Humans of UD: Karen Gempel

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Photo by Samuel Curran.

Administrative assistant for the English Department from Irving, Texas

Who really runs an academic department on this campus?

If you stop in on the third floor of Braniff, the chair of the English Department will be quick to tell you that it is the mild-mannered woman sitting at the front desk, doing a thousand different things each day to keep all the wheels moving.

Karen Gempel has been the University of Dallas’ English Department administrative assistant for 20 years. A longtime Irving resident, she has attended Mass at UD for 30 years now and after hearing from a friend that the university was hiring, she applied for the position. Two weeks after her oldest daughter enrolled in UD for her undergraduate degree, Gempel was offered the job.

In the years that followed, all five of her daughters followed Gempel and her oldest daughter, each earning a degree from UD. Gempel received her own degree in communications from the University of Houston, where she lived before moving to Irving.

Prior to coming to UD, she was a stay-at-home mom for 18 years before returning to work while her youngest daughter, who graduated from UD two years ago, was entering first grade.

“It was kind of hard to come back to work after being a stay-at-home mom all those years,” Gempel said. “When I came back I just sort of had to take it one day at a time, because I missed being at home, and I never really dreamed I’d be here 20 years, but it’s just been the best place.”

“I would say I was an English person, you know,” she added. “I love to read poetry, and I love literature and everything, so it was just kind of the perfect spot for me.”

Gempel is very involved with both the department and its students.

“I love the students here; I’m very proud of them,” she said. “They get to know me by their senior year, and I try to baby them for their tests. I like making it kind of fun for them.”

She recounted how she brought pizza and homemade Rice Krispy treats in for the English major students for their recent senior comps.

Gempel said that the best part of her work has to do with the students themselves.

“[The best part of the job is] the way our students here are so happy to be here and to be learning, and the conversations that you sort of catch a glimpse of when you walk by when students are excitedly talking about philosophy or Dante or something like that,” Gempel said. “It’s neat to be around kids that are excited about learning, and it keeps me young, it really does.”

Aside from her daily interactions with students, Gempel also enjoys the faculty and her plant-filled balcony patio connected to her office, which overlooks the soccer field, the Highlands school and an expansive wooded area.

She considers herself to be an amateur botanist and a master naturalist, enjoying the beauty of nature around the area, so the patio is a highlight of the job for her.

“I really love walking around the woods here and finding new plants,” she said. “It’s just a really beautiful space that we have here; we’re really lucky on this campus. It’s kind of like a really neat nature park here.”

She also has a large garden at her house in which she grows native plants and roses, and Gempel and her husband also enjoy traveling to “weird, out-of-the-way places” to camp and enjoy nature.

After moving with her family to Irving from Houston in 1983, she and her husband frequently brought their children to the woods around UD to hike, after discovering it by attending mass at the Church of the Incarnation. Girl Scout camps utilized the area for hiking as well, and so she had many opportunities to hike with her daughters.

One day while hiking in Irving, Gempel came across a flowering plant which she had never seen before and researched it, inspiring her to fall even deeper in love with the nature surrounding her.

“I discovered that it was called Antelope Horns, and it was a type of milkweed that monarch butterflies would lay their eggs on and use as a nectar plant and so forth,” she said. “My love for botany just kind of took off from there, from that one plant I saw.”

She discovered that Irving is a stopping point for Monarch migration, and she now writes as a reporter for “Journey North,” a monarch migration site which features maps of migration paths and pictures.

“Here at UD in the woods, I’ve found various resting places where you’ll see like a hundred or so monarchs up in the trees,” she said.

She watches them especially during October and April, the usual times for migration, and occasionally during a weather event such as a cold front or intense winds.

“I have a patio out here and sometimes you can just see them sailing,” she added. “It’s really neat. It’s like the best part of working here.”

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