Chicago. The group works with the Latino community to offer comprehensive social services, including Head Start, after-school youth programs and services for the elderly.

Fisher chose Casa because she was bilingual, had a strong interest in the Latino community, and she identified strongly with the organization’s mission and value. She started as a volunteer running a legal clinic, and then naturally evolved into the role of being a director. She began serving with the organization 30 years ago, and she’s still on the board today, and continues to develop classroom service projects for Casa.

Although she had served on nonprofit boards and volunteered, Fisher says she had never been on staff at a nonprofit, which was a goal of hers. Her activity at Parker fueled her interest in education, so when a part-time admission coordinator position became open at Parker, she applied.

I don’t know if it had anything to do with me getting hired, but when I was interviewed, I was asked the question, ‘What’s your idea of participation on a team?’ I answered, ‘I would do anything to make the team successful, even if it meant picking up garbage at an event.’ I joke now that I was hired because I said I’d pick up the garbage,” says Fisher.

All joking aside, Fisher believes that her entry into the profession 14 years ago—as an admission coordinator—is a great starting point, and one where people can decide if the field is right for them. She served in that position for two years, which nurtured her growing interest in the field. When an associate admission director position opened up, she applied and was hired. In that new role, she proposed ideas for improved operations and strategy and, eventually, was asked to modernize the admission department, moving into the director role.

When I began my admission career 14 years ago, it was an exciting time in admission and enrollment, in terms of technology and creating systems and uniformity. Also, we needed to improve the ways we engaged with our outreach and diversity and inclusion issues. All of these topics have become very important in the past few years,” Fisher says.

She explains that the job takes a special skill set, one that includes excellent interactive skills, attention to detail, passion for your school and authenticity. It’s also important to keep in mind the mission of the school and the right fit for the child. She says that one of the core competencies for an admission and enrollment professional is to relate, on a personal level, with students and families.

Greet them, look them in the eye, welcome them to the school and have an approach of empathy to meet them where they are. It’s part of doing your job well. I think in general, those of us who work in independent schools are becoming more aware of diversity, equity and inclusion,” says Fisher. “What could be better than speaking with people about their children? People get excited when they think about their children’s future and their education. It’s a hopeful topic and it’s a delightful topic.

She also believes that it’s important for admission and enrollment managers to pursue professional development. When she first started participating in AISAP, she felt slightly isolated but soon connected with her peers when she attended AISAP’s Annual Institute.

She says that membership in AISAP has helped her career, and she’s now a board member for the organization. Fisher says that admission and enrollment professionals have the skills to make excellent board members.

We are able to present to other people due to our experience giving tours. We know how to interact on a personal level when we interview students and speak with families. And we know how to look at data and make data-driven decisions,” she says.

Additionally, Fisher says that board service can help admission and enrollment professionals understand their own school’s board. She also believes that it really has been an important expansion of her awareness of institutional roles.

Fisher’s advice for others entering—or already in—the field?

Focus on relationships with people and nurture your internal relationships at your school, but also get outside of your school and meet other peers. There’s someone from across the country who has had a similar experience as you. Share your perspectives with others in the field. Living in a world where there’s a culture of choice, your authenticity as an admission pro counts. You have to care for that and think about the life cycle of your career by connecting with others.”