Karen Kirchof with a group of students in front of dogwood trees

Karen Kirchof was honored for her service at a 2018 Alumni Reunion Picnic, (Photo credit: HuthPhoto)

DURHAM, N.C. – Karen Kirchof, who influenced the careers of thousands of Nicholas School students during her 27 years as assistant dean and director of the school’s Career and Professional Development Center, died June 20 from pancreatic cancer.

“Karen was a true champion for our students and alumni. She believed in them, believed they could solve the world’s environmental problems, and shared their passion for making our planet, and our school, a better place,” said Toddi Steelman, Stanback Dean of the Nicholas School.

“She leaves an indelible legacy of purpose and impact, and we are deeply saddened by her passing,” said Steelman PhD’96. “Our thoughts are with her family at this difficult time.”

Karen Kirchof at her Nicholas School retirement party. (Photo: Jim Wallace)

The school will honor Kirchof’s memory and celebrate her life at an event this fall, Steelman said. Details about that memorial will be shared in coming months.  

Kirchof’s family has asked that memorial contributions be sent to: Hock Family Pavilion, 4023 N. Roxboro Rd., Durham NC 27704. Please indicate that your gift is a memorial contribution in honor of Karen Kirchof. Hock Family Pavilion is an inpatient hospice facility in the Duke University Health System.

Kirchof retired at the end of the 2017-18 academic year. She joined the school’s staff in 1990, initially serving as a one-woman internship placement office before persuading Founding Dean Norm L. Christensen to expand the office's mission.

“Early on, she worked with me to reach out to employers and potential employers to understand what they most wanted from our students,” said Christensen. “Through initiatives like Hindsight 20/20 and the Duke/Yale Career Fair, she developed an expansive network of programs and contacts that remains a core of our success in student placement. I am so grateful for the years I had working with her. We have lost a very special person.”

Nick DiLuzio, president of the Nicholas School Alumni Council, said Kirchof’s positive impacts extended far beyond preparing students for the workplace.

“Karen was much more than a career advisor. She was a friend, a mentor, a confidant and a life coach. Through my role on the Alumni Council, I talk with alums all across the country. Many will ask about their advisor or their favorite professor, but the one person every single alum asks about is Karen. I'm not sure if there is anyone else at the Nicholas School who has impacted the lives of as many students as she did,” said DiLuzio, MEM/MF ’10, a partner at NewFields, an environmental consulting firm in Atlanta.  

Kirchof’s knowledge of the school’s alums and their career trajectories was extraordinary, he added: “She was quite literally a walking rolodex. My classmates and I knew that we could go to her and tell her ‘I want to work for X company’ or ‘I want to work in Y sector’ and she would immediately list all of the alums we should talk to at that specific company.”

Equally remarkable was her ability to offer just the right blend of counsel and encouragement – often peppered with her signature line, “Do what makes your heart sing” – when students sought out her advice.

Kirchof kicking off a Career Carnival.

“Karen would never squander your youthful idealism; she just helped you channel it to best fit your skills and interests, with a healthy dose of optimistic realism,” recalled Kim Batchelder, MEM ’93, a natural resources planner at Sonoma County Ag + Open Space in Santa Rosa, Calif.

“Her honesty helped us turn dreams into practical plans, and her confidence in us drove us to reach farther,” said Alexa Bach-McElrone, MEM ’03, founder and principal at Bach-McElrone Consulting in San Francisco.

Some of Batchelder’s fondest memories of Kirchof revolve around the time he spent working with her to promote and administer the Kuzmier-Lee-Nikitine (KLN) Endowment Fund, which students created in 1992 to commemorate the untimely deaths of three classmates, Kerrie Kuzmier, Pavlik Nikitine and Steven Lee. The endowment has raised more than $100,000 to fund international internships in conservation and sustainable development for Nicholas School graduate students as a way of honoring Kuzmier, Lee and Nikitine by making it possible for new generations to continue the trio’s work.  

“The KLN team, collectively and individually, gave her a lot of joy,” recalled Glenda Lee, director of alumni engagement and programs. “Each year when it was time to read funding applications, Karen would share memories of Kerrie, Steve, and Pavlik, along with updates on some of the fund’s founding members. She was like a proud big sister.”

Karen Kirchof was honored for her service at a 2018 Alumni Reunion Picnic. (Photo: HuthPhoto)

Part of Kirchof’s magic was that she made everyone she interacted with feel like they had an ally, said Donna Dyer, assistant dean for career and professional development at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

“When I came to Duke in 1997, Karen was a mentor and buddy to me as I struggled to balance student needs with organizational requirements. She provided helpful answers and feedback with no judgment, and was a sounding board when I wanted to smash things. I will miss our phone calls, lunches and happy hours. She was one of a kind,” Dyer said.

Another big part of Kirchof’s magic was her ability to see diamonds lurking beneath unpolished exteriors – something Bach-McElrone will always be grateful for.  

“I met Karen as a 20-year-old,” she recalled. “My naïve and ambitious self needed a lot of things at that point. But Karen gave me what I needed most – she saw me as the leader I am now at 39, and she helped me in a way that allowed me to believe in myself and my big dreams.”

In the days following Kirchof’s death, Bach-McElrone was reading through some old emails from her longtime friend and mentor and noticed that Kirchof sometimes signed off, “Forever grateful :), Karen.” And that struck her.

“I could tell so many stories and use very pretty words to describe the beautiful ways Karen influenced the lives of thousands of students, and the millions of people and creatures we all help. But in the end, I think her own words are best,” Bach-Elrone said. “We are forever grateful.”