Karen Abrahams graduated from the School of Industrial and Labor Relations in 1982 and is a core member of her regional and worldwide Cornell community. She serves as the president of the Cornell Club of Northern New Jersey and the web community manager for the Cornell Class of 1982.
How did you start your journey as a Cornell volunteer?
I have been attending local Cornell alumni events since graduation and have always enjoyed them. At a fall 2000 dinner with the Cornell Club of Northern NJ, I was sitting with my friend Susan Levy ’86 (who I’d met at work), and one of the club officers stopped at our table to chat. Among other topics we asked why our club was not holding a Cornell Cares event that year. She replied that no one had volunteered to run it that year. Without skipping a beat, Susan and I chimed in at the same time by saying “I will.”
And we did. Susan and I organized an event at Community Foodbank of NJ, which was so enthusiastically attended that we continued to grow that annual event there each year. This year would have been our 10th Cornell event at that location. We both got involved on the Board of Governors and have taken on a variety of roles since then.
You’re part of a very active alumni organization in your area. How did the need to pivot to all virtual change the way you engaged alumni in your community?
March 10, 2020 was our last in-person meeting of the Cornell Club of NJ Board of Governors, here at my house. We planned many events and left feeling enthusiastic about the months ahead. In the next few days we learned how much of our world was about to change, beginning with only virtual events. It might have been an excuse to take a break from regular club activities, but that was not the direction that our club chose.
Our club members amazed me with their creativity. We continued our schedule of meetings of the board with Zoom. Our first pandemic club event was one that I consider to be a huge success, during which time we featured a local Cornellian-owned business, despite so many factors that could have rendered it otherwise. It required that business (Ironbound Farms) to deliver products to the participants in advance, alumni to overcome Zoom technical issues, and even happened two days after Tropical Storm Isaias, which knocked power out in many homes in our area. Some members managed to gather together at each other’s houses, where the power was still on, but still be socially-distanced, to participate!
I’m also very impressed with our Cornell University contacts, who’ve stepped up to help volunteers conduct events. They have updated our automated systems to handle paid and unpaid virtual events, trained us on best practices for social media, organized practice sessions in advance of virtual events and even suggested scripts for our board members to use to introduce guest speakers. I can’t thank our university contacts enough!
What does volunteering for Cornell mean to you?
I am honored to represent the university that has enhanced my life so much. I learn so much from these other alumni of all ages.
What has been your favorite volunteer moment?
A few come to mind. At one of our annual Cornell Cares events, which often attracted multiple generations of Cornell families, my own family members had politely explained that they had other commitments, which I understood, as we’d been doing this event for years, and it doesn’t always work for everyone… but then they arrived at the event to surprise me. My daughter had taken an Uber from NYC and Mitchell, my husband, skipped his other meeting to join us.
Susan and I also organized a number of great Zinck’s events for our club, several of them coordinated with wine expert and ’82 classmate Hank Zona. Four years ago, at this event, one of our club members sat down at the piano in the bar and launched into a rousing rendition of “Give My Regards to Davey,” complete with all 60 or so attendees singing along. It was one of those fantastic, spontaneous moments I’ll always remember.
How has Cornell impacted who you are today?
From my earliest days at Cornell (going back to the people I met at my on-campus interviews and the first few weeks of freshman year) I’ve always been impressed by the strong sense of community amongst my classmates, in light of our broad range of backgrounds and interests. My time at Cornell helped open my eyes to the many possibilities and directions our lives might take. I still consider my college roommates to be among my best friends. And I appreciate that same sense of community within the members of my regional club. And I rely on long-time club members, like Rolf Frantz ’66, who have helped me tremendously when I am making sense of a new challenge for our club.
What has motivated your lifelong philanthropy?
I feel strongly that the experiences I had will also help others achieve their goals. University tuition is such a big part of any student’s expenses. It’s important to do what we can. My club’s scholarship fund continues to help a local Cornell student each year.
Do you have a favorite class or extracurricular from your time at Cornell?
My favorite classes were George Milkovich’s Compensation classes. They helped me realize that, though I was interested in a wide range of ILR courses, I was stronger in quantitative subjects. It helped steer me in my career, which ultimately was in HR (and other) software.
My favorite extracurricular was skiing! What a treat to have such a gem of a local ski area as Greek Peak! I was there (and interested in racing) the year that the Olympics took place in Lake Placid. New York State skiing was the place to be that year!
Do you have a message for newly graduated alumni looking to volunteer?
Get involved! Reach out to your class officers, local club or regional Cornell staff. We welcome new members and our club thrives because of the ideas of our board and members at large.
If you’re interested in learning more about volunteering or giving at Cornell, please fill out this short form and a member of the Northeast Corridor Team will reach out to you.