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Week of April 15, 2013

Staff Spotlight

Financial assistant combines passion for history, writing

Karen Simpson has spent the last 35 years working as a student financial assistant in Student Financial Services. And while she has loved her job and the impact it has, she always had another passion that, until recently, she didn’t fulfill: writing.

“I have always written. Always,” she says. “But I didn’t have enough confidence in myself until about 10 years ago” to try to get published.

Simpson’s first novel, “Act of Grace,” was published by Plenary Publishing in 2011. This summer, she will accept the Best New Author award from the Go On Girl! Book Club at its annual award ceremony.

Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography.

The novel tells the story of a young girl who takes a bullet to protect a member of the Ku Klux Klan. It is based loosely on the story of Keisha Thomas. As an Ann Arbor teenager protesting the KKK in 1996, she helped protect a white man being attacked by other protesters for wearing a T-shirt featuring the Confederate flag.

Simpson had heard the story and was curious why an African-American teen would put her life on the line for someone she didn’t know. “She was always on my mind,” Simpson says. “I always wondered what happened to her.”

That the subject matter of her first novel deals so explicitly with African-American history is no coincidence. One of Simpson’s two master’s degrees is in historical preservation from Eastern Michigan University, and she’s helped design exhibits for several local museums. She has served on the boards of directors for he African American Cultural and Historical Museum of Washtenaw County and the Washtenaw County Historical Society. Simpson recently finished working with the Matthaei Botanical Gardens on an exhibit for the Understanding Race theme semester.

Simpson says her interest in presenting African-American history comes partly from a misunderstanding that many people have.

“A lot about racial and cultural history gets lost because it’s not fully interpreted,” she says. “It’s important to hear all sides, and my mission in working with historical institutions is to make sure that happens.”

Simpson says her desire to work in Student Financial Services was informed by the loss of her father when she was young, and the experience of seeing her mother working to put her and her siblings through school.

Her primary job responsibility is to work on the phone, answering questions from parents and their students, mostly regarding college tuition. Simpson says she takes pride in trying to make the most difficult part of going to school a little bit easier.

Having been in her position for nearly four decades, Simpson has seen a lot change. She’s especially impressed with how technology has become such an integral part of the workplace.

“When I first came here, we were typing student checks on typewriters. Now, everything is very modernized, very streamlined. Almost everything is done on the computer. It’s been amazing,” she says.

The weekly Spotlight features faculty and staff members at the university. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

Posted by Andrew Barnett | Aug 24, 2021
To land a job in publishing you will need to have a passion for books, a good level of ... as many universities combine teaching and research roles.
Posted by Phyll | Apr 18, 2013
Fantastic novel! Karen's writing is stellar and deserves to be awarded. I enjoyed each and every paragraph, sentence, word! So tight, expertly conceived, an "act of grace" in and of itself!
Posted by Yma Johnson | Apr 18, 2013
Karen is an amazing author and an important voice in the dialogue on racial reconciliation and healing. "Act of Grace" is a moving and lyrically written work of fiction. Thank you for your profound artistic contribution!
Posted by Sylvester Jones, Jr. | Apr 18, 2013
Karen is an amazing human being and well deserving of the honor from Go on Girl! Keep up the great are a true inspiration. Blessings!
Posted by David Michener | Apr 18, 2013
Kudos! Karen makes one proud to even know her. It seems Karen is like the springs at the headwaters of a river. Cool, quiet, and making the whole thing possible where her life flows.
Posted by J. Amadi | Apr 17, 2013
Go On Girl! So very Proud of all you have accomplished! You are an inspiration & example for all Women! Thank you.
Posted by J. Amadi | Apr 17, 2013
Go On Girl! So very Proud of all you have accomplished! You are an inspiration & example for all Women! Thank you.
Posted by Robin Morris-Wilson | Apr 16, 2013
I am pleased to read about the wonderful work of Karen Simpson. But I am not surprised that she is making great contributions because she always does.
Posted by Angela Verges | Apr 15, 2013
It is always great to hear of the success of others, especially when there was so much hard work involved. It just shows that perseverance pays off. Congratulations Karen!

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Karen Simpson, student financial assistant, Student Financial Services, on the increase in technology in her 35 years at U-M: “When I first came here we were typing student checks on typewriters. Now, everything is very modernized, very streamlined.”


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