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Alumni Spotlight: Karen Riley (DLHS '80) Dean at DU

Posted by Miro Marriott on Nov 4, 2020 1:00:00 PM

Karen Wheeler Riley class of 80Dr. Karen Riley (DLHS Class of 1980) is currently the Dean of the Morgridge College of Education at Denver University. But her route to get there was a bit circuitous. She received a math scholarship but instead decided to explore an undergrad degree in psychology. After graduating from CSU, she planned to head to grad school, but instead but toured around Europe during the summer and stayed a bit longer than expected. As a result she needed to work for a year before going to grad school. “It was the one spontaneous thing I’ve done,” Karen shares. She got a job at a school working with students with special needs. “That experience changed my life.”

She did go to grad school the following year, but rather than a degree in psychology. She pursued her masters degree in Early Childhood Special Education from the DU. After graduation, she began working at ACSD12 as the Early Childhood Specialist and Early Childhood Special Education Coordinator. During that time, she started pursuing her doctoral degree in Educational Psychology. She was placed at Children’s Hospital for her predoctoral fellowship where she ran the Kids in Need Clinic for children prenatally exposed to drugs and alcohol. She also started a parent support group that is still active today.

She was fortunate enough to work with one of the world’s leading developmental pediatricians in the area of fragile X syndrome (FXS) as part of her postdoctoral fellowship. Fragile X is a genetic condition that causes intellectual disability. It is a leading cause of behavioral and learning challenges. Karen participated in several research studies with kids with neurodevelopmental disorders. She has also been blessed to be part of a team of researchers and clinicians who have hosted conferences and clinics on FXS and Autism in many different countries including Taiwan, India, Guatemala, and Mexico.

In the early 2000s, DU contacted her to be an Assistant Professor in the Child, Family, and School Psychology program. From there, she took the usual tenure track to be a full time professor, ran the Fisher Early Learning Center at DU, became a Department Chair, then an interim dean, and is now in her current position as the Dean of the Morgridge College of Education.

Karen has been married for 34 years. Her husband is recently retired and a corporate tax attorney. She has 2 kids. Her daughter works as an Early Childhood Special Education Specialist in DPS. Her son is finishing up his MBA at University of California Irvine and is getting ready to get married.

As she reflects on her time at Lutheran High, she shares how her high school years prepared her for college, “We wrote a lot and although I wasn’t a great writer when I got into college, I knew how to write and wasn't intimidated by writing. And that gave me a good shot there. I was very well prepared in math. I was always challenged and we had great opportunities in math class. I also had good relationships with people - good friends. It wasn’t a hostile environment, I don’t remember any bullying. That’s probably even more important than the academics. I left feeling good about myself and my faith.”

Teachers also impacted her time at Lutheran High, “Pastor Clausen was the girls basketball coach and he was amazing. So inspirational. You couldn’t get out of [Denver Lutheran] without Doc Shaeffer being part of your life. Also Ms Boye was the reason I got a math scholarship to college. I didn’t end up using it, but she was so good.” Karen remembers the timed math tests that Ms Boye used to give in class. She was also impacted by her English teacher, Mrs Heubner. “I remember thinking ‘Ooh, I’d want to be a teacher just like her.’ She made literature come alive. Quite frankly all the teachers were great and so supportive. I had a really solid education and it prepared me well to go on and do whatever I needed to do. I was very inspired to continue my education. Their confidence in me allowed me to have confidence in myself.”

When asked how she shares the gospel in her current role, she found it is best done through actions, “I think that as someone who doesn't work in a faith based institution, it’s hard. I have to be careful about that. My hope always is that people will know I'm a Christian by my actions. The best way of determining my faith isn’t what I say, but what I do.”

Karen also has some advice for current Lutheran High students, “I would say the same thing that I tell students here: be present. Take advantage of all the things there are to do. The nice thing about a small school is you get to do all sorts of different things. I played sports and did clubs and all that was really positive for me.” She made good friends that way, too.

“Also, I would advise them to pay attention in Chapel. We had some dynamic speakers, but I didn’t always pay attention.” She hilariously shared that she read the entirety of the Shining in Chapel because she was too scared to read it anywhere else. “Some things we take for granted now but what a privilege it was to be able to spend twenty minutes thinking about faith and centering on that. Don’t take it for granted.”

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