A half century after she entered UNM as a freshman, Karen Abraham is retiring from her position as associate vice president of alumni relations and executive director of the Alumni Association. A beloved campus and community leader, Karen earned three degrees from UNM – a BSE in 1967, an MA in 1968 and an Ed.D. in 1971, and is truly, a lifelong Lobo in every sense.
She began her career as assistant, then associate, dean of students/director of student activities. Asked to head the Alumni Relations Office and the Alumni Association in 1987, Abraham has remained there since, watching the UNM alumni population grow from just under 70,000 to nearly 200,000.
Among the association’s many accomplishments during her tenure, the Alumni Association established a $7 million endowment; Hodgin Hall was renovated for a second time and officially designated the UNM Alumni Center; countless alumni have volunteered on behalf of the association and the university; hundreds of alumni have been honored; scholarships have grown; and Mirage Magazine, The Howler e-newsletter and a robust website have kept UNM graduates informed about their alma mater and fellow graduates.
In this Mirage interview conducted by retired Alumni Relations staff member Mary Conrad, Karen Abraham talks about her life at the university, the most important accomplishments of the Alumni Association, the challenges that remain and the importance to the Alumni Association of keeping people at its heart.
I’ve been at the university for 52 years, since I was 18. That’s an unbelievable span of time. How did that dash between 1963 and 2015 happen?
I remember deciding whether or not to go to the University of New Mexico. For my parents, there was no thought I’d ever go anyplace else. It was the University of New Mexico, it was 60 miles away and it was affordable. My sister had gone there and had a great experience. How could one imagine, at 18, walking into a place and then being interviewed 52 years later, being asked, “How was it? What about it changed your life?” Well, probably just about everything.
I started my job as assistant dean of students in 1970, in the midst of all the Vietnam crises and the shutting down of the university. There was the civil rights movement. And the women’s movement. Certainly you would experience those changes anyway, but working at the university you had to learn to negotiate them. How do you respond in ways that make the university and the campus better? How do you keep a continuity of education? How do you keep the university afloat and still doing what it needs to do, and yet be proactive about the issues at hand, since the university, really, is a place for the exchange of ideas?
We’re all trying to find ways to live together, to have conversations, to define issues that are important to us so they aren’t forgotten, to understand the complexities of the things that get in the way of our being good to each other. What I like more than anything about the university is the vibrancy that diversity creates and the ever-evolving energy of the environment.
"One of the things I’m happiest and proudest about is that this alumni association decided to be more inclusive than exclusive. Because of that, everyone is a member. Everyone belongs. Everyone gets the benefits. Everyone is thought of as an individual of worth."
A “Value-Added” Career
I’ve had an incredible life because I’ve been part of a community that is value-added in terms of learning, exchanging ideas, and meeting and knowing incredible people. Many – students, faculty, staff, community leaders and, of course, alumni – have become friends. You are part of the tapestry of their lives and they are part of the tapestry of yours. They enrich you as they share their dreams, stories, conversations, thoughts and experiences.
As the alumni director, one of the privileges I’ve had is to see the difference the university makes in people’s lives over a long period of time. Then I’ve seen it again in the lives of their children and now in those of their grandchildren. Others represent the first generation in their family to go to college. I’ve watched their lives unfold and witnessed how they’ve enriched their communities and created their own footprint. That’s what it’s about. It’s about people’s lives and well-being.
I think each of us is on a journey, alone and with others. On that journey we always want to continue improving ourselves and our lives. The university is a platform not only to transfer and create knowledge about the world but also to expand our knowledge of ourselves. When we leave the university, we continue our journey in a more enlightened way and create our own legacies. Presently we are so embroiled in questions about the value of an education, about whether it accomplishes, politically, all that it should. I think we complicate the beauty of what it does for the human spirit, for one’s understanding and quality of life and for the landscape of the world at large.
Staying in Place
Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if I’d gone elsewhere. I considered it on occasion. When those opportunities arose, I asked myself, “Do I feel challenged? Yes. Am I happy? Yes. Do I like who I work for? Yes. Do I feel my life is enriched? Yes. Are my friends and family here? Yes. What am I trading for? A title and money. Are they in my value system? They’re important, but all those other things hold higher value for me.” Why would I go? I stayed. That may mean I’m not a risk-taker, but really it means that what was important to me was here. This job is priceless. It’s about being in a place I like and being able to make a difference for people.
"The UNM Alumni Association is all about the vastly important relationships between the university and its constituents, particularly its graduates. The challenge is how to empower this incredible group of individuals on behalf of the university. In the long run, the strength of alumni ties predicates the viability and excellence of the university."
Everyone Is Included
One of the things I’m happiest and proudest about is that this alumni association decided to be more inclusive than exclusive. Because of that, everyone is a member. Everyone belongs. Everyone gets the benefits. Everyone is thought of as an individual of worth.
It was always the right thought, but it’s hard when the bottom line becomes the prevailing goal for so many people. If you base your decisions exclusively on money and not on the principles of why you exist, then you choose the short-range solution to your immediate needs instead of the long-range vision of what you really should be.
It’s important for alums to be aware that we don’t have dues, as is the practice for a lot of associations. Every time there was a money issue, we were asked, “Why not?” On three occasions before my tenure, the association initiated dues programs, but these had never been successful. While dues create money flow, they also wind up segmenting alumni into dues-paying and non-dues-paying; each group gets different services. At the end of the day, the association decided that having everyone on equal footing, and not having their membership defined by their capacity to give financially, was more important.
In 1998, we negotiated a really dynamite credit card contract that became the key to our financial security and to the sustainability of our belief in alumni, in people and what they bring to the institution. We knew it was a moment in time that wouldn’t repeat itself: after the seven years of the contract ended, we wouldn’t be able to find another equivalent source of funding. So we saved all of the proceeds and established an endowment. Additionally, we built up our affinity programs so that after the flow of cash from the credit card contract ended, the income from the endowment and the affinity programs would equal what the yearly income from the credit cards had been. And, indeed, it has turned out to be true: we secured our programs and services and, most importantly, the association’s independence, viability and sustainability.
We have this incredible organization that represents the university’s living endowment. We have built a huge corps of individuals who have given us hours or years of their time and talent to make the university a better place, in ways unique to alumni. I look back at the scores of people who have answered their phones, opened their doors and given of their resources without any other qualification than bettering the university.
It’s humbling when you call individuals up who’ve been in all these high places in New Mexico or elsewhere and they say “Sure, I’ll sit on the board” or “Sure, I’ll do that for you.” And to them it’s an honor. For so many, the university marked the beginning of adulthood or a major transition in their lives. It’s family. It’s in their DNA.
Engaging and Connecting
The UNM Alumni Association is all about the vastly important relationships between the university and its constituents, particularly its graduates. The challenge is how to empower this incredible group of individuals on behalf of the university. In the long run, the strength of alumni ties predicates the viability and excellence of the university. Alumni support and influence include voting, advocating, recruiting students, enhancing the student experience, promoting university spirit, hiring graduates, acting as exemplars of UNM, preserving university history, wearing the brand or colors and giving financial support. In its vision and operation, the association reflects individually and collectively the university’s living heritage.
"When you come to New Mexico, you have to realize that people are tremendously proud of what they have. Some of us say New Mexico is different, and others say that’s just an excuse. But the reality is we are different!"
The University Different
I hope that if the new alumni director comes from somewhere other than New Mexico, he or she will understand, appreciate and embrace what makes our state and university so special. Our different cultures live side by side. At graduation, watching the procession, watching all the different costumes that peek out from underneath the robes, you realize that New Mexico is diverse in such a grand way.
When you come to New Mexico, you have to realize that people are tremendously proud of what they have. Some of us say New Mexico is different, and others say that’s just an excuse. But the reality is we are different! You need to take into account what makes New Mexico unique and build upon our strengths rather than change the footprint.
Hope for the Future
My greatest hope is that the association never loses its heart. That the value and importance of people, with their individual stories, stations in life, and cultures, is never defined by anything other than who they are. The university needs more resources, and alums should be asked to help with those resources. My concern always has been not to forget that everyone is a member of the family, and that the university serves and benefits alumni just as alumni serve and benefit the university.
The University of New Mexico is an extraordinary place. The impact it has on the quality of life in the state is immeasurable. Alumni should be ever so proud of their university, know and celebrate its accomplishments and those of its graduates, know and celebrate its history, and be confident in its future. In many ways, alumni really are the university. They are the lifelong stakeholders. How alumni wear and use their degrees has everything to do with the university’s success. The more the university thrives and excels, the greater value their degrees hold.
The best thing alums can do for the university is unfold their lives to the greatest of their potential, become civically involved wherever they are and make the world better.