Skip to main content

HGSE Remembers Karen Wiener

Karen WienerThe Harvard Graduate School of Education community is mourning the loss of a selfless and dedicated educator. Karen Wiener, Ed.M.’07, Ed.D.’11, died suddenly on Wednesday, November 21, in Malawi, Africa, where she was working on a community literacy intervention for children.

“Our entire community is deeply saddened by the sudden passing of Karen Wiener. Karen was an outstanding scholar and compassionate educator whose tireless work on behalf of children will leave a lasting impact,” says Dean Kathleen McCartney. “Her leadership in Blantyre and Chikhwawa, Malawi, Africa, on developing locally created reading materials was just one example of her innovative spirit and dedication to improving the lives of learners around the world. She was a colleague, mentor, and friend to so many at HGSE and will be greatly missed.”

It was Wiener’s interest in helping children around the world that resonated with many faculty members, colleagues, and students.

“Karen was a very dedicated student, not only smart and hardworking, but very committed to improving education in the developing world,” says Professor Fernando Reimers, director of the International Education and Policy Program. “She was also a caring and contributing member of our community at HGSE.”

After earning a bachelor’s in psychology and sociology from the University of Notre Dame in 2001, she began a master’s for education program through the institution. During a summer internship program, Wiener worked at a low-income school based in the South. Soon after graduating the program, she set off to Mali where she worked for the American International School of Bamako teaching at a satellite school. From there, she worked in various capacities abroad including India, Honduras, and Africa before coming to the Ed School.

Reimers recalls how as one of his students Wiener was heavily involved in organizing discussions on films about disadvantaged children and groups in Africa and India. She also, for three years, helped organize a conference on education in Africa at HGSE.

“She was outgoing and resourceful whether she was applying for grants, summer jobs, or eventually full-time jobs,” says Reimers. “In doing all of this her prime concerns were not about herself, but about how to be of service to others.”

Wiener’s dissertation explored how children learn to read in Malawi through the teacher’s voice. She discovered that Malawian teacher voices and the official literacy instruction of the country required conditions not being met in the classrooms, especially considering large class size, limited time, as well as insufficient and inadequate reading materials.

Following her graduation, Wiener worked as an education specialist for FHI 360, a nonprofit human development organization dedicated to improving lives in lasting ways by advancing integrated, locally driven solutions. Under FHI 360, she directed a project called Literacy Education in Primary Schools in Blantyre and Chikhwawa. This fall Wiener was named a winner of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) All Children Reading: A Grand Challenge for Development grant competition, which recognizes innovative interventions that promote literacy. The grant was to aid in the implementation of Wiener’s Timawerenga! We Can Read! program in Malawi.

Sergio Cardenas, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’09, a colleague and former teaching fellow (TF) to Wiener, recalls an email from her in which she shared hopes to study in Africa and someday “live and work permanently” there. “I think her commitment to implement her last project in Malawi, is proof of how serious and dedicated she was about continuing to ‘work with the students and teachers directly,’” Cardenas says. “Needless to say, I understand not only where she comes from … but also why Karen achieved so many things in her life.”

During her time at HGSE, Wiener worked as a teaching fellow for Reimers in his Comparative Education Policy course, as well as for former assistant professor Matthew Jukes. Wiener was a beloved TF for many who remember her as friendly, passionate, and full of encouragement.

“She never hesitated to help others. Karen encouraged me to continue with the doctoral program, so she is one of the reasons I am here,” says doctoral student Maria Elena Ortega Hesles, Ed.M.’07. “She had a contagious smile that always made things seem better. Now her smile is spread around the world with each of us, the people she met and helped.”

For those interested in donating in Wiener’s memory, please visit:

  • Room to Read where donations will be used to set up libraries in Africa or Asia.
  • Family Health International (with a notation of “for Karen Wiener” in the comments section) where donations will be used for the education of children in Malawi Africa:
      • FHI 360 Headquarters
      • 2224 E NC Highway 54
      • Durham, NC 27713

Visting hours in memory of Wiener will be held on Sunday, December 2, from 1 to 5 p.m. at:

    • Richard Keenan Funeral Home
    • 7501 Pittsford-Palmyra Rd. (Rte. 31)
    • Fairport, NY

A funeral mass will be on Monday, December 3 at 1 p.m. at:

    • St. Louis Church
    • 64 S. Main Street
    • Pittsford, NY


The latest research, perspectives, and highlights from the Harvard Graduate School of Education

Related Articles