Setting a Community Compass

Alumni6 MIN READ

Kara Hooper ’97 launched a nonprofit to help students apply for college, and her town is recognizing her efforts

Kara Hooper ‘97, center, at the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif. Hooper began her college counseling journey at Thacher and later founded O-Higher Ed, a nonprofit that offers free college preparation and advisory services to middle- and high-school students in the Ojai Valley area.
By Kayla Voigt ’14 and Bob KeyesPhotography by Allison Zaucha
June 27, 2023

After graduation, many students leave Mayflower Hill to take on the world. Kara Marchant Hooper ‘97 found herself in San Antonio, Texas, as a newly minted English teacher and soccer coach ready to bring the world to her students.

Kara Marchant Hooper ‘97

“Coming out of Colby, I knew I wanted to teach,” said Hooper, who double majored in English and American studies and played varsity soccer and lacrosse. “After a few years and a move to California, I found myself drawn to the college counseling office, and I spent more than 10 years doing that. I totally fell in love with it.”

The combination of these experiences led Hooper to establish O-Higher Ed, a nonprofit educational organization that offers free college preparation and advisory services to middle- and high-school students in the Ojai Valley area of California.

Established in 2019, O-Higher Ed helps students through the admissions process, from course planning to academic support to the application itself. While the program supports any student in the Ojai Valley seeking higher education, it hones in on helping first-generation students find a path forward that they may not have known existed, said Hooper, who lives in Ojai, northwest of Los Angeles, with her husband and two teenage boys.

She spent 12 years as a college counselor at the Thacher School, a private boarding school in Ojai, before founding O-Higher Ed.

“I’ve always been really interested in issues around equity and access in our country. I just decided to take a leap of faith,” said Hooper. “It was eye-opening to see first-generation students navigating such a challenging process with much fewer resources compared to the students that I served at Thacher. I felt like I had a unique skill set because I have a teaching and a college counseling background.”

Kara Hooper ‘97 discusses a college application plan with an O-Higher Ed senior, Colton. Hooper’s nonprofit helps students through the admissions process, from course planning to academic support to the application itself.

Hooper’s work with O-Higher Ed is part of her broader commitment to community service that began with her experience at Colby, continued during her early career in Texas, and deepened when she and her family put down roots in Ojai. Her community work became urgent during the early days of the pandemic, when the needs of residents escalated.

She stepped up to help meet those needs across the board. At the onset of the pandemic, she began volunteering at a local food pantry and supported mobile, pop-up food banks. A part-time librarian at the Monica Ros elementary school, she worked to keep the library open during the pandemic, and accessed a grant to weatherproof the community’s Little Free Libraries—and then collected more than 6,500 children’s books to keep it stocked. As part of her literacy work, she also serves on the board of the Ojai Valley Library Friends, and she views literacy and reading aptitude as critical issues facing students coming out of the pandemic.

“We are up against the most challenging foe ever in trying to get kids to love literature right now,” Hooper said. “We are battling screens and technology, and we have to make literature and reading attractive and appealing.”

She also works as a scout leader and coached youth soccer and lacrosse. She’s a member of the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution, and she volunteers regularly to support a variety of community-building events. Last year, the Rotary Club of Ojai named her an Ojai Living Treasure, and she was selected to serve as the grand marshal for the community’s upcoming Independence Day parade.

“I am very humbled,” Hooper said of being selected as grand marshal. “I feel this is Ojai’s biggest way of saying ‘thank you,’ and I am so grateful. ​​I do this work because I believe in this work. I do it because it is what the world needs right now, and I believe if you do a small amount every day, it leads to a larger good.”

Nordhoff High School in the Ojai Valley of California, where Kara Hooper meets regularly with O-Higher Ed students.

She attributed her commitment to community service to her time at Colby and the influence of her College mentors, in particular her lacrosse and soccer coaches during that time, Heidi Godomsky and Jen Holsten ’90.  

“My experience at Colby had a huge influence on my life, and it still does. People in my life to this day—the people who encouraged me to start O-Higher Ed—are friends I have had since Colby. I had tremendous female coaches at Colby who taught me about leadership,” she said.

Taking students higher

At O-Higher Ed, Hooper begins working with students before they begin thinking seriously about college.

“You really need to start with students early so you can help support them in middle school and make sure they’re in a good position as they enter high school,” she said. “Our middle school program operates in a small-group environment once a week, and we don’t even talk about college that much. It’s about the underlying skills they need to get there, like public speaking, how to be organized, how to do research, and understanding themselves and their goals.”

Forty-three percent of all college students identify as first-generation, according to the Brookings Institute. While this overall share is up since the 1990s, it’s not enough, she said. “Parents want the very best for their children. It’s an intimidating process to navigate a complicated system, sometimes in another language, and then on top of that, wrap their heads around the cost,” she said.

Many parents see tuition numbers at face value, not realizing how financial aid packages work or how to apply in the first place. Then there’s the subtle ways costs can add up once students arrive on campus, from textbooks to winter clothing. 

Kara M. Hooper ‘97 pauses on the campus of Nordhoff High School to talk with ninth grade students Vanessa and Daisy, who have attended O-Higher Ed since they were in the sixth grade.

At Colby, the admissions team has worked hard to open doors for more students of all backgrounds, and Colby is one of a select group of colleges that meets 100 percent of demonstrated student needs without loans. As for those intangible costs, the Weiland Welcome Grant helps with expenses associated with necessary school items for eligible first-year students.

Through her work at O-Higher Ed, Hooper helps students and their families better understand the college landscape and navigate the process of applying for admission and financial aid. 

“There are so many paths to getting a degree, and it’s not always linear. It’s amazing to see my students find the path that fits them,” Hooper said. “It’s not just getting kids ready for college, but helping them succeed once they get there, and that starts early. With O-Higher Ed, I feel like I’m doing what I set out to do when I left Colby.”