Karen (Layton) Barker has always liked setting out on the trail: whether hiking in the Rocky Mountains, biking in Europe, or skiing anywhere the snow has just fallen. Her curiosity about people and the world has led her to new destinations across many continents, encountering new people and new opportunities to put her enthusiasm and support behind issues she values.
In 1967, Barker, a third-generation Coloradan, came to study at CSU. She had been involved in theater and public speaking in high school, loved performing, and wanted to work in the public arena, but she wasn’t quite sure how. Through courses in TV production, writing, and speaking, she decided to major in Speech and Theater Arts with a minor in education. It was an opportunity to continue her interest in storytelling in another way – through broadcast journalism. With the help of Dr. Robert MacLauchlin, professor emeritus, who enthusiastically brought the broadcast profession into the classroom, Barker was on her way.
Her first stop was graduate school at Michigan State University where she wrote her master’s thesis on the impact of the Communist government on television programming during Yugoslavian President Josef Tito’s presidency. Next, was New York City.
Often one of just a few women in the room in the early 70s, Barker (’71) was a researcher and producer at ABC network news in New York City, traveling the country in search of human-interest stories and providing research for network correspondents. She was among the staff who launched ABC’s first morning news program now known as Good Morning America.
To pursue her goals of speaking and writing, Barker moved from behind the camera when she was hired by the NBC affiliate in Indianapolis to cover education as an on-air reporter. “It was a phenomenal beat,” she says. Barker was filing stories on teaching trends, the role of parents, curriculum updates, and social issues, delighted to be immersed in a topic dear to her heart. When Barker moved back to Denver eight years later, she continued to cover education until she retired in 1994 when her son was two years old.
The opportunity to dive deep into the successes and failures of education for young people, as well as paving a path for women in broadcast journalism, spurred the next phase of Barker’s life: philanthropy. She and her husband, Scot, became friends with a couple in Evergreen who started a successful nonprofit micro credit organization providing small business loans to indigenous women in Guatemala. She joined in their effort to raise funds which are dispersed to 32,000 women who have become successful in supporting their families. The Barkers’ involvement with the organization expanded when the organization designed a school for young girls there.
“Because I’ve traveled so much, what stands out to me is the oppression of millions of women who, if given an education, could help change the trajectory of poverty and become contributors to improving the local and national economy of their country. The ripple effect starts with one girl who then positively impacts her family, community, and eventually the government. I’ve seen this firsthand during my 15 years of engagement,” she says.
This experience led to her interest in helping Latina women closer to home. She and Scot created the Karen and Scot Barker Diversity Scholarship fund at CSU in 2015, which is renewable for five years and provides up to 75% of resident tuition and fees for recipients. In addition to being a full-time student, recipients must demonstrate a history of community engagement, volunteerism, or family service working with traditionally underrepresented or underserved populations as well as a desire to be a mentor to or work with those populations in the future.
“I believe a liberal arts degree must prepare each student to be competent, knowledgeable, and skilled to enter a workforce that is competitive and demanding. Practical experience through internships, exposure to a variety of professional opportunities, connections to the corporate and non-profit world are critical,” she says.
For Barker, “an effective education is a combination of what students have learned in school, and the real-world connections and opportunities they have created throughout the college experience.”
Through her scholarship fund, Barker has been able to connect with the scholarship recipients and learn how the university is providing support and opportunities to minoritized students. “As a land-grant university with a mission to serve a socio economically diverse population, I am impressed with its commitment to do just that. And I’ve seen the positive results in the students who have received our scholarships, graduating as leaders with excellent jobs.”
“I was vice president of student government in 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War protests across the country. Much of my job was to keep the CSU marches peaceful. I learned early on the importance of managing many points of view among students as well as respecting the positions of the CSU administration. It was with great regret that Old Main was burned down, and I’ll never forget the loss I felt for the building’s history and the disgust I felt towards those responsible. I grew up fast that year.”
– Karen Barker
Barker also provides the student scholarship recipients with additional mentorship, connections, and support. “I see myself as a conduit or liaison between the university and the world outside of it,” she says. For example, Barker has mentored scholarship recipient Daniela, who graduated in 2018 with a degree in political science, with her letters of application to law school. Daniela just recently graduated from law school and Barker is busy connecting her with law firms who are looking for someone with her qualifications.
“Because I’ve come from humble beginnings, I’ve worked hard to achieve my goals. But I also realize I’ve had a much easier time than the young women I’m mentoring,” says Barker. “I want to participate in whatever way I can in leveling the playing field for others.”
Her efforts to do that, whether as one of the first women in broadcast journalism or as a donor and mentor to young women, demonstrate the energy, productivity, and caring she applies to whatever trail she’s embarking on.
Whether it’s maneuvering her way through a male dominated broadcasting profession, or opening doors for women with high potential but few resources, Barker taps into her caring nature, energetic personality, and ability to produce results to clear the trail for others. The ultimate result she hopes, is to “inspire the very women my husband and I are helping to use their resources and time to support and inspire the next generation of women to be a success. This would make my life complete,” she says.
For her service to women worldwide and her commitment to CSU students, Karen Barker is receiving the College of Liberal Arts Distinguished Alumni Award on Thurs., Oct. 7, 2021.