Karen Stewart ’85 first dipped her toe into alumni volunteering at the urging of her friend, Ruby Saake ’84. (Ruby became a Frank H.T. Rhodes Exemplary Alumni Service Award recipient in 2020.)
“It’s all because of Ruby,” Karen said, describing how her “ultimate Cornellian” friend encouraged her to join the Cornell Black Alumni Association (CBAA) 10 years after graduation.
Karen’s involvement soon snowballed into other long-term commitments with the Cornell Alumni Admissions Ambassador Network (CAAAN), multiple roles on the President’s Council of Cornell Women (PCCW), as a member of Cornell University Council, and as membership chair for Cornell Mosaic, an organization founded in 2006 to connect diverse alumni with the university.
Karen is motivated to give other first-generation students the help they need to succeed at Cornell—help she felt she didn’t have access to during her time on campus.
“I really didn’t find a tribe there as a student,” Karen said. “They didn’t have programs to support folks like me back then in a good way, but I also didn’t always ask for help.”
Karen’s family emigrated from Jamaica to Florida in the 1970s. She was the first person in her family to attend college, and her journey to Ithaca was her first time away from home by herself.
While Karen admits she had a hard time adjusting to life on the Hill, she wouldn’t dream of changing her decision to go to Cornell.
“The things I experienced made me the person I am. I met so many wonderful people because of my Cornell association. Ultimately, I found my tribe several times,” she said.
She has certainly found her calling as an alumni volunteer leader. Karen joined CAAAN in 2002, and co-chaired the New York City Diversity Committee for CAAAN with Ruby from 2008–2013, focusing on meeting with Black undergraduate applicants who had not finished completing a Cornell application, and encouraging them to do so.
Karen said that she has been most exhilarated to share her advice with first-generation and immigrant students. Her first school assignment for CAAAN was Stuyvesant High School, a highly competitive public school in Manhattan. Many of the students at the time had emigrated from former Soviet Union countries or Russia.
“It was interesting talking to them—they wanted to ask all the questions that immigrants asked, which I could answer because I was an immigrant as well,” she said.
Outside of Cornell volunteering, Karen has also used her expertise to teach financial literacy to immigrants in NYC. Karen earned her JD from New York Law School, and went on to work for TIAA for 31 years, first in investor communications, and then as a senior director in mutual funds disclosure. She has been the head of mutual funds disclosure for Nuveen, a TIAA company, since 2013.
Karen said that she loves the multigenerational nature of all the organizations she’s worked with, and has developed many lasting friendships over the years. “I’ve found that to be a really joyful experience as an alum, meeting all these different cohorts,” she said.
Her most intense volunteer involvement was with PCCW, beginning in 2011, again at Ruby’s urging. (“Ruby’s relentless!” said Karen, with a laugh.)
PCCW’s focus is to improve the circumstances of women at Cornell—staff, students, and faculty—and provide programming and fundraising to support those communities. Karen has served in various roles including on the steering committee for eight years, and as chairperson during the challenging transition brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Under her leadership, PCCW was one of the first alumni organizations to lean on virtual town halls and digital fundraising during the pandemic, and successfully raised $50,000 to help Ithaca staff and faculty with childcare and another $30,000 for a student emergency fund.
Despite a career of stellar involvements, Karen is modest about her accomplishments.
“Somebody did the greatest good, either volunteering in kind or in dollars, that allowed me to come to Cornell. I’m just giving back,” she said.