Chester County Leadership: Dr. Karen Kent, Director, MBA Program Director, DeSales University
Dr. Karen Kent spoke to VISTA Today about growing up in Pottstown as the youngest of five children. Since a young age, she had a knack for leadership and community service, including serving as the drum major of the Pottstown High School marching band and the president of the Anchor Club.
Kent knew as a teenager that she wanted to work in healthcare management and earned two degrees in that field before switching to part-time work as an adjunct professor while caring for her son with autism. After a few years, she became a full-time faculty member, and began her doctoral studies.
Now, as the director of the MBA program, chair of the healthcare administration major, and assistant professor at DeSales University, she is focused on developing innovative course formats that combine flexibility and personalized interactions.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up, Karen?
I was born the youngest of five kids in Pottstown. My father was a postal worker at the Pottstown Post Office for 34 years. He was also a professional musician and played bass violin in different bands across the tri-state area.
My mom was a homemaker. My parents met during World War II when my dad was stationed in England and met my mother at a dance – a very romantic story. Then the war ended, he returned to England, and they married.
What memories do you have of growing up in Pottstown?
Pottstown was a great place to grow up. I walked to every school I attended. It was a nice community – there were always things to do. I enjoyed school. We had great teachers, and I got a great education.
My uncles owned a restaurant in Pottstown called the Crystal Restaurant. They retired in the 70s, but it was a happening place in Pottstown.
Did you play any sports when you were younger, Karen?
I was involved in the marching band. I also played tennis – I wasn’t very good at it, but kept playing as an adult. Back in high school, I was a baton twirler in the marching band. I was also the drum major as a senior. We used to go on trips and competitions, and I made life-long friends. For all of us, Pottstown is a place we still care about.
When you were in high school, did you have any part-time jobs?
I worked at Sunnybrook Colonial Room from when I was in 10th grade all the way through college and graduate school.
First, I was a bus girl, then I became a waitress and worked in the banquets in the ballroom. It was a great place to grow up andlearn to work with people.. I credit that job with learning how to multitask and develop a service mentality. Great lessons that have helped me my whole life!
What’s the most important lesson you learned working at Sunnybrook?
I learned how to set priorities and manage multiple things at the same time. Also, how to work as a team. Sunnybrook was a huge enterprise, and a team effort made it happen! .
Some of the chefs at Sunnybrook worked for my uncles in their restaurant, so it just goes to show the small-town nature of Pottstown. And my father played in many bands at Sunnybrook, so he knew a lot of folks there, and that’s how I got my job. It was a great learning experience and lots of fun.
What kind of music floated your boat in high school?
I loved listening to the old local Philadelphia radio stations, like Power 99, WYSP, and WMMR. I liked everything from Rock and Roll, Funk, New Wave and Alternative. All of my friends and I loved Pat Benatar – she was an anthem for young women.
Where did you go to college?
I went to Penn State’s main campus. I studied health planning and administration, which is what it was called back then.
Did you look at other schools?
I did. I got into Lehigh University and American University in Washington D.C. My mom said she didn’t want me going to college in D.C. because too much skullduggery happens there. No truer words have been spoken!
I went to Penn State because I wanted to study healthcare management. I knew I didn’t have the stomach to do the clinical aspects of healthcare – I pass out watching people in pain! I knew my skills were in organization and management, so I went in that direction.
That’s a young age to realize you wanted to major in healthcare management .
It was, for the most part, it is a major people find after they decided to not be a clinician. Penn State had a good program, and they launched my career.
But you were focused on that from a very young age.
I was. My sister, Anita, was a nurse, and she went to Johns Hopkins for nursing school. I remember going to her graduation as a little girl, being so impressed by hospitals, and thinking how wonderful it would be to take care of people. I knew I wouldn’t be good at the clinical part, but I wanted to be part of healthcare.
What drove your interest in healthcare management?
I have a service orientation. I volunteer a lot. Since I moved here, I’m still trying to figure out where to volunteer, but I volunteered a lot when I lived in Ohio. I was named one of the citizens of the year of Wyoming, Ohio because of my volunteer work there.
I like to help people develop themselves. That’s why I’ve gone into and stayed in education.
When you look back, was Penn State a good choice for you?
Yes, because it got me to where I needed to be. I went straight to graduate school from Penn State. I went to Rush University in Chicago. Rush’s healthcare administration graduate program was a newer graduate program at the time, but I liked the format. You worked at the Rush medical center in the mornings and went to school in the afternoons, so you got a lot of work experience. That was an advantage to my career because I wanted to get as much work experience as possible.
I also participated in a service sorority called Gamma Sigma Sigma at Penn State. That was a wonderful experience, and I made great friends.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you and created opportunities for you?
My 10th-grade teacher, Elaine Noel was a wonderful influence. I stayed in touch with her my whole life. She and I became very close. She was a motivator, somebody who was always encouraging you to think about what your next steps were in your career.
What did she see in you as a 10th grader?
I think just leadership skills – she saw that I could step up and take the lead on a project.
Who else saw promise in you across your career?
Ida Schick, who was the chair of healthcare administration at Xavier University had a major influence on my career. She convinced me to go for a PhD, which was not on my life plan. Truly, it was one of the best career decisions I made. I was an older student, but found many others in my program who were doing the same thing. It is never too late to focus on education!
My husband Bill has always had a positive impact on my career. We met at Johns Hopkins Hospital where we were both working. He has always been my best cheerleader. He encouraged me to go into an interesting direction for my dissertation. I studied Social Gerontology for my PhD. I saw this as a complement to my healthcare administration career. For my dissertation, I decided to study aging people with autism and intellectual disabilities. It became a culmination of everything in my life – I’d worked in healthcare and I have a son with a disability. I have always had an interest in how to improve life for people who are on the margins. I interviewed people with autism and intellectual disabilities and their caregivers to better understand what it’s like for them to navigate the healthcare system.
So, what are you focused on now at DeSales? Here we are at the start of the new year. What are your priorities? What are your challenges and opportunities?
I want to improve this program and meet our students’ needs. Since COVID, the expectations have changed dramatically about how education is delivered to graduate students.
There’s so much pressure to create asynchronous online classes, but you lose the personalized experience and engagement with peers when you do that. We’re trying to strike a balance at DeSales to have that personalized attention.
How are you doing that?
We are working innovative ways to make that happen. One of the things we’ve created is one-credit classes that people can do in two weekends. They can pick up courses along the way and have this post-course experience. In addition, we use a variety of course formats, like eight- and six-week courses. We offer courses that works for people’s schedules and on topics which they can use immediately in the workplace, and beyond.
I think that’s what differentiates us – we provide that personalized attention. We have advisers that students can call anytime for help selecting courses and utilizing resources.
The students are always our priority. We engage with them, whether texting them, picking up the phone, or seeing them in the hallway. That’s what sets small universities apart, that personalized attention and knowing that you’re a member for life. It’s not just when you’re a student – you will continue to be important to us.
We’ve also been doing boot camps on Excel, PowerPoint, and business writing skills that are free for anyone to attend. We’re doing them for our students, but we also open them up to the community.
So, Karen, what do you do with your free time?
When we have free time, we love to travel, whether it’s a day trip going down to Peddler’s Village or going into Philly to a museum.
Our daughter lives in New York City, is a musical theater actress, so we go to New York City a lot. We go to shows and just enjoy the city. We also love to go to the shore. We love Long Beach Island and Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.I also like to cook and hang out with my neighbors!
Do you read much?
All the time! I wish I read for pleasure more. It’s usually for work and study related.
What keeps you hopeful and optimistic in this chaotic world?
Young people are committed and caring people. They are thinkers and idea makers. I am very optimistic for the future!
Finally, Karen, what’s the best advice you have ever received?
It came from my parents – “Always take the high road, stay above the fray and stay positive.”
I think you always have to look for the good in situations – even when you’re in a bad spot, what can you learn from it, and how can you use that?
Something that I always advise students when they’re struggling and trying to figure out the next step is that you have to have faith. There’s a higher power that has a pathway for us.
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