Karen Boiko

Karen Boiko photo

Karen Boiko

Lecturer II  CMS/Writing

My father's parents emigrated to the Boston area from Russia in the early years of the 20th century. My dad dropped out of high school before his senior year to help support his family during the Depression, and spent 4 years in the Army during World War II.

He and my mom met after the war. My mom, who graduated from Boston's Charlestown High, also missed out on college, again because of the Depression; she began working at age 16 to help support her family.

In the 1950s, my dad and mom, my baby sister and I moved from Massachusetts to California's San Fernando Valley. Our lives were comfortably working class (my dad was a machinist who worked on rocket engines). My parents had no advice to offer about schooling, but they encouraged me to do well in school, and I (usually) did. I loved to read; I always had my nose in a book, even when I was watching TV. I had no clue about college, but my high school, St. Genevieve's in Panorama City, CA, had a smart and kind counselor, Mr. Barone, who helped me figure out how to apply.  I applied to one college—one! I had never seen it in person; this was before families routinely made campus visits, and before the Internet. I was going on a brochure. Really—that's all I had.

The college was Santa Clara University, a Jesuit school. It was about 350 miles from L.A., which meant I'd be moving away if I was accepted. (Only 1 or 2 of my classmates applied to schools that weren't within driving distance of home.) My parents weren't happy with that idea; there was a state college just a couple of miles down the road. I don't know why I was so stubborn about not going to Cal State Northridge, but I do know that living on campus was probably as important a part of my education as my classes were. I was able to attend because of a California State Scholarship—this generous program paid my tuition for 4 years, and a small scholarship from SCU paid part of my room and board. College loans took care of the rest. My parents sent me an allowance of $5 a week (!) and I baby-sat or filled in for friends in the cafeteria to make a little extra money. Our needs were simpler then: very few students had a phone in their room, very few had "stereos" or record players. Few had cars.

After I graduated with my BA in English I attended Cal State Long Beach and studied theatre; I had fun, but I was vamping for time; I didn't really know what I was doing.  I just knew that I loved literature, and theatre, and writing… Soon I was in New York City, working my way up the (short) ladder in trade magazines, ending up as editor and publisher of a magazine called Heat Treating (industrial metallurgy). I loved putting out a monthly magazine, but after a while it wasn't enough. I applied to New York University and, at the age of 40, began studying for a PhD in English Literature.  A few years later I began teaching writing in NYU's Expository Writing Program. That was it for me: I had found my place in academia and in the world. I joined MIT's Writing Program as a lecturer in 2001, the year I finished my doctorate. I love being part of the MIT community of scholars and students.

Not everyone's path through academia, or through life, is straightforward. No matter. With curiosity, persistence, the kindness of those along the way, and a little luck, it is possible not just to get into college and graduate, but to find work, a calling, whose challenges and pleasures radiate throughout your life.