It may seem like an odd switch to go from running a deep-sea exploration company that sells personal submarines to college counseling at Aspen High School.
But for Karen Hawkes, that transition is more intuitive than it may seem on the surface.
“I haven’t been in education my whole life, and I actually think that’s a bonus,” she said of her career. “Life is not all about college; it’s about what you do with it afterwards, and I have a pretty interesting background workwise that I hope to be able to share with my students.”
As the founder of DeepFlight — one of three companies she’s founded in the San Francisco Bay area — Hawkes has overseen the company’s branding, vision, communications and operations. Of course, that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have plenty of experience helping students navigate the college admissions process, too.
In addition to DeepFlight, Hawkes founded College Concierge Pro, her private counseling business, in 2015.
“I was so disturbed by the stress I saw families and students going through during the process, and I really just thought there had to be a better way,” she said, noting her own experience as a mother. “I just started throwing house parties and educating people. This should be a joy to go through, [but] not with all the stress.”
Sadly, she saw in her own community the more permanent consequences of how that stress can manifest.
“We had a couple kids in my town who committed suicide over this process,” Hawkes said. “I hope to really bring down that stress level.”
Alleviating the stress that often accompanies the college application process is more than just a mission in the Aspen High School college counseling office. For counselor Charlie Laube, it’s almost a mantra.
“Calm begets calm,” he said. “Authenticity and empowerment: You’re going to hear that a lot this year.”
Hawkes hasn’t even moved yet — the first day in her new role is Sept. 3 — but she’s already excited to contribute to the existing culture at the school.
“I know I’ll be building on an incredible basis that’s been established already. They’ve done such a great job in establishing this office. I’m walking into a system that has a really great structure, so I’m thrilled about that,” she said.
Additionally, Hawkes is looking forward to the community and resources that the district offers, such as the Western Slope College Fair.
“It looks like a fabulous fair,” she said. “Part of the reason why I wanted to be in a high school setting is that I get to touch so many more lives than the 15 or 18 kids in a year that I work with privately.”
That doesn’t mean Hawkes doesn’t already have her own network that she brings to the table. A big part of her counseling business involved facilitating and accompanying students on campus visits.
“I do have relationships with [college admissions] reps. Whenever I go to a school, I do make a point of meeting with them, but that is a lifetime job, so I really look forward to expanding those relationships,” she said. “One of the best things about doing this job is you’re always learning. You can’t rest on any laurels whatsoever, and I really enjoy that. The schools are changing, the reps are changing: They’re changing their testing requirements.”
Hawkes also recognizes that her very presence represents a change for Aspen families. Her predecessor, Melissa Lustig, recently accepted a counseling position at a private high school in Las Vegas.
“I can understand. I’m a parent as well,” she said in acknowledgement of the stress that families sometimes feel when there’s a change of staff in something that often already feels stressful. “When a college counselor leaves, it’s difficult shoes to fill. I’m really looking forward to meeting the students and the families.”
And while both Hawkes and Laube tout maintaining a balance between work and play for students and families planning their next academic chapters, that doesn’t mean more play than work.
“You can have rigorous prep but have the joy as well,” Hawkes said. “As I tell my parents now, what is more important than having a healthy child? This is a big conversation, let’s sit down.”
That said, she’s not planning on spending all of her time in a chair at her office.
“I certainly plan to ski,” she said. While this will be her first time to serve as a full-time counselor, it’s not her first stint in Aspen.
“I was in Aspen in the ’80s,” she said. “When I was in graduate school, I used to have long winter breaks where I’d go work at Bonnie’s on the mountain and ski.”