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Don’t Cheat Yourself

Happy New Year! I hope you had a great break and are ready for school to kick back off. Okay, well, one out of two ain’t bad.

Today’s Disclaimers:

  • Today’s post is for high school seniors.
  • If you are not a senior, you are still welcome to read it.
  • This post acknowledges the presence of both drugs and alcohol in the world.
  • An acknowledgement, unlike a Grammy speech or a film credit listing “Grip #2,” is not an endorsement.
  • Eight years ago none of these notes would have been necessary.

Let’s Get Started

Two mornings a week I go to an interval fitness class at 5:30 a.m.  It’s not easy. You gotta really push, commit, and keep working. And that’s just the getting-up-and-driving-there part. Oh, and the workout is tough too. What I love about it (after my eyes are fully open and I remember how to breathe again) is the accountability. I like being around others who work hard and expect me to do the same. The 5:30 a.m. crew is tight. Let’s be honest, anyone working out at that time of day is a little off their rocker—and we celebrate this in one another.

I also like being coached. David, the owner and trainer, is a rock. With both a competitive sports and military background, he does not mess around. Sometimes I go to the class to hear one of his quips or signature phrases. One of my favorites typically comes about halfway through a round when he sees people struggling. He’ll yell “Don’t cheat yourself,” and we are supposed to respond, “Treat yourself!”  Sounds cheesy but if you knew him, you either A: wouldn’t think so, or B: wouldn’t say anything. Don’t let the glasses, big smile, and four kids fool you—he’s a bad man. Apparently, our early morning class does not muster as much gusto as the classes later in the day when we reply. While I attribute this to time of day, David does not cut us any slack. “I said, ‘Don’t cheat yourself!’” “Treat yourself!” we yell in unison.

So seniors, since I don’t expect you to show up at the 5:30 a.m. class (although if you do, tell him I sent you because I think I get a $50 discount) here are a couple of classic David lines to help you make the most of your final semester.

Don’t quit on you!

I love this one because it’s so convicting. When you’re on your fourth circuit and have the choice of weights, it’s pretty tempting to go lighter. When you’re given a range of 20-25 crunches and you’re exhausted, 20 sounds pretty darn good. But you got up for a reason, right?!

Academically, this spring, you could likely let up a little bit and still pull off decent grades. Unless you suddenly drop the weights on your foot, colleges are not going to bat an eye when they receive your final transcripts in June. So this is not a threat—it’s an encouragement. If you are reading this, you care. If you are reading this, you’ve likely already been admitted to at least one college (and I’d not doubt you have scholarship offers as well). As you start your final semester, I challenge you to keep working.  Don’t stop strengthening and stretching your muscles. As a senior in the spring, it’s not about getting in anymore, even if you are still waiting on some decisions to come out. Forget us. You owe it to yourself, your teachers, and your classmates to complete your set. This is about finishing strong and being as prepared as possible when you head off to college this summer or fall. And trust me, people are watching. Classmates, siblings, kids two classes below you who idolize you. Don’t quit on you… or them!

“Own Your Workout!”

 This phrase is actually a sign on the wall at the gym. Own.YOUR.Workout! Sure, David’s going to challenge you. Sure, there is the accountability of the rest of the class. But ultimately, it’s all on you. When you work out or study or practice anything, it’s not only about today, but what it sets you up for in the future– positive or negative.

Socially, this spring, have fun. Senior spring should be filled with lots of great moments and “lasts.” Last games and seasons, theatrical productions, musical performances, trips, prom, spring break, graduation. All good stuff. Enjoy your time with friends, classmates, teammates, co-workers. Don’t wish it away or try to rush through it. Be present, be involved, and also be smart. Again, this is not a threat. I’m not telling you to not drink at prom because it will result in you being suspended. I’m not telling you not to spray paint the school or put a goat on the roof because you might get expelled.  I’m not telling you not to get high at the beach this spring break because you could get arrested. And I’m not telling you don’t put lewd or bigoted pictures or content online because your admission offers could be revoked. I am telling you this because I’ve seen all these things happen within the last three years. I am telling you this because I won’t be there, your parents won’t be there, your coaches and teachers won’t be there. When you walk into any of those situations, it’s your choice, your decision, your reputation, your future. We can’t pick up the weight or put in the work, and we won’t finish the drill for you.

Ultimately, all we can do is stand at a distance and lovingly implore you not to quit on you, and to own your workout!

I said, “Treat Yourself!”

(Yes, yes. I can hear you. Well done.)

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What’s Your Bus?

This week we welcome Communications Officer (and former Assistant Director of Admission) Becky Tankersley to the blog. Welcome, Becky!

Last month a piece of Atlanta history came crashing down. In case you missed it, the city imploded the Georgia Dome. As with most demos, news crews from all over the city were there to cover the action. After all, who doesn’t love to see a good building implosion? But The Weather Channel’s coverage easily won the internet that morning.

I’ll be honest—when this video came out, I couldn’t get enough of it. I laughed until I cried… over and over. Never in a million years could you have timed this better– a MARTA bus rolls in and completely blocks the biggest moment of the day (which only lasted around 30 seconds at most). The frustration, disappointment, and angst in the videographer’s voice is priceless!

In full disclosure, much of my fascination with this video has to do with my background in local TV news. Before I started in education, I worked as a television news producer. My experience gives me a little bit of insight into what likely happened behind the scenes that day:

1 – The videographer scouted out the ideal spot to capture the action weeks ahead of time.

2 –  He arrived at said location in the early, early morning hours on a very cold day, probably around 3 a.m. or 4 a.m., testing his equipment and making sure he had a clear connection back to the news station.

3 – Meanwhile, back in the newsroom, a whole host of staffers—including producers, reporters, and anchors—were all waiting for this video and had created their newscast around it. (Note: the bus part was not part of the plan or script).

What should have been an easy live shot turned into a completely botched effort, and the outcome wasn’t anywhere close to what they expected. And as for the videographer, I’m sure in that moment, he’s thinking, “You have to be joking? This bus literally ruined everything. Why me?!”

MARTA Buses and Admission Decisions

Last week a host of EA/ED colleges and universities across the nation released their admission decisions. While I don’t know all of the details on percentages, it’s likely that many of you got more bad (or uncertain) news than good. A lot more of you received a decision beginning with the letter D (defer or deny) rather than A (admitted).  You could say you had a MARTA experience, as the bus came rolling into your frame at a crucial moment, completely blocking what you’ve worked so hard to attain.

It’s easy to feel defeated—and that is totally understandable. Nothing says “Happy Holidays” like being put off for another few months, or flat out rejected.

So how can you handle it when a bus rolls into your live shot? Take a couple of lessons from the MARTA bus incident:

Trust. There’s two ways to look at the bus: you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and throw in the towel. Or, you can fight it, get mad, shout, yell, and… wait. The bus in front of you will eventually move, and you’ll be left with a completely new perspective. Once the bus moves, you’ll have some great choices—so get ready.

Reassess. While you can’t go back in time and change your application, you can look back over the process and see if there’s anything you can do differently going forward. If you were deferred, is there a piece of information you can add into your deferred applicant form? Will their admission office accept an updated transcript with fall grades? If you have other open applications at other schools, have you ensured you’re working towards your deadlines and getting what they need to make a decision? If you were denied, do you have applications in at other schools that fit what you’re looking for in a college? There are still schools whose applications haven’t closed yet—get those apps in!

Accept. Sounds a little harsh on the outset, but bear with me. You’re probably asking yourself “what does she know? She doesn’t know how it feels to get shot down by your dream school.” But actually, I do. When I was a senior one of the Southern Ivy’s was at THE top of my list. I was smitten with this school in every way coming and going. I applied ED and was deferred to Regular Decision. Then, a few months later, I was denied. I remember getting the letter (ahem, because back in those days you actually had to wait on the mail to arrive to get a decision—so think about how much anxiety that created!), and sitting down with my parents and crying for three solid hours. So yes, I actually do know how you feel, and I remember how disappointed, sad, and betrayed I felt. I allowed myself time to mourn what I wasn’t going to experience, and the end of a dream. A couple of weeks later I chose to attend another school and never looked back. I’m sure the videographer allowed himself a pity party as well. But then, he picked up his equipment, jumped in the truck and headed to the next shoot. One step at a time, my friends.

Turning Abject Failure into a Big Win

Here’s the key: at the end of the day, what felt like abject failure to the guy behind the camera actually turned into a huge win for him, and The Weather Channel. The station posted the video on YouTube and as of today it has more than 1.2 million views. No way would it have gotten so much mileage if everything had gone right that morning. The video trended on social media all day. National news outlets picked it up, and before long spoofs were made of the incident (my personal favorite was this one created by Sports Illustrated).

I’m not telling you to broadcast your defer or deny all over social media (in fact—please don’t). What I am telling you is what looks like, feels like, and is one of the hardest moments of your life to this point will eventually turn into something good. You will find a college to call home… you will find a school that wants you on their campus… and when you ultimately get there in the fall, the sting of this decision will fade away as you make new friends, pursue new dreams, and make new memories.

Hang in there… easy to say, hard to do, but please try. The holidays are here, and you have a couple of weeks to rest, recover, and breathe. Be with family and friends, do something fun, read a good book, and invest in your well-being. You’ve got one more semester to tackle before your life changes… clear your head, and get ready! Great things are ahead!

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Sneaky Teachings from the Bench Lady

One of the first people I met when I came to Georgia Tech as an admission counselor was Robin Wilburn, or “Ms. Robin” as we all call her. Back then we did not read applications by geographic territory but rather by alphabet. So while I traveled to recruit students in various parts of Georgia and other states, Ms. Robin and I were responsible for ensuring all applicants with last names of A-C were complete, reviewed and ready for a decision. We agreed early on we would be the best team—the most efficient, the most accurate, and the most accessible to families and students with questions.  She took our pact seriously. Depending on the situation, Ms. Robin would call me “Mr. Clark” or “Boo” or just “you,” as in “You better get in here!”

I call Ms. Robin a “sneaky teacher,” because you have to really listen, watch, and wait on her wisdom. I sat down to chat with her this week and reflect as she just completed her 25th year at Tech. In our 30 minute conversation, I was again reminded of how much she has to teach. Outside of admission, many know Ms. Robin as “The Bench Lady.” Whether it be first thing in the morning, while taking a break around lunch, or waiting for her son, Andre, to pick her up in the evening, you can count on seeing her on one of the benches around our building.

So what are you doing while you’re sitting there?

“Mainly praying. Just getting my head together so I can be a blessing. I always say, ‘let your light so shine!’ And I just sit on the bench sometimes to say good morning or ask people about their day.”

I told you she’s special. Here are a few excerpts from our conversation, and a few gems for you to learn from as well.

What brought you to Tech and why have you stayed here?

“I began as a Tech Temp. For seven months I basically just filled envelopes. Then I was sent to Tech Tower (the most quintessential building on campus).” (It’s important to note she still has a sense of awe and reverence when she reminisces about this. While Robin grew up less than three miles from Tech, she shared that people in her neighborhood did not feel they belonged. Tech was perceived as elitist, pretentious, and “not for us.” She said the 1996 Olympics changed that perception. Somehow by opening our campus and city to the world, we also opened it to our own city as well.)  “I worked calculating GPAs—200 a day. Most days we’d either skip lunch or work through it. The philosophy was ‘Get ‘er done,’ which you still hear me say today. But I’ve stayed because I love the vision. I love we are reaching more students and diversifying.  Every year we get better, and you know, we never stay still.”

How is the work different today than it was when you started? 

“We gather information faster and there is less human error. But there is less contact with students too because of the technology—and I miss that. I used to see a lot more walk-ins, take more calls from students, and speak with counselors on the phone more often. I love the freshmen. Love seeing them come in young and then grow and learn and get their degree. I just love watching them grow.” (Note: that was three “loves” in three sentences. She’s beaming at this point.) “You know I love the students who work for us. I get to become mama or auntie. Just the pride of seeing them grow up… and plus, they keep me young and lively.”

You’ve seen so many students come as first-years and then graduate. What advice would you give a student about to go to college?

“If you have the drive, you can do it! But you’re going to have to do the work. Our students are always shooting for that A.  But they need a lot of encouraging. They may act like they’ve got it all together but they can really hurt too. I’ve seen it happen. We work here because we love them. But they don’t always tell us how we can help. So we have to really get to know them, to stop and listen, so they trust us.”

What have you most enjoyed about the people you’ve worked with on campus?

“No matter who it’s been, “(and she rattles off about ten folks, including several former VPs and Directors) “they always pushed me to my potential. It’s never been about title here or what degree you have. They entrusted me with important work and exposed me to people around our division and around campus. Basically pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me to feel like part of a team. That’s what I love—being part of a team. I love being around people who make me better. And that’s always been what I’ve found here. The top of the top. These people don’t play, Mr. Clark. You know that.”

So how can you take these thoughts and apply them to your journey as a student, and as a person?

“Let your light so shine.”

We lead busy lives. You take tough classes requiring you to study at night and on the weekends. You put significant time in with your team or club or job (or in some cases all three)—in addition to the basics like friends, family, eating, sleeping. You know…life. And I’m here to tell you: it never slows down. It won’t slow down in college or grad school or in your first job or once you have a family. You have to slow it down. It requires being intentional, and being mindful of what makes life full—not what fills your life. Slowing down is so much easier said than done (and for me, so much easier written than lived). Ms. Robin gets it. She sits. She prays. She “gets her head right.” And doing those things allows her to meet new people, to invite them to sit, share and be encouraged. She’s available—and her availability brings joy not only to her life but to the lives of those who know her. The holidays are here. Rather than spinning through them, I hope you’ll sit through them.

“Get er done.”

200 transcripts a day! If you’ve ever tried to locate grades on the variety of transcripts a school like Tech receives, you’ll know that is fast! And besides fast, Ms. Robin has always been incredibly accurate. She takes ineffable pride in her work being excellent, even if it means working through lunch, taking files home, or being the first in the office. It’s how she’s made, and it’s the very nature of who she is. Never, and I mean that literally, has Robin boasted about working harder than anyone else. Being a part of the team, buying into the vision, reaching more students—those goals are what drive her. Not recognition. In fact, it took me a few weeks to get her to agree to be interviewed! Only after her pastor encouraged her did she agree to collaborate on this project. She’s humble, consistent, faithful, and selfless. When you encounter someone who embodies that type of integrity, it’s inspiring and challenging.

I have no doubt you are bound for success. And with your success may come a platform and an amplified voice. When you achieve and excel; when you reach your goals in high school, college, or beyond, I hope you’ll remember our Bench Lady. Quiet confidence, relentless pursuit of excellence, and always the perspective that others helped you get there—you are a small part of something much bigger. I think fundamentally we all find fulfillment and immeasurable satisfaction when we realize these moments in life.

You belong here.

Ms. Robin has always been conscious of not having a college degree. She brought it up in our discussion, and many times through the years she’s expressed some regret and concern about this fact. She said she’s thankful that at Tech the focus has not been on title or pedigree, but consistently, “Can you do the work?” She commented our office has always modeled that title does not matter (which is why, even though I’m the Director now, she’ll still yell down the hallway, “Hey, you. Get in here!”). The imposter syndrome is a real thing on college campuses.

Ironically, the day after I interviewed Ms. Robin I flew to Houston to talk to Computer Science deans and professors from Top 10 programs about enrolling more under-represented students in CS PhD programs. These people not only hold doctorates, they create more doctorates. They are expanding the base human knowledge. Me? I went to public high school and college. I slept on the couch the night before. “Who am I to give them advice?” went through my head multiple times on the plane and even during the talk.

Every year our first-year students say they have a moment in class or in the middle of a conversation when they ask themselves, “Am I good enough, and smart enough to be here?” Our seniors constantly say, “I would not get in if I applied these days.” Inevitably, you’ll have some doubts. Maybe it will be because of where you are from, or what your parents do, or what you know you made on the SAT/ACT. But don’t let these thoughts keep you from applying to a certain college. Don’t let these thoughts diminish your confidence at a college visit, or during orientation, or in your first semester at college.

You were admitted. We did not make a mistake. Character, work ethic, how you treat others, and your determination—these are the traits that helped you stand out in an admission process, and will differentiate you in the future as well.

Ms. Robin got me through my talk. Before I walked in the room, I sat down, took a deep breath, pictured her on the bench and “got my head right.”

“Get ‘er done!”

“Let your light so shine!”

“You belong here.”

Told you she was a sneaky teacher.

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Do You Have That Itch?

My wife called last week to tell me some horrible news. No. She’s not leaving me. Actually, far worse.

“Our daughter has lice.”

“Oh crap.”

“No. Lice. She has to leave school.”

“Okay. Got it.”

Since my wife works at a hospital, she can’t leave at a moment’s notice, so I started packing my bag and canceling meetings. Five minutes later she called back.

“Our son also has it.”

“Oh CRAP!”

“No. Lice.”

“Yeah, I’m on it.”

I put down my phone and started scratching my head. Power of suggestion, I suppose.

45 minutes later I picked them up from school and we went immediately to “Elimilice.” For some reason lice places seems to pick cutesy or punny names like: The Lice Ladies or Lice Happens, as though this is a light or laughing matter! Simply walking in that place was enough to make me want to immediately shave my head and beard. As we waited in a private (read: quarantined) room, I was rubbing my eyebrows, prodding at my armpits, and intermittently scratching my ankles (you know how they love to congregate on the lower leg).

When our “technician” came in, she asked a few questions. “Do you have evidence of active lice? Have you had head to head contact with someone with lice in the last few days? Are there known cases of lice in your school?”

Um. Uh. Well, someone called me and now we’re here. Honestly, I felt like the clueless, stereotypical dad you see on a sitcom. And I was ready to shell out any amount of money because someone told me the kids had lice. I was also convinced I had lice… and they were currently burrowing into my ankles.

After Lice Lady looked at me like “same thing, different day,” she proceeded to do an initial examination. And after some combing and searching, she determined we did in fact all have it.

Three hours of steel brushes, hair scrubbing, and applications of copious products ensued, until we finally emerged minty fresh with detailed instructions on essentially bombing our house. Wash the sheets, pillow cases, and clothes, cover the couch, vacuum the seats in car, bag up all stuffed animals (all of them? Holy cow, that could take days!). See, contrary to popular belief, lice can’t jump or fly. It’s only through head to head contact they can spread. And if they don’t have human contact for more than 48 hours, they’ll die. Frankly, I was ready to burn everything and start over, but my wife talked me off the ledge.

Are You Itching?

One of the funniest things (and really there was only one) about the lice-capade was anyone I told immediately started itching. They’d move back a little and wince, or shift in their chair and alternate twitching their shoulder blades.

Paranoia, power of suggestion, and the possibility of a problem

The college admission process is eerily similar. We hear stories about smart kids not getting into certain schools, or read articles about the growing competitiveness of our state’s flagship, or see social media about the newest rankings or ROI statistics, and we start to itch.

To the perfectly sane, normal, loving, laid-back mother of a well-adjusted and thriving seventh grader who is thinking about pulling your kid out of public school because the family down the street did, I urge you to get your head checked. Look into the course offerings, extra-curricular opportunities, and culture of the schools you are considering. Before you convince yourself there is an “active problem,” commit to taking a close look at who your student is and where they’ll actually learn and thrive, rather than too quickly giving way to the power of suggestion.

To the student who gets denied from a school in December, it does not mean you double down by submitting 10 more applications to similar schools. Wash your clothes, check your pillow cases. As long as you have a solid, well-balanced, thoughtfully considered list including schools of varying academic profile and selectivity, you aren’t itching. It’s like the phantom cell phone vibration in your pocket.  You are good. Repeat: you are good! 

To the family about to shell out thousands of dollars to an independent consultant (who has no background in college admission other than a son who got into Vanderbilt two years ago), I am asking you to sit quietly in the waiting room for a few days. Does your student need that additional outside help? Perhaps. And there are some fabulous independent counselors who provide meaningful and helpful aid (like Ellimilice) But before you simply show up in an office, do your homework to know why you are there, and if they have the credentials and background your family needs. Lice don’t mount an assault from the ankles. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.

To the deferred student who wants to “demonstrate interest” in order to increase your chances to be admitted in the spring, don’t write to, call up, pop in, tweet at, or send an owl or a gift to the admission counselor at the university. This is not a fire sale. You don’t have to bag up the animals. Fill out the form, send in your fall grades, and send a quick email to let them know you appreciate their time and continued consideration of your application.

To the junior who is unhappy with your initial test scores- I’m not telling you to avoid human contact for 48 hours, but start by checking out FairTest.org, and look into free sources like Khan Academy or ACT before you support test prep companies who are having company retreats in the islands and bidding on art at auctions to adorn their newly upgraded suites. Believe me, when we look at your application, we are not splitting hairs (couldn’t help myself) over 80 points on an SAT or 2 points on an ACT.

Just because someone else is acting crazy does not mean you have a problem. It’s the head to head contact we need to avoid. See crazy, say something! We have enough rankings hawking, test obsessing, anxiety inducing agents out there already. Don’t perpetuate the itching. The first step here is admitting you don’t have a problem. And let me tell you, it feels great. When we walked out of our “follow-up” appointment three days later, after being declared lice-free, we went all out on our celebration– ice cream. But we did ask them to hold the white sprinkles.

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Thanksgiving 3

Happy Thanksgiving! I hope that you are skimming this after waking up from a nap, or while boarding a plane after great times with family and friends, or as you are rousing from a food coma, or as a break from side-splitting laughs with family, or best of all that the Thanksgiving week is over completely because you chose to just read a novel– or absolutely nothing– over the break.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for 3 reasons.

ThankThanksgiving...and What I'm Thankful For!sgiving knows who it is. It’s not trying to be another holiday. It does not have to prove itself by encroaching on Halloween. It does not demand presents or fill the shelves with Hallmark cards or boast “the city’s largest fireworks finale.” Thanksgiving is comfortable in its own skin. And being totally confident in who you are is a bigger and more valuable gift than anything you could find on Amazon or pile onto Santa’s sleigh. Unfortunately, peace and self-assurance are two of the rarest qualities in our society right now. They are a challenge for anyone. They come from slowing down and considering how you are made, and for what purpose you are made. So while you are away from the frenzy of school, teams, work and routine, take some time to reflect this week on how who you are informs where you will learn, grow, connect, and thrive. If, after doing that, the list of schools does not change, kudos. Go back to sleep. But if perhaps your list has been overly influenced by rankings; if it has been too informed by pressure from someone else (even someone who deeply loves you); if it’s filled with big name schools just because they’ve marketed more heavily or dominate your community in terms of alumni, you can still close your eyes again… just consider as you drift off if those places are really you.

Thanksgiving keeps it simple.  “Just show up.” “Bring a side.” “It’s all good, I ordered a pre-smoked turkey this year.” The language around Thanksgiving is calm, easy, encouraging, and optimistic. There is an underlying confidence in simplicity, because even if there is some traffic on the way or Aunt Lauren overcooks the potatoes, folks are still going to show up, eat some food, watch a game, talk, relax, nap, rinse, and repeat. And guess what, seniors? A year from now it will be you coming home for break; it will be you lugging home three months of laundry; it will be you texting the week before to request a certain meal this week; it will be you breaking up with your high school boyfriend. (What? Too soon?) So keep a simple confidence when you get deferred from your ED school. Keep a simple confidence when you are waiting three months for an admission decision. Keep a simple confidence when you see classmates get admitted before you. Those things are just traffic, which you know as well as I do are quickly forgotten once you sit down at the table or lay down on the couch to watch a game.

"If you see a turtle on a fencepost...

Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. There is a saying (with numerous speculated origins) that is commonly referenced by politicians, “If you see a turtle on a fence post, you can be sure it did not get there by itself.” On some level, however, we all fool ourselves into thinking we have achieved, succeeded, or climbed on our own, because we know that it has taken a lot of work. But today, I’m asking you to reflect on who in your life has helped facilitate your success. Who gave you that job? Who selected you to be on the team or named you captain? Who took time after teaching and coaching and grading papers to also write a letter of recommendation for you?

And in this season in particular, let’s not forget the basics that many can’t count on—who puts food in the fridge, washes the laundry, and keeps the house warm and safe? If you’ve never considered those things, perhaps an extra hug and a more sincere thank you is in order this week.

Know yourself, keep it simple, and say thanks. Thanksgiving lessons that transcend the season.