Meet Our Gatekeepers

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From the Fall 2011 Caller

Admission and financial aid director Sara Nordhoff and Knight Family Scholars director Chad Faber chat about admissions, financial aid, and what brought them to their careers. Chad came to CGS from admissions work at Harvard, and Sara’s work in admissions included the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Mt. Holyoke, and Bennington. 

Q: Tell us about your backgrounds, and how that led to your commitment to admissions and the realization of the importance of financial aid.
 
SARA: I grew up in a small fishing village, Damariscotta, Maine, where about half my class went to four-year colleges, mostly to state schools. When I went to Middlebury College in Vermont I received financial aid, and I never would have been able to go without it. I was hoping to spend my junior year at an exchange program at Edinburgh University in Scotland. There wasn’t financial aid available, and I remember conversations with my parents about whether it was really going to be doable for us. We asked Middlebury for assistance, knowing that if they didn’t help it wouldn’t be possible for me to go. And they did help. That was the moment when I realized that my school was really committed to my making the absolute most of my experience there. And that’s what I see as the power of financial aid. There were not a lot of students at Middlebury at that time receiving financial assistance, and I felt at times like the poster child for diversity. I was sensitive because I felt like you could kind of tell who was on financial aid and who wasn’t. If you have a financial aid policy because you’re trying to create the best and most diverse student community possible, you need to make sure your school community is ready to embrace people coming from all perspectives. And it feels to me like Catlin Gabel does a great job of celebrating the individual students for who they are and where they’re coming from—and for what they have to say when they’re sitting around the classroom table. I chose to work in admissions because I love the art and science of it, and I love cultivating a community. The moment when I call families in the spring and say, “You’ve been admitted, and we’re going to make it financially possible for you to come,” is like no other. I think that’s a lot of why I’ve stayed in this field— helping to make those possibilities happen for people.
 
CHAD: I lived in a metropolis of 250 in western Pennsylvania called Turkeytown. All that I knew growing up was from helping out on a farm. And I was caretaker of a cemetery, and I stocked shelves in a grocery store. I saw how hard my dad had worked in the steel mill, and I knew I didn’t want to do any of those things. And I knew I had to get out of there in order to do something different. My dad was underemployed after most of the steel mills closed, and my mom was at home. So my plan was to enlist in the Marine Corps to get money for college—though college wasn’t an expectation there. The month before I graduated from high school I got an ROTC scholarship, which basically provided full financial aid for me to go to college. I went to Georgetown, which was the one college I had been to other than Pitt. I didn’t know how to write when I got to Georgetown. One of my professors there said, “We need a five-to-seven page paper next Monday,” and I said, “On one topic? All about one thing?” I was really shocked in a way. How I struggled! I think that’s where I realized the power of education. I graduated from Georgetown on a Saturday and was in the Navy on Monday morning. I owed the military four years, but ended up staying almost nine years. A book called The Gatekeepers by New York Times writer Jacques Steinberg, who followed an admissions officer around Wesleyan for a year, was transformative for me. I read it while I was doing alumni admissions interviews for Georgetown, teaching high school, and talking to kids about the choices they were going to make. I knew then that I wanted to be an admissions officer. When I got an admissions job at Harvard I realized, “Wow. Now I’m the gatekeeper—from a mobile home in Turkeytown, Pennsylvania. How the heck did I ever end up doing this?” I saw a lot of kids a lot smarter than I who had even less opportunity than I had, and what kind of difference we could make in their lives.
 
Q: Have you had experiences with families where giving aid became crucial?
 
SARA: Yes, we’ve had Catlin Gabel families whose situations changed due to illness or a change in income. We get behind the kids and the families that we decide to take, whatever it takes, whether that’s supporting them academically when they’re struggling in their coursework, or supporting them financially when they’re struggling with their finances. It takes a lot to come forth and say, “We can’t do it any more. Can you help us?” There’s a certain amount of pride there. I know in my family, my dad especially, it hits pretty hard when you have to ask for help.
 
Q: What are your roles here and your admissions strategy? Admission is a huge responsibility. Somebody like you said yes to every person in every classroom here.
 
SARA: What I like about the addition of the Knight Family Scholars program to admission at Catlin Gabel is that it amplifies the overall strategy of what we’re trying to do in admissions— which is to bring in the brightest, most engaging, community-minded kids we can. To me that means kids from all over the metro area, from private and public schools, from households that speak English, Spanish, and other languages. And that gets at our financial assistance for these families. Our outreach strategy is about going out to schools all over the Portland metro area, about leveraging all our parents to get the word out about Catlin Gabel to their networks. When we get to the point of making hard decisions on who can come here and who can’t, we have a budget in mind that we can use for financial assistance, but that’s not what’s driving our overall efforts.
 
CHAD: The big thing is that we’re trying to find families that don’t know about Catlin Gabel. We can do a better job of going into communities and educating kids and families about what independent education is, what the value is, and how that’s going to help their child. It’s harder now for any state, not just Oregon, to do what it’s done before because of the economic times we’re in. I want the Knight Family Scholar program and the school to look like Portland. I want to see more kids from Hillsboro and the east side. As the income gap widens in this country, so does the education gap, and you’ve got to try and reduce that. A variety of independent schools can really differentiate what kids learn and make for an economically and intellectually stronger country.
 
SARA: The gift from the Knight family for the scholars program is invaluable, but reaching out to these communities and expanding this funnel of students applying to the school will put pressure on our financial aid dollars. This is why the school has launched its arts and endowment campaign. What’s important is that we both feel completely supported by the school’s leadership to say, “We want more great kids thinking about Catlin Gabel.”  
 

FINANCIAL AID FACTS

Amount CGS awards for financial assistance
2011–12
$2.9 million
 
Percentage of students receiving financial assistance
2011–12 26%
2010–11 28%
2009–10 26%
2008–09 21%
2007–08 21%
 
Budget allocated to financial assistance
2011–12 15%
2010–11 16%
2009–10 16%
2008–09 13%
2007–08 13%