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Inside the Boardroom with Leading Bilinguals: Kat Cohen

IvyWise founder and CEO Kat Cohen discusses the importance of early experiences with cultures and languages in her own life and now for her daughters.

Last spring, Katherine Cohen had a decision to make. Most of her daughters’ Manhattan classmates were going to summer camps in the U.S., but Kat (as she is called) had another option. She could send her girls, 9 and 5, to live with a Spanish friend of hers from Yale who also had two daughters and who happened to have a house in Sanxenxo, Spain. This would not only give her girls a memorable summer, but also greatly improve their language skills. Kat decided on Spain. She also sent her older daughter to a French camp in Switzerland for several weeks at the start of summer.

Kat Cohen

Her choice is telling, because Kat is the founder and CEO of IvyWise, an educational consulting firm that helps students get into top schools. She is also the author of The Truth about Getting In: A Top College Advisor Tells You Everything You Need to Know and Rock Hard Apps: How to Write a Killer College Application. Kat is an expert on what it takes for today’s young people to get accepted to the most selective schools.

“The skills most valued are often in science, engineering, technology and mathematics,” said Kat, “but having proficiency in many languages will allow someone to understand the world and solve its problems from a variety of perspectives. That is valued more and more.”

Having her young daughters spend a summer in Switzerland and Spain would help to realize a goal she has for them: “I want my girls to be global citizens.”

Kat had just such a chance herself at an early age. She grew up in Los Angeles, where her mother taught French and her father was fluent in Spanish. Unbeknownst to her parents, Kat applied to AFS for a summer in “any Spanish-speaking country.” The first her mother heard of it was when Kat had already been accepted to spend the summer in Argentina.

“My mother almost had a heart attack! Here I was 15 and I’m telling her I want to go live in Argentina. But I talked her into it and lived almost four months with a family in Cordoba. Hardly anyone spoke English, and in two weeks I was waking up realizing I had been dreaming in Spanish.”

Later, when she was attending Brown, Kat spent her junior year in Spain. A professor suggested she apply to a Ph.D. program at Yale in languages and literature. “Yale kicked my butt,” she said. “I had to improve my French and also had to take Italian, Portuguese and even Classical and Medieval Latin. But I also got to teach Spanish to undergrads for four years.” When she got her doctorate, Kat decided she wanted to work in college admissions.

Today her firm, which is based in New York City, has clients in 40 countries; she and her staff of former deans, directors of admission and tutors speak 11 languages collectively. “I use my Spanish every day,” she said. “We had a family in yesterday from Mexico, and recently I was asked to give a speech in Guatemala. In Europe, I use French frequently.”

Kat encourages students to not only take languages in school, but to live abroad and look at languages as a lifelong skill.

Like many other bilinguals, when Kat travels to a country where she doesn’t speak the language, she learns a few words and expressions as a matter of courtesy.

“I’ve been to Turkey maybe two dozen times for my business. I know I’m not going to learn Turkish, but I’ve learned about 30 words and expressions. I say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘thank you,’ and it surprises and delights people.”

Kat’s daughters already are bilingual in Spanish and English and speak French as their third language; their father is half Venezuelan and half French. “We speak mostly Spanish at home,” explains Kat.

“When one of my daughters was tested when we were applying to private schools, they told me her English vocabulary was lagging and wanted me to speak to her only in English. But I wanted her to continue speaking Spanish and French, and I stuck to my guns. I knew she would get her English up to par later, and she ended up in the top reading group in English in Kindergarten,” said Kat.

Kat said that it’s common for the non-American students she works with to speak several languages.

“I want my own daughters to have those skills. Our world will have more artificial intelligence and virtual reality, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need languages to be truly effective in our global world.”

Language Profile by Steve Leveen

Steve Leveen, co-founder of the Levenger Company, is writing a book on bilingualism in America and is host of podcast America the Bilingual. Part of his research over the past two years was conducted while a fellow at Stanford and Harvard.